Populism is a global socio-political phenomenon and its emotional and debilitating nature of liberal democracy is one of its hallmarks. Personalist leaders around the world have attempted to weaken counter-majority institutions in order to exercise unhindered political power. Will the 21st century be marked by the steady rise of populist governments or will they have some kind of limit?
Pierre Rosanvallon’s recent publication, “The Century of Populism” (Ediciones Manantial, 2020), helps us understand the different characteristics of populist leaders – left and right – in the 21st century around the world.
This, through the approach of an anatomy of populist political culture with the identification of five elements that constitute it: the conception of the people, the theory of democracy, the modality of representation, the politics and the philosophy of economy and a regime of passions and emotions.
In the case of the United States, the political behavior and discursive recurrence of Donald Trump embodied some of these elements and, although he is no longer in office, left an imprint in the history of the country that will be difficult to understand. to erase.
The emotionality embodied in Trump’s political speeches, structured in the “us” versus “them” logic, and the ongoing torpedoing of democratic institutions, has been a constant that peaked on January 6.
According to Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, “the objective of the president’s supporters was to end our democracy”, after sending a political message to his supporters with a withering phrase that says a lot about his philosophy of life : “fight like hell”.
It is a discursive strategy that had fake news, conspiracy theories and the “deep state” as fertile ground, a supposed network of public officials who act secretly, like the de facto power that is out of sight of the public. audience, controlling them manipulating things.
A perfect cocktail to maintain a regime of passions and emotions, the main connotation of populist political culture in which, as Rosanvallon says, “objects are magnified in the midst of darkness. In the shade, everything seems hostile and gigantic”.
This problem has only worsened in a world where disinformation, revelations and scandals arise every moment, while suspicions against the powerful are constantly renewed and confidence in institutions crumbles.
Another notable element of the populist universe is the polarization and destruction of the political center, a place where it is possible to deliberate, reach consensus and play by the rules of the game. In Bolivia, Evo Morales ran for the fourth consecutive time for the presidency in 2019, when he lost a constitutional referendum with which he was trying to renew his candidacy.
This weakened the democratic institutionality of the state, generated civic unrest, social polarization and civic rebellion which led to the resignation of the former president. According to Carlos de la Torre, “although Latin American populisms from Perón to Chávez included the poor and the destitute, their practices in power were authoritarian”.
In fact, the Constitutional Court acted as a puppet of the executive power administered by Evo for the benefit of its postulation, but to the detriment of the popular vote and the legal and legitimate result of a constitutional referendum which was unfavorable to it. From the point of view of political democracy and contrary to populist political culture, the Constitutional Court implies restrictions on independent authorities and a reduction of its area of intervention.
The consequences of this political event were the progressive weakening of the counter-majority institutions. According to famous political scientist Adam Przeworski, “the function of constitutional courts is to protect rights against the whims of temporary majorities.” But in Bolivia, the opposite happened: the Constitutional Court gave in to the whim of a temporary majorities leader who lost under the rules of democracy.
In perspective, it is an event that has undermined the political democracy of the country. But, more than that, it has made citizens distrust of public institutions and turned the constant violation of norms of social and political coexistence into habitual and almost natural behavior.
Without a doubt, Pierre Rosanvallon allows us to gain a broader and deeper understanding of populism as a political phenomenon. With its conceptual tools, it is possible to distinguish and interpret certain political events carried out by political leaders who break the rules of the game by identifying an enemy to attack and destroy, seeing themselves as the unique embodiment of collective interests.
However, the advancement of populist political culture seems to have no limits in the 21st century, the followers of messianic rulers continue to grow and lie in different spaces of the ideological spectrum. His political arguments are polarizing and based on fake news. Worse yet, they dilute the sanity of the political center, where democratic institutions must serve as regulators of passions and emotions.
* Translation by Maria Isabel Santos Lima
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