Populists challenging power, populists in power, and populist regimes

Populists attempting to get to power, populists in office, and populist regimes are not the same. When challenging power, populists politicise issues that other politicians ignore or do not address. They show the failures of democracies and protest against inequalities. However for populism to develop into a new ‘ism’, it has to get to power (Finchelstein 2017). Once in office, populists show their true colours and characteristics. Populists are not regular politicians elected for a set period of time. They have the mission of liberating their people. Elections are not just regular democratic contestations for power. They become gargantuan battles between the past of oppression and the liberation to come. Populists rule as if they have the urgency to transform all democratic disputes into existential battles between antagonistic camps. They confront and manufacture enemies. Traditional political elites, media elites, or the leaders of social movements and non-governmental organisations could become enemies of the leader, the people, and the nation.

When in power, populists follow a similar playbook. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblat (2018, 78—96) show how in nations as different as Venezuela, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and the US, populists followed similar strategies to consolidate their rule. (1) Capturing the referees such as the judicial system, law enforcement, intelligence agencies, tax authorities, regulatory agencies, and institutions in charge of horizontal accountability. (2) Silencing opponents by buying or bribing them. Using the law instrumentally to try to quiet critics by fining newspapers or suing journalists. Regulating the activities of organisations of civil society like non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In some cases weakening independent social movements by creating alternative organisations from the top. Silencing businesspeople using tax authorities and hushing important cultural figures. (3) Changing the rules of the game by reforming the constitution and changing electoral rules. (4) Fabricating or taking advantage of crises to concentrate power and crack down on the opposition.

Populists pretend to follow the rule of law; hence, it is imperative for them to control the legal system to use laws to punish critics and, in some cases, to stay indefinitely in power. When populists are able to change constitutions and to regulate the public sphere, control civil society, and change the educational system, they become regimes. Populist regimes combine a democratic commitment to elections as the only legitimate tool to elect and remove politicians with undemocratic views of political rivals as enemies and conceptions of the people as unitary actors and, in some cases, of the political theologies of the leader as the savior of the people.

Analysing populists as particular regimes better captures their autocratic and inclusionary practices than branding them competitive authoritarian. Characterising populist regimes as competitive authoritarian misses the inclusionary processes provoked by some populist regimes. From Perón to Chavez, populists distributed income and, to a lesser extent, wealth; reduced poverty; and valued the worth of common and non-white citizens, while simultaneously transforming a person into the redeemer of a unitary people. Populists acted in the name of democracy, and their projects were to improve not to destroy it. Moreover, because elections gave legitimacy to these regimes, they aimed to control and regulate but not to destroy the institutional framework of democracy, fundamental liberties, autonomous civil societies, and an independent public sphere.

Differentiating populisms

Not all populisms are the same. Right-wing populists like Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte, and Jair Bolsonaro are nostalgic and backward looking. They do not propose to radicalise democracy. On the contrary their projects aim to limit rights in order to strengthen law and order. Other right-wing populists aim to preserve European welfare states by excluding non-natives. Differently Hugo Chavez and other left-wing populists promised to include the excluded, to improve the quality of democratic participation, and even to create utopias. Chavez proposed socialism of the twentieth-first century as an alternative to neoliberalism and communism, and Rafael Correa and Evo Morales proposed alternative relations between humans, nature, and development.

Populists don’t only differ across the right and left axis. Light and full-blown populism should be differentiated. By light populism, I refer to political parties and politicians who occasionally use populist tropes and discourses but do not aim to rupture existing institutions. Under this criterion, Bernie Sanders, who did not break with the Democratic Party to create a third party in 2016 nor in 2020, is a light populist. Full-blown populists aim to rupture existing institutions by polarising society and the polity into two camps of enemies and constructing a leader as the symbol of all the demands for change and renewal. Light populists are almost indistinguishable from other politicians in contemporary democracies who appeal to trust in their personas and use the mass media to bypass traditional parties. Full-blown populists often use democratic institutional mechanisms and mass mobilisation to try to bring change. When seeking power, full-blown populists appeal to constituencies that the elites despise or ignore. They use discourses and performances to shock and disturb the limits of the permissible and to confront conventions.

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