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Populism is a widespread, but highly controversial, political phenomenon, which is not limited regionally, but which occurs most prominently in the Americas and in Europe. Behind the phenomenon lies a less clearly-defined historical and social scientific concept, which in its ambiguity can only be comprehended with difficulty. Universal definitions of populism are flawed because they are not able to sufficiently capture specific historical varieties; conversely, only an ideal-typically version of populism can explain what individual populisms have in common.

The various characterizations of populism converge in the following definition which allows for generalization: movements or groups termed as populist appeal to the population in contrast to the elites, speak to the 'common people' in a way which transcends class boundaries, present themselves as being anti-elitist and are against the "establishment". "The people versus the powerful" is the populist leitmotif. As a concrete political program is often not present, populists concentrate their engagement on several select aspects. Their engagement, argued with a moralizing rhetoric, aims for the non-explicitly defined well-being of the 'common people', which have to be protected against overpowering international and national interests. Populists prefer a direct, immediate style of politics without intermediary organizations such as parties or formal democratic channels of participation and institutions. Their image of society is more or less dichotomous and there are clear, albeit changing, concepts of an enemy. In the eyes of their populist advocates, the 'common people' always have morality on their side, as they represent the majority of a society.

Populism does not have a good reputation in itself; the term generally has negative undertones, and to be a populist carries a political stigma: the term is generally used to point to an opportunistic policy which attempts to win the favor of the masses beyond political contents, and which manipulates or exploits the population for individual purposes or aims. Populists present themselves as close to the people, stir up emotions, prejudices or fears and offer simple solutions to complex political problems. Personal striving for power is generally linked to a lack of responsibility for the political future of a nation and a lack of sustainability with regard to the solution of social problems.

Even though the breeding ground for populism can be highly different, it can be adhered to that populism comes into being in phases of rapid shifts in society, in which traditional and / or authoritarian power structures fall or find themselves in a crisis. It can appear as a discourse strategy, as a method of rule or as a social protest movement. As a discourse strategy, it is compatible with both right-wing and left wing political matters. As a method of rule, it is a strategy for mobilization and securing consensus of political elites or individual leaders. As a social protest movement, populism has a mass base gathered around a central leader, demanding socio-economic developmental perspectives and effective political participation . Hybrid forms are standard.

Populism in the USA

Historically, populism originated in the USA during the mid-19th century as a protest movement from rural areas in reaction to the comprehensive social modernization process and the transition from competitive to organized capitalism. The various groups had backward-looking, anti-modernist traits. The populists articulated the interests of the farmers of the midwest and south of the USA against the political superiority of the larger cities, the monopolies, banks and trusts and the deflationist monetary policies of the central government. They demanded the re-establishment of an agricultural democracy and aimed at the "heartland" of the USA. That primarily meant bottom-up participation of manageable units without intermediary, representative elements. This went hand in hand with an egalitarian rhetoric of the "common man", which was aimed against organized particular interests. This agricultural populism – also known as farmer’s radicalism – controlled the political debates in the 1880s in the form of the Farmer’s Alliance. Its party political branch, the People’s Party or Populist Party, founded in 1891, was for a time the third-strongest party alongside the Republicans and the Democrats. After the turn of the century, the populist constellations wasted away visibly; their demands were, however, taken up successively by the other parties and largely succeeded. The early American populism can therefore be understood as a revolt of small and medium-sized entrepreneurs against Big Business and the one-sidedness of a capitalist economic system, which might have failed as a revolt, but which enjoyed success as a persistent demand for reforms.

Populist impulses also entered the politics of the Progressives and the New Deal in the first third of the 20th century, addressing the hopes of the new urban and socially disadvantaged base with politics of state intervention and of the welfare state . Henceforth, not only populist topoi and stereotypes could increasingly be heard from high rank politicians of the nation, but populism also revealed itself as wholly capable of transforming and adapting to new situations. Differences in the populisms of the southern and northern states of the USA were dependent on the concrete social basis, the political perceptions of problems, and the identity crises of the populist clientele. Some populists took up earlier historical experiences, others propagated a mass clientelism centered around a leader. Dominating political figures such as George C. Wallace in the 1970s or Ralph Nader and Henry Ross Perot (and his movement United we Stand America or Reform Party) in the 1990s mostly operated opportunistically and without principles; their ideologies were sometimes linked to conservative, but at others with liberal positions. Pat Buchanan and Jesse Ventura later continued these developments. The function of such populist movements or parties in the USA can be seen in putting neglected topics on the agenda and in offering a political home to groups of American society which have been socially declassified or threatened with social relegation. Core elements of populism are found in all of these movements and parties; to some extent, populism has even become an integral part of US mass democracy.

Populism in Latin America

In Latin America, populism has, by contrast, always been a political phenomenon. There it developed its greatest political power and the continent was the preferred playing field of all kinds of populists. Only there has populism become a sustainable, quickly dominant political phenomenon. Populists have repeatedly managed to attain power while they had retained the restricted status of a social movement in most other areas of the world. Latin America shows a long tradition of populism, which in an historical analysis can be distinguished into three major waves:

a) Classical populism, with a nationalistic and progressive orientation, was characteristic between 1930 and 1980. Dominant figures included Juan Domingo Peron in Argentina, Getulio Vargas in Brazil and José María Velasco Ibarra in Ecuador.


b) Neopopulism, which was neo-liberally or conservatively oriented, appeared between 1980 and 2000. It was influenced by people such as Carlos S. Menem in Argentina, Alberto Fujimori in Peru and Fernando Collor de Mello in Brazil.

c) Finally, since the turn of the millennium a kind of neo-neopopulism could be identified as a left-wing populism which again is more strongly connected to nationalist and progressive ideological elements of the first wave of populism. The most important representations of this third wave of populism are the "Socialists of the 21st century", namely Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. The following are considered constructive characteristics of populist regimes in Latin America:

- As a rule, the populists do not have a united political ideology or a coherent political program. Populism often functions as a melting pot for an alliance transcending class boundaries, including marginalized lower classes, workers, middle classes and parts of the military. Some varieties of populism yield mass movements guaranteeing membership with clientelist networks and personal loyalties to the populist leader. When such movements are organized, they serve mobilization, but also the social control of their supporters.

- The close and direct relationship between leaders and the population caused by vertical power structures is a second constitutive element of populism. The omission of institutional intermediaries opens the door to demagogical seduction by a charismatic leader. Populist leaders use emotional messages and appeal to patriotism or national sovereignty. Television and radio are the preferred media for distributing populist messages; appearances and speeches of the populist leader in public places provide direct contact to the people. The charismatic leaders portray themselves as the incarnation of the will of the people and often as virtually messianic figures.

- A third element of populism is that it re-invents symbols pointing to identity or refers to meaningful historical symbols. The veneration of heroes of their own history – such as Simon Bolívar, Eloy Álfaro or Eva Peron, who have become something of a myth – or recognizable characteristics such as the "descamisados", the coca leaf or the "boinas" create and guarantee collective identities and contribute to national integration.

- Populists are generally outsiders of the political system who come to power with an anti-oligarchic discourse and thus distinguish themselves from the "political class". The rejection of the "oligarchic establishment" and the emphasis of the opposition of the people to oligarchy are decisive elements of the battle against the old elites. The outsider status is cultivated and stretch as far as physical characteristics, which differentiate the populists from the "white elite".

- The populists have the support of the "people", especially the marginalized and the excluded. They are not only democratically elected, but their political survival depends on the support of broad social classes. In order not to lose their legitimacy, they constantly have to ensure this support. Thus, populists are dependent on direct communication with the people; therefore, they arrange referenda and try to raise their legitimation through the identification of the people with their leader.

The sustainability of populism in Latin America points to structural causes as reasons for the attractiveness of the phenomenon: in terms of social structures, the nations of Latin America are divided in many ways; but clearly distinguishable classes and milieus have never been able to evolve. Interest groups and parties have not attained a comparable power in structuring societies to that extent present in Europe and North America. Socio-economically, they are characterized by an extreme social inequality , so that the stress ratio between poverty and exclusion on the one hand and the affluence of a narrow upper class on the other forms an ideal humus for all types of populist policies. Politically, populism is not least a consequence of three further factors: a) weak states and political institutions which are connected to a long-term crisis of political representation, a lack of inclusion and participation, and often bad governmental policies; b) elitist governments which are not interested in constructing citizenships in the proper sense of the term; and c) a political culture of patronage and corruption, in which sociopolitical measures are not administered as a civil right, but rather as a gift by a patron or leader in return for continued political support.

Populism and Democracy

The relationship between populism and democracy is multi-layered and ambiguous. Etymologically, populism exhibits a strongly democratic component with the word's orientation on the people or the interests of the people. Although populists primarily promote the inclusion of hitherto disadvantaged groups of the population, and thus democracy, they undermine it at the same time by criticizing representative democratic institutions. Populists tend to replace democratic institutions by a strong leader, who promises quick solutions to social problems on the basis of personal loyalties without falling back on formal institutional structures or party processes. Almost all populists have discredited traditional organizational and decision-making principles via political parties and preferred to govern through legislative power or by concentrating the power in the executive. Therefore, populists often govern through their attempts to change society at the borders of the law – a law, however, which they reject or which they believe only to be beneficial to the traditional elites. In the aspired models of a "participatory" or "radical democracy", traditional institutions are only of secondary importance, and the leader gains an extraordinary amount of power. Thus, there is generally a link to a weakening of democratic institutions and processes.

Peter Imbusch

Please cite as:
Imbusch, Peter. 2012. “Populism.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives. www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/p_Populism.html.


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Taggart, Paul. 2000. Populism, Buckingham.

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