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The Unpopularity of Populism

Liberal Suspicions

Francisca Rengifo
Escuela de Gobierno, Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez Santiago, Chile Á - N.3

Populism emerged as a mass phenomenon that challenged the political system. It has been grouped by some with those processes that broaden democracy; by others, stamped as an enemy of democracy, as a radicalized democratic phenomenon that weakens democracy by destabilizing its institutions.

Populism as a phenomenon has been a belittled and, as a result, judged before being understood. Disdain toward popular movements that bring together crowds led by charismatic leaders, challenging governing elites and traditional political parties, began to manifest more than a century ago, as fear of unknown power of the masses. The behavior of the collective represented not only the phantasmic image of revolutions, but popular outburst and social disorder, a new threat in the context of universal suffrage which, around the turn of the twentieth century, formally marked the entry of the multitudes into politics. For nation-states, this political milestone assured a process of deepening democracy to the extent that the people effectively constituted the social basis of power. But it also imposed a responsibility on the part of systems toward the crowd that took on a new form in the many workers’ protests for better working conditions and welfare. The two world wars framed a period of democratic expansion in terms of the growing incorporation of an increasingly broad array of social sectors into the State; and, at the same time, these were decades of political frustration and voter disappointment in a context of political, social, and economic crisis.

In the era of mass society, the relationship between the democratic principle of sovereignty and the people has been problematic. The period has also seen the rise dictatorships. Populism emerged as a mass phenomenon that challenged the political system, linked with the processes of state reform. It was a phenomenon of social welfare, growing centralization of power, and industrialization as a form of economic nationalism, that called for the expansion and strengthening of government powers.

By some, the populist phenomenon has been grouped with those processes that broaden democracy; by others it has been branded an enemy of democracy, as a product of radicalized democracy that weakens democracy by destabilizing its institutions. These approximations are not contradictory, but rather correspond to different dimensions that tend to be confused in public debate. The first approach, and most ignored, demonstrates that it would be a mistake to see in populism a coherent and continuous phenomenon, associated with a grand narrative to trick the masses. Rather, historically, the usual models of populism have been political mass movements that have preceded democratizing events. That is, these populisms, understood as popular aspirations to greater political inclusion and social reform, have expanded both the political and, later, the social limits of democracy, driving significant state transformations in the opposite direction of nineteenth century liberalism. The second approach, of a presentist nature, reduces the phenomenon to the relations between a group and its leader, who takes on the voice of the people, compensating for some original political deficiencies like poverty, ignorance, and marginality with the promise of radical reform.

Through the construction of powerless-people-as-historical-agent,[1] populism has become a collective phenomenon of identification by opposition to an exclusive system. In this political dynamic, the populist takes group belonging to extremes,, offering a dialectical narrative that is easily internalized by the group he desires to conquer, emphasizing an “us” which is the virtuous people.[2] This symptomatic populism lacks specific content and is defined by its extra-institutional character, emerging in critical circumstances to privilege effective and immediate policies. This so-called populist syndrome mainly affects Latin American countries.

The phenomenon of populism and its original conceptualization sharply express the nature of said problem. The nineteenth century liberal notion of popular sovereignty could not comprehend the masses, because these were collective, de-individualizable entities. In this conceptual framework, the processes of democratic expansion revealed the distance between the abstract notion of the people as political community, and its social reality. Cracks were revealed in the numerical formula “one individual = one vote”, because the mass was not the sum of the individuals who composed it. It was indeed a social aggregate, but of a different type, not reducible to number.[3] One of qualitative and not quantitative value. The social expansion of the vote also meant the development of a multitude that appeared as an ungovernable mass that could only be repressed, whether by persuasion or force.This new popular protagonism also provoked a shift in the meaning of governing within the political system.[4]

“The nineteenth century liberal notion of popular sovereignty could not comprehend the masses, because these were collective, de-individualizable entities. In this conceptual framework, the processes of democratic expansion revealed the distance between the abstract notion of the people as political community, and its social reality. Cracks were revealed in the numerical formula ‘one individual = one vote’, because the mass was not the sum of the individuals who composed it”.


The idea of the people as political community, like that space where power is constituted, is the underlying idea of the concept of populism and, at the same time, the source of its lack of prestige. To understand populism as a mass phenomenon that invokes the people to break up the established political order is to pit them against it, reducing the interpretation of populism to a democratic deviation. In the liberal framework, the mass appeared to be of a different nature than a group of individuals. It was not only distinguishable from the people, but opposed even to the idea of the public as a meeting of individuals who share some common goals and discuss strategies to attain them, organizing themselves to a greater or lesser degree in order to obtain their ends. The mass was also distinct from the public as synonymous with public opinion, that is, the deliberative public.

On the contrary, the mass was delirious. The enlightened root of modern politics interpreted the collective behavior of the multitude as impulsive, devoid of rationality, opposed to the autonomous individual capable of making free decisions. Unlike the people, the masses did not seek the truth that emerged from reasoned argument, but only paid attention to what they wanted to hear. The mass inflamed the people, distorting them into a disaffected monster. Some influential thinkers at the end of the nineteenth century described it as a more or less gathered collective, although sui generis, that on occasion was “a nameless beast” (Tarde, 1901),[5] “a savage animal” (Taine, 1899; Sighele, 1892),[6] that acted with an uncontrollable force, even coming to destroy itself.

“The enlightened root of modern politics interpreted the collective behavior of the multitude as impulsive, devoid of rationality, opposed to the autonomous individual capable of making free decisions. Unlike the people, the masses did not seek the truth that emerged from reasoned argument, but only paid attention to what they wanted to hear. The mass inflamed the people, distorting them into a disaffected monster”.

The Process of Involution

These irrationalist positions were accompanied by pioneering studies in social psychology that observed these mass movements in order to inquire into the collective mind. Their interpretations debated between a social mentality of individuals and a supra-mentality that might envelop an entire group of people. How to explain the behavior of a crowd that severely distorted the democratic fiction of the sovereign people?Populism as a mass political mobilization was a phenomenon of collective alienation, in which the intellectual functions of the people were inhibited by affective intensification. In the masses there was a decrease of consciousness, a lack of rationality that grew out of a lack of control, at the same time making them malleable to the will of a leader.

The radical contempt of French sociologist Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931) for the masses, demonstrates the negative political connotation that populism came to have. The individual dissolved into the mass, suspending his judgement, becoming an anonymous being guided by unconscious impulses that the mass had awakened within him. In mass contexts, collective behavior was of a primitive order and individuals were dominated by a type of collective unconscious that seized people as a “contagion”, causing wild, violent, but also heroic behavior. In sum “man descends several rungs down the ladder of civilization. The isolated individual was perhaps cultured, in the mass he is instinctual and, as a result, a barbarian”.[7] This evolutionary decline explained that the masses were impulsive, irritable, irrational, comparable —and the example was very frequent— with the female nature. And also with certain races, because “the most feminine of all are the Latin masses”.[8]

From this perspective, the popular will, rationally manifested in the vote, is opposed to the mood of a crowd. Traditional electoral methods of gaining adherents in political competition had to undergo changes: of style, certainly, but especially of content.

His book, The Psychology of Crowds was a success with wide circulation during the period in which the masses appeared as a queen that had to be coaxed to favor political changes, persuaded, seduced with the language and gestures of passion, not reason. In this conquest, populism became a political technique for the management of the masses. He who knew how to excite them would easily become their master; he who disappointed them, their victim. The force of populist discourse came from an individual will that was able to gather around their person a crowd devoid of its own will and in need of guidance. To reach the people, Hitler understood that he would have to develop the art of propaganda that captured the emotional ideas of the masses, to find “through the psychologically correct form, the way to the attention, and from there to the hearts, of the masses”.[9]

The People Among the Masses

These ideas about crowds undermined the the political meaning of revolutions, protests and reform movements, and fed later disparaging interpretations of the phenomenon. Today, the word populism is versatile, and the familiarity of the term to describe contemporary politics is due to this plasticity. It’s a commonplace to allude to a variety of popular movements, of a nationalist character and linked to authoritarianism, of right-wing or left-wing tendencies, which in different national contexts confront the political system, seeking to break it and thus advance a new formative order. The word populism has been used to describe certain political strategies aimed at getting a voter base, and even to characterize a type of state. It has also been used as a synonym for social movements, particularly in Latin America, which fall short of what democratic political competition should be. It has also been insisted that populist governments weaken the state, unbalancing public powers and personalizing power in whoever is the master of the masses.

The etymology of populism refers to it as a popular tendency, detaching the term from specific content.It would be the doctrine of the people, that is to say, that predisposition which is grasped in a certain genuine, authentic, almost intuitive way, by whom it considers to represent the will of the people, and who thus becomes its natural leader. The former president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, gave this brief and almost poetic definition: “I demand absolute loyalty to my leadership, because I am not me, I am not an individual, I am a people, and the people get respect”.[10] And, as a trend, there have been culturalist studies that investigate the populism-prone character of certain peoples, which has revived from time to time.

According to one view, Latin American populism put the brakes on the development of democratic practices, and representative institutions. This tendency, predominant in the region, had even obstructed the processes of economic and social modernization throughout the twentieth century. They reproduced historical social relations that were hierarchical, conservative, agrarian, and paternalist, and prone to strongman government. The people exalted by populism follows a charismatic leader, like a caudillo, supported by circumstantial parties or political alliances, united by a boss-subordinate relationship within a client network. Fair or not, this populist characterization of Latin American political trajectories has its roots in certain hegemonic interpretations that see this phenomenon in contrast with the formal political mechanisms displayed by European or North American countries. This deviation that the Latin American democracies suffered would explain why the development of a modern political arena has been so difficult there.[11]

From this Eurocentric perspective, populisms are seen as destabilizing the political system, movements that perpetuate social and economic crisis, and untiring instigators of political breakdown on new fronts.

A historical approach to the phenomenon allows us a street-level view of populism, in order to understand it not as a diagnosis, but as a collective movement of nationalist and classist origins that, in the 1930s and 40s, brought together the urban masses around a leader who offered them more or less immediate solutions to economic recession, poverty, rurality, dependence, social inequality and political frustration. The demands to reform the system were accompanied by rather eclectic public policy proposals: the nationalization of economic resources, more public education and the socialization of land. As such, it meant a response to the simultaneous problems of economic modernization and social mobilization, making it possible to confront and channel the marginality experienced by the greater part of the population.

This more comprehensive perspective of the phenomenon has illuminated the way charismatic political leaders were linked to their popular social base, in order to explain the processes of democratization as concrete mechanisms through which the lower classes have been incorporated into political participation.[12] While this approach has underlined economic underdevelopment and social inequality as the causes of populism, it also reveals that it could be an encompassing social force, more flexible than traditional political parties, and which in Latin America could be one of the most dynamic movements in multiparty coalitions, socially plural and seeking industrial development as well as social reform.[13]

Once again, Chile appears to be the exception among Latin American populisms. Our democratic trajectory did not experience this political evil, because the country demonstrated enough institutional force to allow the election of a Popular Front candidate for president, Pedro Aguirre Cerda. Within the political alliance made up of radicals, socialists, communists, and democrats that made up the Popular Front between 1938 and 1952, and that was led until 1948 by the Radical Party, populism showed a capacity for integrative institutionalization, incorporation the Communist Party and organized labor. It meant, therefore, a popular social base for the governments of the period, allowing adjustments to the political system rather than its destruction; the opening of this inclusive channel was due, in large part, to the political and intellectual force of the Socialist Party. What Chile experienced was a socialism with populist overtones, while elsewhere in Latin America there was populism with socialist traces.[14]

In a context of growing militancy and nationalism on the part of workers under the populist coalition of the center-left, General and later President Carlos Ibañez (1937-1952) was the populist caudillo whose nationalist discourse appealed to the Chilean people as the representation of the country.[15] The personalist character of his first administration contrasted the presidential figure with a worn-out National Congress. Populist promises has an institutional space, although they were not fulfilled, incorporating the majority of politicized workers in a context of economic recession and endemic inflation in which the Chilean economy had lost its ability to absorb the labor market. The social foundations of these governments were the workers, led by the miners, whose activism built a populist national narrative that celebrated the Chilean roto as the epitome of national identity, extolling the mestizo virility of the Chilean race.[16]

The populist discourse of the people and homeland was contested by another, of a pro-development bent, that saw populism as an obstacle to social and economic modernization, as a limited socialist repertoire that had to be confronted because it had demonstrated the limits of a certain type of industrialization and bureaucratic paternalism. Mass mobilization, even if politically necessary. also risked exacerbating socialist demands for a share in political power, and threatened to exceed the government’s ability to control the masses and fulfill promises.

Along the way, the interpretation of the phenomenon picked up its moral dimension of social redemption. Regardless what its value content would be, generically described as the values and virtues of common and ordinary people, this recent populist concept of populism establishes a totalizing relationship between politics and morals. Populism would oppose ideologies and, in this way, popular wisdom would transcend political ideas; although political historiography has confirmed that these movements possess an eclectic ideological nucleus that combines liberalism, anarchism, socialism and even corporatism. Populism also distorts politics, because its need to maximize group membership through offers of immediate reforms obstructs the formulation of policies based on technical knowledge, on solid and long-term data.

Nevertheless, certain strategies branded as populist have forces for the incorporation of the masses into the decision-making process, and bring them economic benefits and social welfare. The consequence of this moralization of politics has been not only the political unimportance attributed to populist leaders, but its ideological use has impeded understanding of the political dimension of problem. An understanding of the specific content of diverse populisms has been lacking, leading to an inability to qualify the persistent critique of populism as an obstacle to the development of the democratic processes it has been a part of.

[1] Laclau, E. (2005). La razón populista. Buenos Aires, Fondo de Cultura Económica.

[2] Tajfel, H. (1982). Social Identity and Intergroup Relations, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

[3] Rosanvallon, P. (2004). El pueblo inalcanzable, México D.F, Instituto Mora.


[4] Rosanvallon, P. (2015). El buen gobierno, Buenos Aires, Manantial.


[5] Tarde, G. (1986) [1901]. La opinión y la multitud. Madrid, Taurus.


[6] Sighele, S. (1982). La muchedumbre delincuente. Ensayo de psicología colectiva, Madrid, La España Moderna; y Taine, H. (1899). Les Origines de la France Contemporaine: La Révolution, la Conquête Jacobine, Paris, Hachette.


[7] Le Bon, G. (1983) [1895]. La psicología de las masas. Madrid, Morata. Pages 32-33.


[8] Ibid. Page 37.


[9] Hitler, A. (1941) [1925]. Mi lucha. Translation by Agustín Aragón Leiva, Mexico, Publicaciones Herrerías. Page 164.


[10] Speech on January 23, 2010.


[11] Cortés, A. and Pelfini, A. (2017). “El populismo en Chile: ¿tan lejos o tan cerca?”. Izquierdas 32. Pages 58-78.


[12] Yelin, E. (2014). “Desigualdades de clase, género y etnicidad/raza: realidades históricas, aproximaciones analíticas”. Revista Ensambles Year 1, No. 1. Pages 11-36.


[13] Drake, P. (1992). Socialismo y populismo. Chile 1936-1973. Valparaíso, Serie “Monografías Históricas” 6-1992, Universidad Católica de Valparaíso.


[14] Ibid.


[15] Fernández, J. (2007). El ibañismo (1937-1952): Un caso de populismo en la política chilena. Santiago, Instituto de Historia, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.


[16] Kublock, T.M. (1998). Contested Communities: Class, Gender, and Politics in Chile’s El Teniente Copper Mine, 1904-1951, Durham and London, Duke University Press.