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Populism is a political doctrine that proposes that the common people are exploited by a privileged elite, and which seeks to resolve this. The underlying ideology of populists can be left, right, or center. Its goal is uniting the uncorrupt and the unsophisticated "little man" against the corrupt dominant elites (usually established politicians) and their camp of followers (usually the rich and influential). It is guided by the belief that political and social goals are best achieved by the direct actions of the masses. Although it chiefly comes into being where mainstream political institutions are perceived to have failed to deliver, there is no identifiable economic or social set of conditions that give rise to it, and it is not confined to any particular social class.
Political parties and politicians often use the terms populist and populism as pejoratives against their opponents. Such a view sees populism as demagogy, merely appearing to empathize with the public through rhetoric or unrealistic proposals in order to increase appeal across the political spectrum.
Populism is most common in democratic nations. Political scientist Cas Mudde wrote that, "Many observers have noted that populism is inherent to representative democracy; after all, do populists not juxtapose 'the pure people' against 'the corrupt elite'?"
Historically, academic definitions of populism vary, and people have often used the term in loose and inconsistent ways to reference appeals to "the people," demagogy, and "catch-all" politics. The term has also been used as a label for new parties whose classifications are unclear. A factor traditionally held to diminish the value of "populism" as a category has been that, as Margaret Canovan notes in her 1981 study Populism, populists rarely call themselves "populists" and usually reject the term when it is applied to them, differing in that regard from those who are identified as conservatives or socialists.
In recent years, academic scholars have produced definitions that facilitate populist identification and comparison. Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell define populism as an ideology that "pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous 'others' who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity, and voice". Rather than viewing populism in terms of specific social bases, economic programs, issues, or electorates as discussions of right-wing populism have tended to do,—this type of definition is in line with the approaches of scholars such as Ernesto Laclau, Pierre-Andre Taguieff, Yves Meny and Yves Surel, who have all sought to focus on populism per se, rather than treating it simply as an appendage of other ideologies.
In the United States and Latin America, populism has generally been associated with the left, whereas in European countries, populism is more associated with the right. In both, the central tenet of populism—that democracy should reflect the pure and undiluted will of the people—means it can sit easily with ideologies of both right and left. However, while leaders of populist movements in recent decades have claimed to be on either the left or the right of the political spectrum, there are also many populists who reject such classifications and claim not to be "left wing," "centrist" or "right wing."
Some scholars argue that populist organizing for empowerment represents the return of older "Aristotelian" politics of horizontal interactions among equals who are different, for the sake of public problem solving. Populism has taken left-wing, right-wing, and even centrist forms, as well as forms of politics that bring together groups and individuals of diverse partisan views. The use of populist rhetoric in the United States has recently included references such as "the powerful trial lawyer lobby", "the liberal elite", or "the Hollywood elite". Examples of populist rhetoric on the other side of the political spectrum include the anti-corporate-greed views of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the theme of "Two Americas" in the 2004 Presidential Democratic Party campaign of John Edwards.
Populists are seen by some politicians as a largely democratic and positive force in society, while a wing of scholarship in political science contends that populist mass movements are irrational and introduce instability into the political process. Margaret Canovan argues that both these polar views are faulty, and has defined two main branches of modern populism worldwide—agrarian and political—and mapped out seven disparate sub-categories:
Scholars have argued that populist elements have sometimes appeared in authoritarian movements. Conspiracist scapegoating employed by various populist movements can create "a seedbed for fascism."
National Socialist populism interacted with and facilitated fascism in interwar Germany. In this case, distressed middle–class populists mobilized their anger against the government and big business during the pre-Nazi Weimar period. The Nazis "parasitized the forms and themes of the populists and moved their constituencies far to the right through ideological appeals involving demagoguery, scapegoating, and conspiracism."
According to Fritzsche:
The Nazis expressed the populist yearnings of middle–class constituents and at the same time advocated a strong and resolutely anti-Marxist mobilization...Against "unnaturally" divisive parties and querulous organized interest groups, National Socialists cast themselves as representatives of the commonwealth, of an allegedly betrayed and neglected German public...Breaking social barriers of status and caste, and celebrating at least rhetorically the populist ideal of the people's community...
At the turn of the 20th century, the pink tide spreading over Latin America was "prone to populism and authoritarianism". Steven Levitsky and James Loxton, as well as Raúl Madrid, stated that Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and his regional allies used populism to achieve their dominance and later established authoritarian regimes when they were empowered. Such actions, Weyland argues, proves that "Populism, understood as a strategy for winning and exerting state power, inherently stands in tension with democracy and the value that it places upon pluralism, open debate, and fair competition".
Populism is a path that, at its outset, can look and feel democratic. But, followed to its logical conclusion, it can lead to democratic backsliding or even outright authoritarianism.
The word populism is derived from the Latin word populus, which means people in English (in the sense of "folk", "nation", as in: "The Roman People" (populus Romanus), not in the sense of "multiple individual persons" as in: "There are people visiting us today"). Therefore, populism espouses government by the people as a whole (that is to say, the masses). This is in contrast to aristocracy, synarchy or plutocracy, each of which is an ideology that espouse government by a small, privileged group above the masses.
Populism has been a common political phenomenon throughout history. The Populares were an unofficial faction in the Roman senate whose supporters were known for their populist agenda. They tried to rule by mobilizing masses of Romans. Some of the best known of these were Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Marius, Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, all of whom eventually used referenda to bypass the Roman Senate and appeal to the people directly.
Populism rose during the Reformation; Protestant groups like the Anabaptists formed ideas about ideal theocratic societies, in which peasants would be able to read the Bible themselves. Attempts to establish these societies were made during the German Peasants' War (1524–1525) and the Münster Rebellion (1534–1535). The peasant movement ultimately failed as cities and nobles made their own peace with the princely armies, which restored the old order under the nominal overlordship of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, represented in German affairs by his younger brother Ferdinand.
The same conditions contributed to the outbreak of the English Revolution of 1642–1651, also known as the English Civil War. Conditions led to a proliferation of ideologies and political movements among peasants, self-employed artisans, and working-class people in England. Many of these groups had a dogmatic Protestant religious bent. They included Puritans and the Levellers.
Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778–1852), a Lutheran Minister, a professor at the University of Berlin and the "father of gymnastics", introduced the concept of Volkstum, a racial notion which draws on the essence of a people that was lost during the Industrial Revolution. Adam Mueller went a step further by positing the belief that the state was a larger totality than the government institutions. This paternalistic vision of aristocracy concerned with social orders had a dark side in that the opposite force of modernity was represented by the Jews, who were said to be eating away at the state. Populism also played a role in mobilizing middle class support for the Nazi Party in Weimar Germany. In this case, distressed middle–class populists mobilized their anger against the government and big business during the pre-Nazi Weimar period. According to Fritzsche:
The Nazis expressed the populist yearnings of middle–class constituents and at the same time advocated a strong and resolutely anti-Marxist mobilization... Against "unnaturally" divisive parties and querulous organized interest groups, National Socialists cast themselves as representatives of the commonwealth, of an allegedly betrayed and neglected German public...[b]reaking social barriers of status and caste, and celebrating at least rhetorically the populist ideal of the people's community...
In the late 18th century, the French Revolution (1789–1799), though led by wealthy intellectuals, could also be described as a manifestation of populist sentiment against the elitist excesses and privileges of the Ancien Régime.
In France, the populist and nationalist picture was more mystical, metaphysical and literarian in nature. Historian Jules Michelet (sometimes called a populist) fused nationalism and populism by positing the people as a mystical unity who are the driving force of history in which the divinity finds its purpose. Michelet viewed history as a representation of the struggle between spirit and matter; he claims France has a special place because the French became a people through equality, liberty, and fraternity. Because of this, he believed, the French people can never be wrong. Michelet's ideas are not socialism or rational politics, and his populism always minimizes, or even masks, social class differences.
In the 1880 there was a resurgence of French populism in the form of Boulangisme.
In the 1950s, Pierre Poujade was the leader of the right-wing populist movement Union de Defense Commercants et Artisans (UDCA). Jean Marie Le Pen (who was UDCA's youngest deputy in the 1950s) can be characterized as right-wing populist or extreme-right populist. The French National Front, currently led by Marine Le Pen, is one of the most successful populist parties in Europe.
When Silvio Berlusconi entered in politics in 1994 with his new party Forza Italia, he created a new kind of populism focused on media control. Berlusconi and his allies won three elections, in 1994, 2001 and, with his new right-wing People of Freedom party, in 2008; he was Prime Minister of Italy for almost ten years.
Another Italian populist party is Lega Nord, founded in 1991 as a federation of several regional parties of northern (and central-northern) Italy, most of which had sprung up and expanded their share of the electorate during the 1980s. Lega Nord was the principal ally of Berlusconi's parties including, most recently, People of Freedom. Lega Nord's political program advocates the transformation of Italy into a federal state, fiscal federalism and greater regional autonomy, especially for the Northern regions. At times it has advocated the secession of the North, which it calls Padania. Lega Nord also fights for the implementation of stricter rules and laws in order to contest the expansion of Islam into Europe. It is opposed to Turkish membership in the European Union and is considered one of the Eurosceptic movements. It also emphasizes the fight against illegal immigration. Lega Nord's best electoral result was in the 1996 general election, where it gained 10.8% of the vote. In the 2008 election Lega Nord supported Berlusconi's right-wing coalition, helping him win, having gained 8.3% of the vote, 60 deputies and 26 senators.
In 2009 Beppe Grillo, a former comedian, blogger and activist, founded the Five Star Movement. It advocates direct democracy and free access to the Internet, and condemns corruption. The M5S's programme also contains elements of both left-wing and right-wing populism and American-style libertarianism. The party is considered populist, ecologist, and partially Eurosceptic. Grillo himself described the Five Star Movement as being populist in nature during a political meeting he held in Rome on October 30, 2013. In the 2013 Italian election the Five Star Movement gained 25.5% of the vote, with 109 deputies and 54 senators, becoming the main populist and Eurosceptic party in the European Union.
After the 2016 UK referendum on membership of the European Union, in which British citizens voted to leave, some have claimed the "Brexit" was an act of populism, and is encouraging a flurry of calls for referendums of their own among other EU countries by populist political parties.
Populism has been an important force in Latin American political history, where many charismatic leaders have emerged since the beginning of the 20th century, as the paramountcy of agrarian oligarchies had been dislocated by the onset of industrial capitalism, allowing for the emergence of an industrial bourgeoisie and the activation of an urban working class, causing the emergence of reformist and multi-class nationalist politics, centered on a charismatic leadership, such as Aprismo in Peru, the MNR in Bolivia, and the political movements gravitating around Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, Perón in Argentina, Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico, Ecuador's Velasco Ibarra and others. Ideologically, Latin American populism, with its emphasis on nation-building under an authoritarian leadership as a prerequisite for technological modernization, betrayed the earlier influence of Comtean positivism. Socially, for many authors—such as Brazil's Octavio Ianni—populism should be understood as the political alliance between an emerging industrial bourgeoisie and a newly organizing urban working class, in which the former accepts social reforming for the latter's sake as long as the working class remains politically subordinated to both a more or less authoritarian State and private enterprise, in a process of controlled inclusion of the "masses" into the political system, a co-opting process some Marxist authors like Brazil's Francisco Weffort ascertain was accepted by the newly urbanized working class given their lack of a previously developed class consciousness.
Despite efforts to charter an ideological pedigree to Populism in Latin America, as has been attempted by some, working, e.g., with concepts taken from Perón's Third Position, Latin American countries have not always had a clear and consistent political ideology under populism. Populist practitioners and movements in Latin America usually adapt politically to the prevailing mood of the nation, moving within the ideological spectrum from left to right many times during their political lives. If populist movements in 1930s and 1940s Latin America had apparent fascist overtones and based themselves on authoritarian politics, as was the case of Vargas' Estado Novo dictatorship in Brazil (1937–1945), or of some of Peron's openly expressed sympathies, in the 1950s populism adapted—not without considerable unease from its political leadership—to heightened levels of working-class mobilization. Therefore, it is not surprising that 1960s populism was associated mainly with radical, left-leaning petty-bourgeois nationalism, which emptied the State of its function as a coercive class-rule apparatus and saw it instead as an organ of representation of the Nation as a whole. Such was the case, for instance, of the Goulart government (1961–1964) in Brazil, Goulart being described as a fiery populist who identified—mainly rhetorically—with the dispossessed and tried to foster a reformist agenda through ties to the organized Left. The fact that Goulart was eventually ousted by the military shows that, in the views of some authors, other populist leaders of the time faced a jeopardy: they were reformists who, in the pursuit of their agenda, had to encourage popular mobilization and class conflict they ultimately abhorred. Consequently, populism was eventually identified by the 1970s military dictatorships as "demagogery" and as a risk to the stability of the existing social order.
If "left", reformist and nationalist populism never died out altogether during the 1970s Latin American military dictatorships—as offered proof by the prompt and successful return of a populist like Brazil's Leonel Brizola to electoral politics in the early 1980s—a different streak of populism appeared in the post-military dictatorship era. This 1990s populism, in the persons of leaders like Argentina's Carlos Menem or Brazil's Fernando Collor, adapted itself to prevailing neoliberal policies of economic adjustment, setting aside nationalistic reforms and retaining the need for charismatic leadership policies, mass support and a concern for the plight of the "common people". In the 1990s and 2000s, with the emergence of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela—albeit Chavez refuses himself to be labelled as "populist"—reformist and nationalism Latin American populism has resurfaced with new patterns, as what is called by some authors socialist populism that appeals to masses of poor by promising redistributive policies and state control of the nation's energy resources.—a blueprint that had already appeared, however—albeit with no openly "socialist" rhetoric, viz., in the nationalist policies—including the launch of the State-owned oil-company Petrobrás—that were the hallmark of Vargas' second term as Brazil's democratically elected president (1951–1954) and that led to his eventual suicide.
In some countries, Populism has been fiscally supported in Latin America during periods of growth such as the 1950s and 1960s and during commodity price booms such as in oil and precious metals. Political leaders could gather followers among the popular classes with broad redistributive programs during these boom times. Conversely, in others countries, Populism has been historically associated with countering the relative decline of export agriculture with deficit spending and import-substitution policies aimed at developing an internal market for industrial consumer goods. Populism in Latin America has been sometimes criticized for the fiscal policies of many of its leaders, but has also been defended for having allowed historically weak states to alleviate disorder and achieve a tolerable degree of stability while initiating large-scale industrialization. Though populist fiscal and monetary policies, called macroeconomic populism, has been criticized by economists, who see in it the ultimately dysfunctional subordination of economic policy to political goals, some authors acknowledge populism to have allowed non-radical leaders and parties to co-opt the radical ideas of the masses so as to redirect them in a non revolutionary direction. It's generally regarded that populists hope "to reform the system, not to overthrow it".
Often adapting a nationalist vocabulary and rhetorically convincing manner, populism was used to appeal to broad masses while remaining ideologically ambivalent. Notwithstanding, there have been notable exceptions. 21st-century Latin-American populist leaders have had a decidedly—even if mostly rhetorical—socialist bent.
When populists take strong positions on economic philosophies such as capitalism versus socialism, the position sparks strong emotional responses regarding how best to manage the nation's current and future social and economic position. Mexico's 2006 Presidential election was hotly debated among supporters and opponents of populist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Last but not least, Professor Maximilano Korstanje fellow at University of Leeds UK has conducted extensive research in how populism evolved and consolidated in Argentina. With basis on Kirchnerism and Kirchnerites, his outcomes reveal that at some extent populism allows a fairer wealth distribution but it runs higher costs for economies. Populist governments fail to gain the necessary trust in international market while wealth is repatriated abroad by local elite. Populists are forced to intervene in all democratic institutions to prevent disinversion. As a result of this, populism paves the ways for the rise of totalitarian governments. Depending on the ideological radicalism of the movement, as in the case of Kirchnerites, some elements in the militancy impede a permeation with reality. Unless regulated, populism and kirchnersim may very well lead to terrorism. Under some conditions, kirchnerism advanced while rechanneling frustrated personalities into a coherent paranoid message where militants believed they were part of something important, a historic revolution that would change the World. It suggests that psychological frustration and populism are inevitably entwined.
Populism in Latin American countries has both an economic and an ideological edge. Populism in Latin America has mostly addressed the problem, not of capitalist economic development as such but rather the problems caused by its lack of inclusiveness, in the backdrop of highly unequal societies in which people are divided between very small groups of wealthy individuals and masses of poor, even in the case of societies such as Argentina, where strong and educated middle classes are a significant segment of the population. Therefore, the key role of the State in Latin American populism, as an institution, is to mediate between traditional elites and the "people" in general. In appealing to the masses of poor people prior to gaining power, populists may promise widely demanded food, housing, employment, basic social services, and income redistribution. Once in political power, they may not always be financially or politically able to fulfill all these promises. However, they are very often successful in providing many broad and basic services in the short term.
Since one of the ideological hallmarks of Latin American populism was the empowerment of the nation and its identification with the state, including nationalization of the land, natural resources and key industries as common practice, it was seen almost from the start by American policy makers to offer a challenge to US hegemony over the Americas. The US has intervened in Latin American governments on many occasions where populism was seen threatening its interests: the 1954 Guatemalan coup d'état, when the populist Arbenz government was overthrown by a coup backed by the American company United Fruit and the American ambassador in 1954, and the support given by the US to the 1964 Brazilian coup d'état are just two cases of American intervention. Another example of US intervention has been seen in Colombia, particularly since the assassination of the populist leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in April 1948. Gaitán supported land reform and other populist initiatives, and his murder is assumed to have foreclosed subsequent development of populism in mainstream Colombian politics.
Populism has remained a significant force in Latin America. Populism has recently been reappearing on the left with promises of far-reaching socialist changes as seen in Venezuela under Hugo Chávez, and in Bolivia under Evo Morales—a process, however, seen by some as contradictory as it tries to meld the populist traditional celebration of folk wisdom and charismatic leadership with doctrinaire socialism. And, in fact, "socialist" changes in today's Venezuela have mostly included the expenditure of oil revenue to benefit the working poor as a form of social welfare to help enable an eventual (and imprecise) socialist transformation. For some authors, as far as ideology is concerned, Chávez's political blueprint is more of a "throwback" to traditional populist nationalism and redistributivism. The Venezuelan government often spars verbally with the United States and accuses it of attempting to overthrow Chavez after supporting a failed coup against him. Chavez had been one of the most outspoken and blunt critics of US foreign policy. Nevertheless, a large commodity trade continues between Venezuela and the US because of the economic constraints of oil delivery and the proximity of the two countries.
Because populist tradition ascertains the paramountcy of the "people" (instead of class) as a political subject, it suffices to say that, in the 21st century, the large numbers of voters living in extreme poverty in Latin America has remained a bastion of support for new populist candidates. By early 2008 governments with varying forms of populism and with some form of left leaning (albeit vague) social democratic or democratic socialist platform had come to dominate virtually all Latin American nations with the exceptions of Colombia, El Salvador and Mexico. This political shift includes both more developed nations such as Argentina's Front for Victory and Chile's Socialist Party, and smaller income countries like Bolívia with its Movement towards Socialism and Paraguay with the Patriotic Alliance for Change. Even in middle-income Mexico, a populist candidate like López Obrador, albeit defeated, nevertheless appeared as part of a strong neopopulist reaction. Nevertheless, populist candidates have been more successful in poorer Latin American countries such as Bolivia (under Morales), Ecuador (under Rafael Correa) and Nicaragua (under Daniel Ortega). By the use of broad grassroots movements populist groups have managed to gain power from better organized, funded and entrenched groups such as the Bolivian Nationalist Democratic Action and the Paraguayan Colorado Party.
Countries in Latin America with high rates of poverty, whose governments maintain and support unpopular privatizations and more orthodox economic policies that don't deliver general societal gains, are under pressure from populist politicians and movements accusing them of benefiting the upper and upper-middle classes and of being allied to foreign and business interests.
Populist political ideology in Canada has been a strong phenomenon in Western Canada and Quebec as promoted by provincial Social Credit parties in the western provinces and Quebec, and in federal politics as promoted by the Social Credit Party of Canada and the Reform Party of Canada.
There have been several versions of a populist movement in the United States. The terminology was inspired by the Populist Party of the 1890s. This was the party of the early 1890s which Midwestern and Southern farmers and some labor unions denounced a system whereby "the fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few." The term "populist" re-emerged in the 1950s when historian Richard Hofstadter and sociologist Daniel Bell compared the anti-elitism of the 1890s Populists with that of Joseph McCarthy. Although not all academics accepted the comparison between the left-wing, anti-big business Populists and the right-wing, anti-communist McCarthyites, the term "populist" nonetheless came to be applied to both left-wing and right-wing groups that blamed elites for the problems facing the country.
Other early populist political parties in the United States included the Greenback Party, the Progressive Party of 1912 led by Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party of 1924 led by Robert M. La Follette, Sr., and the Share Our Wealth movement of Huey Long in 1933–35.
Lynn Frazier, three-term Governor of North Dakota, led the Nonpartisan League in a right-wing populist movement that gained control of North Dakota's lower house and won 79% of the popular vote in North Dakota's gubernatorial election of 1916. Campaigning as Republicans against Democrats who were supported by intellectuals and liberal reformers espousing collectivist and corporate farming, the NPL gained a large share of the rural and agrarian vote. There have also been left-wing leaders of populist movements such as Free Silver advocate William Jennings Bryan and consumer protection advocate Ralph Nader. They campaigned against the power of large corporations such as national banks and auto companies, as presidential candidates for the Democratic Party and Green Party, respectively.
Populism remains a force in modern US politics. The media have identified numerous populist candidates in recent years. The third-party presidential campaigns of billionaire Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996 have been perceived as populist. The 1996, 2000, 2004, and the 2008 presidential campaigns of Ralph Nader had a strong populist cast. The 2004 and 2008 Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards has been described by many (and by himself) as a "one economic community, one commonwealth" populist.
From its beginnings in early 2009, the Tea Party movement has used populist rhetoric, particularly in areas and states where Democrats are in power. Boyer et al. states:
In a recent example of populist movements, participants in the Occupy movement chose the slogan "We are the 99%". The Occupy leadership used the phrase "the 1%" to refer to the 1% of Americans who are most wealthy. The Occupy movement believed that the 1% was creating economic instability and undermining the social safety nets implemented during the New Deal. Political science professors Joe Lowndes and Dorian Warren were among those to pose the question, "Is Occupy Wall Street a Populist Movement?" They both concluded that it was the "first major populist movement on the U.S left since the 1930s."
The 2016 presidential election saw a wave of populist sentiment in the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, with both candidates running on anti-establishment platforms in the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively. Both campaigns appealed to economic protectionism and criticized free trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Their movements coincided with a similar trend of populism in Europe. Ultimately, Trump was elected President of the United States, defeating the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
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