Populism as Democratization’s Nemesis: The Politics of Regime Hybridization
Populism as Democratization's Nemesis: The Politics of Regime Hybridization
Enrique Peruzzotti 0
0 CONICET, Department of Political Science, Torcuato Di Tella University , Av. Figueroa Alcorta 7350, C1428BCW Buenos Aires , Argentina
The global ascendancy that populism has gained in recent years resulted in two major developments: (a) the geographical spread of populism to an increasing number of countries, to the extent that in regions such as the Americas and Europe populism appears as the main contender of mainstream politics; (b) populism shifting from the margins to the center stage of politics, a development that resulted in the passage of populism as a movement to populism as government. A central hypothesis guiding this article is that populism in government is likely to promote a specific path to regime change: one consisting of the gradual hybridization of the structure of liberal democracy through the selective removal of some of the latter's defining features. The contemporary proliferation of populist administrations in Europe and the Americas should consequently not be taken lightly: they might be announcing political processes that can ultimately result in a drastic redefinition of the landscape of current democratic politics in an illiberal direction. A first draft of this article was presented at the workshop on Populism organized by the Fudan University in April 21, 2017. The author is grateful for the comments received from the participants at the meeting. In particular, the author wants to thank Dwayne Woods for his insightful suggestions.
Populism; Democratization; Liberal democracy regimes; Regime change; Democratic theory; Hybrid
Geographically, populism is no longer confined to Latin America (the region that
gave birth to modern form of populism), but it is increasingly becoming an
important force in European politics and, most recently, in the USA. While the
contemporary revival of populism started in Latin America as a result of the coming
to power of a new generation of populist leaders in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador,
Nicaragua and Venezuela, the phenomenon rapidly expanded to other areas. In
Europe, populist forces and parties have accessed government in Greece, Hungary,
Poland and Slovenia. Additionally, populist parties or candidates are gaining
electoral ascendance in the Netherlands, France, Spain and Italy
, not to
mention the unexpected triumph of the Brexit vote in the UK
(Goodwin and Heath
2017; Richard 2017)
. The arrival of Donald Trump to the presidency of the country
that has historically served as the paradigm of liberal democracy signals a novel and
worrisome momentum of populism, a period that, as the first months of Trump in
office suggests, is likely to have significant consequences not only within the USA,
but globally as well
(Cramer 2017; Lowndes 2017)
. Lastly, in Southeast Asia there
is growing concern about the surge of a new string of populist politicians in
countries such as the Philippines, Thailand and even Japan
(Case 2017; Murayama
. In brief, populism is rapidly becoming a contagious force that can threaten
the continuity of old and new democracies alike. In fact, in the Americas and
Europe it has already positioned itself as the main contender to liberal democracy.
The second development is populism attaining governmental status. Many
relevant contemporary expressions of populism are no longer located on the fringes
of the political system, but have successfully made their way into governmental
power. The latter implies a significant shift in the nature of populism, one that can
be described as a shift of populism from movement to government form
2014: 130, 2013)
. While such phenomenon might not represent a novelty for a
region like Latin America, marked by the recurring presence of populist
administrations in several of its countries throughout the second half of the
twentieth century (Peruzzotti 2013), it is a surprising development for some
European countries and for the USA. Populism in government places significant
institutional and political resources in the hand of a leader, resources that can be put
into use to promote institutional transformations that can eventually endanger the
continuity of liberal democratic regimes.
A central hypothesis guiding this article is that populism in government is likely
to promote a specific path to regime change, one consisting of the gradual
hybridization of the structure of liberal democracy through the selective removal of
some of the latter’s defining features. Such pattern is a novelty with respect to what
was the predominant paradigm of regime change of the twentieth century: that of
(Linz and Stepan 1978)
. Rather than the sudden collapse of
democracy and its replacement by an authoritarian regime, hybridization entails a
slow, yet steady process of transformation of the institutional landscape of
democracy via the gradual dismantling of constitutive elements of liberal
democratic regimes. Those processes are carried out by elected authorities, within
the boundaries of existing democratic regimes, and in the name of democratic
deepening (Peruzzotti 2017). The end result of such processes is the establishment
of a regime that is neither conventionally authoritarian nor conventionally
(Diamond 2002: 25; Levitsky and Way 2002)
. The contemporary
proliferation of populist administrations in Europe and the Americas should
consequently not be taken lightly: they might be announcing political processes that
can ultimately result in a drastic redefinition of the landscape of current democratic
politics in an illiberal direction.
The article is divided as follows. Section I analyzes the reasons behind the
contagious effects that populism has had in the Americas and Europe. The main
argument of this section is that the diffusion of modern forms of populism is the
corollary of democratizing waves that expand the geographical presence of
liberal democracy. Modern populism emerges in already democratized contexts
where openly dictatorial appeals are no longer a feasible option and
consequently, political struggles shift from a struggle over alternative regime
options to a definitional conflict over the meaning of democracy. In fact,
contemporary conceptualizations of populism are framed as a theory of radical
democracy. Section II critically reviews the main tenets of populism as a
democratic theory through the discussion of the work of Ernesto Laclau. From
his perspective, populism appears as a democratizing force that frees politics
from the neutralizing role played by the representative arrangements that
structure the political dynamics of liberal democratic regimes. Curiously enough,
Laclau’s theory has little to say about populism as government: its emphasis is
on how populist movements might access power than on the actual exercise of
governmental power by populist administrations. Section III argues about the
need to shift the focus on populism from those strategies that outsiders use to
access power to populism as a governmental exercise. Given the recent success
exhibited by populist movements in acceding power in different national
contexts, analyses of populism have to focus on the institutional blueprint that
those administrations seek to establish. Populism as government must be
understood as a particular strategy of regime transformation via the gradual
elimination of key components of liberal democracy.
Regime hybridization by contemporary populist administrations is a process that
takes place within liberal democracies, old and new. At this respect, contemporary
efforts at regime hybridization differ from those that shaped classical expressions of
populism. Unlike contemporary forms of populism, classical populism expressed a
pattern political modernization whose point of departure was not liberal democracy
but semi-democratic oligarchic rule or military authoritarianism.
2 Modern Populism as the Corollary of Democratizing Waves
The literature on populism has repeatedly highlighted the intimate relationship that
exists between the former and liberal democracy
(Arditi 2005; Canovan 2001;
. It is consequently not surprising that populism becomes politically
relevant on those historical conjunctures characterized by the triumph and diffusion
of liberal representative regimes: in its modern incarnation, populism was born in
the aftermath of the defeat of fascism. In a similar vein, the current clout enjoyed by
populism nowadays is related to the impressive diffusion of liberal democracy that
resulted from the collapse of communism and bureaucratic authoritarianism.
2.1 The Second Democratizing Wave and the Birth of Modern Populism
Modern populism emerges as a response to the major political shifts prompted by
the defeat of Fascism and Nazism, which resulted in the inauguration of the second
(Huntington 1991: 12)
. It is born out of the recognition that in
the post-War World II order, there will be increasingly less ideological room for
fascist or any other form of dictatorial regimes. It is thus a response to the deepening
of the legitimacy problems that contemporary authoritarian regimes face in societies
where democratic values have been internalized by significant sectors of the
population (Huntington 1991: 13)
Peronism was the first political force to recognize the nature of the new
environment that resulted from the defeat of European fascism: being the leader of
a military government of fascist sympathizers, Peron renounced both the idea of
dictatorship and violence to promote a transition from dictatorship to populist
. Peronism became the paradigmatic expression of
populist democracy where elections played a key legitimating role
. Peron’s pioneering response was followed by a string of Latin
American leaders in other countries of the region, to the extent that populism as
government became a widespread phenomenon in the second half of the twentieth
century in the continent.1 The inauguration of the Cold War, the Cuban
Revolution and the problems derived from populist polarization created the
conditions for a process of democratic reversal that resulted in the emergence of
new forms of military authoritarianism
(Huntington 1991: 12; O´ Donnell 1988;
Collier and Collier 1981.)
. After the successful processes of democratic transition
and consolidation, contemporary forms of populism reemerged in Latin America,
as a critique of the shortcomings of existing liberal democratic regimes (Peruzzotti
2.2 Contemporary Populism as the Corollary of the Third Democratizing
The defeat of communism, as had been previously the case with the defeat of
fascism, provided an impetus to another global wave of democratization diffusion.
The end of the Cold War was followed by an impressive diffusion of democratic
rule all over the globe
. The democratic wave began in the
mid1970s in Southern Europe, consolidating democracy in Greece, Spain and Portugal.
1 If the emerging field of democratization studies in Latin America and Eastern and Central Europe
sought inspiration in the experience of old democratizers to analyze the transitions from authoritarianism
and subsequent efforts at democratic consolidation, it might be wise for the USA and Europe to engage in
a similar exercise given the extensive experience that Latin America has had with a political animal to
which European or North-Americans are not as familiar with.
It continued in Latin America soon after and until the mid-1980s, resulting in
successful transitions from military authoritarianism to liberal democratic regimes.2
Simultaneously, the Asian region also witnessed the democratization of South
Korea and the Philippines. Finally, the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in
democratic consolidation throughout the former Soviet republics of Central and
(Huntington 1991; Mainwaring et al. 2002; O´ Donnell et al. 1986)
For almost three decades, democracy steadily expanded worldwide to come to a halt
(Diamond 2015: 142)
. Throughout such period (1974–2005), the number of
electoral democracies rose from 46 to 114/119
While the third wave of democratization was a global trend, it accomplished its
most impressive results in the Americas and in Eastern Europe
Skaaning 2013: 101–2)
, institutionalizing the two most extensive democratic blocks
in contemporary history. By 1990, every country in Latin America (with the
exception of Cuba) had an elected government. In Europe, the democratic states of
Europe expanded significantly, and a significant proportion of the 30 countries that
made transitions from 1974 to 1990 were located in either one of those two regions.
Such an impressive process of democratic diffusion was heralded as the ultimate
triumph of liberal democracy over its main contenders, fascism, communism and
regimes such as bureaucratic authoritarianism. In a widely known essay, Francis
Fukuyama raised the Hegelian question of whether humanity was finally entering a
post-historical period. He wondered if the dramatic events that prompted a
democratizing wave of unknown dimensions were not signaling just the end of a
specific historical period, but of history itself:
‘‘What we may be witnessing in not just the end of the Cold War, or the
passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as
such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the
universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human
government. This is not to say that there will no longer be events to fill the
pages of Foreign Affairs’ yearly summaries of international relations, for the
victory of liberalism has occurred primarily in the realm of ideas or
consciousness and is as yet incomplete in the real or material world. But there
are powerful reasons for believing that it is the ideal that will govern the
material world in the long run. To understand how this is so, we must first
consider some theoretical issues concerning the nature of historical change’’
As the paragraph illustrates, Fukuyama saw the expansion of democracy (and
eventually of market consumerism) as part of a more fundamental trend toward the
universalization of the Western model of liberal democracy. The third
2 In Latin America, democratization was the outcome of the twin defeat of revolutionary movements and
of bureaucratic authoritarianism. The transitions from authoritarianism in Latin America inaugurated a
new democratic era that resulted in the continent-wide consolidation of liberal democracy
exceptions of Cuba as well as the rise of competitive authoritarianism during the presidency of Alberto
Fujimori and in post-1995 Haiti)
(Levitsky and Way 2002: 52)
. It is in the latter context that populism
makes a comeback as a critique of the shortcoming of existing liberal democratic regimes
democratizing wave certainly contributed to the global diffusion of liberal
democracy, yet there are still numerous countries untouched by such a process.
Fukuyama was hopeful that with the ideological triumph of the Western liberal
democratic tradition over its adversaries, the completion of the process of
democratic diffusion to the rest of the globe was going to be only a matter of
time. The final triumph of Western liberal democracy would eventually inaugurate a
new era in which political struggles as we know them today would come to an end.
The optimism of Fukuyama’s diagnosis is being questioned by recent political
developments. Not only is the West losing ideological clout in other regions, but
liberal democratic regimes are facing significant challenges in Western societies to
the extent that some authors are announcing ‘‘the unraveling of the post-1989 order’’
that inspired Fukuyama’s end of history prediction
. In many
Western countries, liberal democracy is under siege due to the growing clout
enjoyed by anti-democratic movements and parties. The recent growth of extreme
right parties in countries such as Belgium, France and Hungary indicates that
antidemocratic and nativist forces continue to have an unavoidable ideological presence
in democratic systems
Yet, the most pressing challenge that liberal democracy faces today does not
come from openly anti-democratic political forces, but from populism
. It is the latter that is the real specter haunting the stability of liberal
democracy today (and in the case of Europe, of the EU project). Unlike extreme
right or left anti-democratic forces, populism’s defiance of liberal democracy is
more troublesome for it is a challenge that comes from within, one that is made in
the name of democracy
(Peruzzotti forthcoming Pappas 2016)
. Most of the
contemporary expressions of populism in Europe and the Americas occur in already
democratized societies, a fact that differentiates this wave of populism from other
contexts in which populism acts as an ambiguous, yet effective form of political
modernization of pre-democratic orders
. The most relevant
examples of today’s populism, instead, have emerged within the framework of
consolidated liberal democracies.
What does such phenomenon say about Fukuyama’s diagnosis? One could
reformulate his insight in the following terms: the end of the Cold War period
represents not so much the undisputed triumph of Western liberal democracy, but
rather the defeat of openly anti-authoritarian ideologies. The latter does not mean
that, as many examples attest to this, anti-democratic movements will completely
vanish from the horizon of contemporary societies. However, it is unlikely that they
could effectively provide a credible principle of legitimation in societies that had
already been democratized. The triumph of democratic ideals does not express itself
as the victory of one of its particular incarnations (Western liberal democracy), but
by the fact that it is becoming increasingly difficult to legitimize a political order
with reference to validity claims that are not drawn from the imaginary democratic.
The triumph of democracy does not automatically mean, as assumed by
Fukuyama, that specific liberal democratic interpretation of those ideals has
achieved uncontested supremacy. It should also not be interpreted as the
inauguration of an era characterized by the twilight of political conflict. On the
contrary, political conflict within democratic societies largely becomes a
definitional conflict of interpretations over the meaning of democracy: the framing
of political disputes is no longer one that confronts a democratic versus an
antidemocratic camp, but one among different conceptions of how democracy is to be
understood. This is what explains the current salience of populism in democratic
societies: it expresses the best political option to challenge the political status quo in
societies where the principle of popular sovereignty has established itself as an
uncontested one. The force of contemporary forms of populism is that challenges
liberal democracy in the name of democracy; an appeal that openly authoritarian
forces do not enjoy in democratic societies.
3 Populism as a Democratic Theory
Populism has not only become a central axis to structure the political conflict within
democratic societies, but it has also attained conceptual salience within the political
theory. In the past, populism was pigeonholed as a specific stage of political
modernization of developing societies or as a specter that haunted liberal democracy
in troubled political times. In either use, the term populism was always charged with
ambiguity regarding its democratizing contribution if not openly associated with
authoritarianism. Today, instead, the term has been bereaved of all ambiguity and is
being presented as the epitome of democracy. The most prominent exponent of this
position is the work of Ernesto Laclau.
In his book On Populist Reason, Laclau seeks to place populism as the central
category of contemporary political and democratic theory. He rescues the concept
from the marginal position it has traditionally enjoyed within social and political
theory as a pathological or irrational phenomenon by dignifying it ‘‘…with the
status of a full rationality’’
(Laclau 2005: 19)
. The pejorative adjectives usually
attributed to populism (its logic of simplification, its ideological incoherence, the
vagueness of its discourse), he argues, are to be understood as key features of its
political rationale. They are the ingredients that ensure the success of the populist
In Laclau’s rendering, populism is neither a mirror
nor an internal
periphery of democratic politics
, but the expression of democracy
itself. For what is democracy, he wonders, but the process of constituting the
people? Populism expresses the logic of what he considers is the paradigmatic
operation of democratic politics: the construction of the people. For Laclau, the
latter process requires lumping together fragmented and dislocated demands into a
vague and antagonistic notion of the people. Vagueness and ambiguity are, in this
rendering, key conditions for the symbolic efficacy of populist identification to work
(Laclau 2005: 40)
. This is why it is frequently difficult to pigeonhole specific
populist experiences into a right/left axis, as it is fruitless to search for ideological
coherence into a process of identity construction where ambiguity and imprecision
are essential elements of the empty signifiers that give life to the people. What
matters in such construction is the intensity that such empty signifiers are able to
generate not the specifics of their content. A process of populist identification is
successful only when it is capable of polarizing society into two camps: the people
and its enemies.
How can a process that can assume very different ideological configurations be
understood within the framework of a theory of democratization? Laclau’s answer is
that the democratizing element of populism lies in its de-institutionalizing potential,
that is, in its capacity to free politics from the straightjacket of liberal democratic
institutionalism. Populism is heralded as a politics of the extraordinary moments, of
those exceptional situations where the creative power of politics comes to the
surface thanks to the suspension of the conservative logic of institutions. However,
such response is still inadequate because the theory has nothing to say regarding the
likely political outcomes that such ‘‘creative’’ interventions might bring about.
Laclau’s theory of populism exclusively focuses on populism as a strategy to access
power, but has not much to say about populism as a governmental exercise.3
Actually, the above-mentioned problem goes beyond Laclau’s specific theory,
but is present in other approaches to populism or to radical democracy. There is an
extensive literature focusing on the discursive, symbolic and dramaturgical
resources that populism employs to challenge power, but relatively little emphasis
on the dynamics of populism as a governmental exercise. The hypothesis that will
guide the following section is that populism expresses a particular path at regime
transformation that, irrespective of context and of the manifold ideological appeals
it might resort to, can be consistently analyzed as a strategy of regime hybridization.
The populist strategy at regime hybridization selectively removes key features of
representative government to ultimately replace one subtype of democracy (liberal
representative polyarchy) for another (populist democracy).
4 Populism and the Hybridization of Liberal Democracy
Populism can no longer be reduced to a strategy of extraordinary times
(De la Torre
, whereas certain discourses and performances are productively employed to
exploit crisis situations to access power. In many national contexts, populism is
being normalized into an exercise of governmental power. We consequently need to
broaden the predominant conceptual emphasis on the ideological, discursive
Torre 2014; Kazin 1995; Hawkins 2010)
(Moffit 2016; Ostigy
resources that populist leaders or movements mobilize to either denounce the
status quo or to access power (Weyland 2001) to include the analysis of populism as
a governmental exercise. While the former perspectives shed important light on the
conditions that give birth to populism movements and the strategies they unfold to
challenge the political order, the reality of populism as government requires the
expansion of our conceptual and analytical toolbox to better understand the logic
and outcomes that guide populism as an exercise of power. In particular, there is a
need to focus on the consequences that populism as government has on the
3 In fact, when questioned about the authoritarian patterns of Chavez or Maduro, Laclau simply
dismissed the issue by arguing that these were the inevitable price to pay in any process of political
institutional structure of liberal democracy as well as on the specifics of populism as
a strategy of regime transformation. Populism might not simply be an episodic event
that periodically comes to reenergize the political dynamics of representative
, but in some instances might express a specific path to
institutional change via regime hybridization.
The regime hybridization path contrasts with the traditional model of democratic
breakdown that provided the paradigmatic example of the collapse of liberal
democratic regimes in the twentieth century. The breakdown pattern referred to the
downfall of democratic regimes precipitated by a state of exception to leads to the
transfer of power from a democratically accountable leadership to a non-democratic
(Linz and Stepan 1978: 54)
. A regime breakdown entails more than the
replacement of an administration; it supposes a break with the rules regulating the
democratic process. The specifics of such a process can vary according to context,
yet in all cases supposes the displacement of democratically elected authorities by
force or by illegal means (usually through a military or presidential coup) and the
assumption of power of an authoritarian coalition
(Linz and Stepan 1978)
. In any
case, there is always a clear event that marks the moment of regime breakdown and
authoritarian takeover (military coup, a revolution, presidential dissolution of the
legislative assembly, etc.) that neatly establishes the end of democratic rule and the
inauguration of the authoritarian period.
The pattern of regime hybridization, instead, is a subtler one for there is no
undisputed moment of rupture, or an attempt to step completely outside of a
democratic framework. It instead consists of an inconspicuous process of
dismantling the key elements of liberal democracy that happens in a gradual
manner, within the confines of the existing regime and without relinquishing
electoral institutions, grounding the justification for the reforms. On the contrary,
electoral success establishes the democratic credentials of populist regimes.
Populism’s reliance on electoral legitimacy prevents it from sliding into open
authoritarianism: canceling electoral contexts or refusing to accept a negative
electoral result will run contrary from what constitutes its main democratic validity
The process of institutional hybridization aims at aligning different institutional
spheres with the popular will, which the president incarnates. Checks and balances,
the principle of separation of powers, the role of the opposition, of a critical press,
are viewed as hindrances that prevent the proper realization of popular aspirations,
so they become the targets of reforms that are portrayed as part of an agenda of
‘‘democratic deepening’’. Those reforms justify paving the way for the proper
enforcement of the principle of popular sovereignty, which in this interpretation is
understood as aligning all state institutions to the presidential will.
4 This is a problem that can be seen in today’s Venezuela after the refusal of president Nicola´s Maduro to
acknowledge the results of the past legislative election.
5 Modern Populism as a Regime
Populist democratic regimes emerge in the post-World War II scenario as a specific
illiberal rendering of democratic ideals. In fact, modern populism represents a direct
response to the second democratizing wave that the defeat of European fascism
inaugurated.5 Its place of birth is Argentina, with Peronism representing the first
incarnation of the modern democratic expression of populism. Juan Domingo Peron,
a prominent political leader of a pro-fascist military dictatorship, was the first to
realize the limitations that the post-war environment posed to openly dictatorial
projects and set out to establish a populist democratic regime
In contrast to fascism and other forms of modern authoritarianism, populism
relinquishes the exercise of dictatorial power to validate its authority
democratically. Electoral legitimation is consequently crucial for modern forms of populism
. Elections, however, are interpreted in a different manner than
under liberal democracy. They are not merely viewed as a procedure to appoint a
government; rather, they serve as confirmation of a previous fact that a specific
personality embodies the people. Elections serve to ratify such conviction: this is
why electoral contests under populism are frequently framed as an existential
struggle between the people and its foes and electoral victories interpreted as a
momentous occasion that confirms the authority of the leader.
Modern populism draws its legitimation from the principle of popular
sovereignty, yet democracy is interpreted in an illiberal way. Under populism,
elections serve the principle of identification, and not of representation. Alongside
with referendums, mass mobilizations, acts of public acclamation, mass and social
media, they are viewed as the channels that make such process of identification
possible. The mediating structures of representative democracy are instead seen as a
nuance that prevent populist identification to take place. Its target is not democracy
per se, but its particular liberal interpretation of it.
Modern democratic populism seeks to replace political indirectness by
unmediated identification. It proposes a simplified and unmediated form of ‘‘democratic’’
bond organized around a process of plebiscitarian identification that is ratified by
. Liberal democracy is considered a regime that is more
interested in protecting the rights of minorities than in realizing the principle of
popular sovereignty. Modern democratic populism seeks to redesign and simplify
the institutional landscape of mass democracy, a redesign that largely consists of the
elimination of the field of indirect politics and its replacement by presidential
Defining dimensions of liberal democracy are consequently targeted, such as the
principle of division of power, governmental checks and balances, the autonomy of
the media, public sphere and civil society, for they are considered unwanted
5 Modern democratic populism as a regime does not refer to pre-modern expressions of the phenomenon
such as the one that appears in the nineteenth century in the USA, in Tsarist Russia or the Napoleonic
Empire in France where liberal democratic institutions had not yet been firmly anchored
. It is a phenomenon that emerges in the post-World War II as a direct response to a new
political climate generated by the defeat of European authoritarian regimes and the ascendancy of liberal
interferences that conspire against the implementation of a simpler and direct form
of democratic bond between the leader and people. Populism as a governmental
exercise inevitably results in executive encroachments over specific institutional
arenas, such as horizontal controls, the opposition, autonomous press or civil
society. Those actions seek to undermine the field of mediated politics that provides
the formal and informal sites for the exercise of democratic representation.
6 Concluding Remarks: Populism as Movement, as Government and as Regime
The present ascendancy of populism is intimately related with the global expansion
of democratic ideals. In regions where democracy became the only game in town,
political conflicts no longer entail choices about alternative non-democratic
regimes, as it was the case with the previous historical crisis of liberal democracy
in the 1920s and 1930s. Today, political struggles have largely become definitional
struggles over the meaning of democracy. The latter helps understand the current
salience of populism in democratic societies: it expresses a democratic option to
channel the discontent with the dominant liberal format (format that became the
blueprint of the third democratizing wave). Populism proposes an alternative
reading of democracy, one that is less liberal and more ‘‘democratic’’, that is, the
source of its appeal and the appeal that openly authoritarian forces do not enjoy in
many democratic societies.
The article sought to call attention to populism as a particular strategy of regime
change, a phenomenon that–with the current arrival of populism to power in the
Americas and Europe–might have consequences on the democratic landscape of
both regions. Populism as a political strategy can serve different goals: it can serve
an expressive purpose for outsiders to denounce the status quo, frame the actions of
an electoral campaign of actors seeking to access power or refer to a particular way
of exercising governmental power.
Populist rhetoric can play an expressive role, whereas social movement or
political outsiders employ a Manichean language to expose the immorality of an
existing status quo. The Occupy Wall Street movement is an example of elements of
populist discourse (such as establishing an antagonistic frontier between the many
and the few and the open contestation of representative institutions) that a
movement that considers itself as the ultimate outsider resorts to criticize existing
political dynamics and arrangements
(Urbinati 2014: 130)
Populism can be also understood as a strategy to access power. In this second
acceptance, populist rhetoric does not limit itself to playing a testimonial role, but is
a strategy of electoral mobilization. Politicians might resort to the Manichean and
antagonistic discourse of populism for it might be considered an effective electoral
strategy, particularly if the electoral contest takes place against a crisis scenario. In
this latter understanding, populism is a strategy that actors who seek to change their
status from one of outsiders to that of insiders of the political system resort to
(Urbinati 2014: 130)
. The use of a populist strategy to reach government, however,
does not necessarily ensure that once in power the new incumbents will exercise
power in a populist way. Populist styles and rhetoric might be abandoned once the
goal of accessing power has been reached and consequently the behavior of the new
administration when in office might not significantly differ from established ways of
doing politics. This is partly the case of some of the so-called cases of European left
populism. Once in government, SYRIZA quickly shifted key political positions to
adopt a more mainstream political discourse toward the EU and parliamentary
democracy, most notably its acceptance to the terms of a third Memorandum
(Marvorzacharakis et al. 2017)
. A similar shift seems to be taking place among the
ranks of Spanish PODEMOS on whether they should continue resorting to a
populist strategy of rejection and polarization or shift to one of cooperation with the
Spanish Socialist Party
Populism in government, however, can lead to a third type of use of populist
strategies: a populist exercise of power where governmental resources are used to
launch a more fundamental process of regime change. Populism as a strategy of
regime change refers to a specific form of governmental exercise that seeks to alter
and eventually replace core dimensions of the institutional structure of liberal
democracy. Such processes have been taking place in countries like Venezuela and
Hungary, where key features of liberal democracy have been threatened by the
behaviors and measures adopted by presidents Maduro and Orban’s administrations.
While not inevitable, populism as government can trigger a particular pattern to
regime change characterized by the gradual hybridization of the inherited structure
of liberal democracy, whose final outcome is the establishment of a populist regime.
The current diffusion of populism in liberal democracies opens up the possibility
of a process of institutional change in terms of the hybridization of existing regimes:
a process that takes place within the confines of democracy and that cannot step
outside democratic principles without affecting the legitimacy of the populist
project. There are, however, significant problems with the ‘‘democratizing’’ path
proposed by populism. Populism as a democratic theory exhibits serious conceptual
and normative shortcomings due to its incapacity to provide a clear institutional
blueprint for its project of radical democracy. Populism exhibits political
shortcomings as well, for its critique of the shortcomings of liberal democracy
usually serves as justification for a pattern of concentrated and personalized
governmental power that is far from addressing the alleged accountability deficits of
democracy, but it notoriously worsens them.
Populism will remain a significant contestant to liberal democracy as long as the
perceived flaws of existing liberal regimes are not addressed. The present standoff
between populist and liberal models of democracy poses a sterile either or choice
between two contrasting interpretations of the democratic ideal. Perhaps, the best
way to avoid the present political and conceptual standoff would be to reorient the
debate away from both alternatives, that is, to conceive processes of democratic
innovation that could properly address the problems that gave support to populist
critiques without eliminating those institutional components of liberal democracy
that serve to guarantee political and civic freedoms. The latter might require
expanding the field of indirect politics by adding new mediating mechanisms that
would result in the establishment of more responsive post-liberal democratic
Enrique Peruzzotti Ph.D in Sociology, New School for Social Research. The autor has published
extensively on democratization, populism, and civil society politics in Latin America, including the
coedited volumes Critical Theory and Demcoracy. Civil Society, Dictatorship, and Constitutionalism in
Andrew Arato´s Democratic Theory; Participatory Innovation and Representative Democracy in Latin
America; and Enforcing the Rule of Law. Social Accountability in Latin America.
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