Nicolas Maduro’s narrow victory in Venezuela’s presidential election last week raises an important question (quite apart from the opposition’s question as to whether Maduro really won): Can populism thrive without a genuinely popular, charismatic leader, or are movements like Chavismo doomed to fade into insignificance once they have lost their quasi-deities?
For many observers, populism is unthinkable without a strong, direct bond between an anti-establishment leader and citizens who feel neglected by mainstream political parties.
Yet the role of leadership in populism is vastly overestimated. Indeed, given populism’s importance as a political phenomenon, that view, along with two others — that populism is somehow a call for direct democracy, and that populists can only protest, but never govern — needs to be challenged.
Populism, unlike, say, liberalism or Marxism, is not a coherent body of distinct political ideas.
However, it also cannot be defined simply as any political movement that panders to the masses by promoting simplistic policy proposals.
While populists might be particularly prone to advocating facile solutions, they hardly have a monopoly on that tactic. Moreover, impugning populists’ intelligence and seriousness only plays into their hands: See how the arrogant, entrenched elites, they will counter, dismiss the common sense of the people.
Populism cannot be understood at the level of policies; rather, it is a particular way of imagining politics. It pits the innocent, always hard-working people against both a corrupt elite (who do not really work, other than to further their own interests) and those on the very bottom of society (who also do not work and live off others).
In the populist imagination, both the very top and the very bottom of society are not really a part of it: They are directly or indirectly supported by outside powers (think of pro-European liberal elites in Central and Eastern Europe); more obviously, they are immigrants or minorities, like the Roma.
Typically, in the populist political imagination, elites disproportionately care for those who, like themselves, do not really belong.
Europe’s elites are regularly accused of lavishing benefits on ethnic minorities in the name of protecting their rights. The US’ Tea Party populists often imagine an unholy alliance of left-liberal, bi-coastal elites and the African-American underclass (an alliance that in their eyes is embodied in US President Barack Obama).
A leader who can represent this purely moral — as opposed to political — image helps to provide a focus for voters. However, it is not crucial. It mattered that late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez reassured the masses that “I am a little of all of you.”
Yet it could be someone else, or a group; or it could be no one in particular (who really leads the Tea Party?)
Voters who support populist movements do so because they believe that current elites fail truly to represent them. They are not against representative democracy as such: they just want different representatives — people whom they consider morally pure.
Thus, calls for more popular participation are not essential to populism; rather, they are a symptom of perceived exclusion (which might well be a reality, especially in Latin America).
However, cries for political inclusion are different from demands for direct democracy. Where direct democracy is very much a part of normal politics — in Switzerland, for example — populist parties have been doing better, not worse, than elsewhere.