Latin American Populism: Exception to the Global Trend


The populist advance might seem ubiquitous. But it is not, argues Pierpaolo Barbieri, the executive director of Greenmantle, a political and macroeconomic research firm, and the author of Hitler’s Shadow Empire: Nazi Economics and the Spanish Civil War (Harvard University Press). Over the last 15 years, populism has been most closely associated with Latin governments from Buenos Aires to Caracas. Yet as the phenomenon ascends in developed societies, it is dying out in South America. And its demise has more to do with legitimacy than with economic fortune, he writes for Foreign Affairs:

Breaks in a system usually originate in crises; the emergence of Latin populism—the so-called pink tide—is no exception. It began with a legitimacy crisis that called into question traditional republican institutions and, in particular, their elites…..

Populism may be everywhere, but its definition is elusive. Syriza and Podemos could not be ideologically further from Trump and Le Pen. But populism eludes the Manichean left-right dichotomy. It is not an ideological phenomenon but a social one that involves the rejection of elites and their sacrosanct policy axioms. Born from legitimacy crises, it cuts across the traditional party lines of decaying two-party systems.

“Ultimately, populism is neither unavoidable nor unstoppable,” Barbieri contends:

Battling it requires coherence as well as introspection from the elites who are supposed to guard republics rather than entrench their status. The failure to live up to the challenge brought Latin America over a decade of leaders who were all too eager to put themselves (and their crony friends) ahead of institutions; as the world’s most developed nations face the challenge, they would do well to remember it.


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