What’s behind the populist surge?



Populism – once associated mainly with Latin America – is now part of the political mainstream in western and eastern Europe. What’s behind this surge? Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser and Kirk A. Hawkins ask in Open Democracy:

First, studies reveal that the vast majority of individuals have populist attitudes; however, these are dormant, that is, they are a latent set of attitudes that are only activated in certain contexts. In other words, most of us have a Hugo Chávez inside of us, but he is hidden and does not define our everyday political preferences.

Second, certain contexts make it possible for our populist attitudes to become activated. For example, corruption scandals or policy convergence among traditional political parties makes it likely that ordinary citizens use the dichotomous normative categories inherent to populism: “a corrupt elite” versus “the pure people.” The less we feel represented by the existing political options and the more delegitimized these become, the more likely it is that “the Hugo Chávez” within us awakens.

Third, leaders play a key role in politicizing these problems and offering a populist interpretation of the situation. Thus, for example, in the face of the economic crisis that is affecting countries in Southern Europe, parties such as Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, and the 5 Star Movement in Italy talk about the existence of a caste that has enriched itself at the expense of a people who has been defrauded and denigrated.

Finally, while it is true that leaders and populist parties emerge because of these three factors, it is important to stress that their electoral permanence and eventual ability to govern depend largely on their own strengths and weaknesses.


Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser is an Associate Professor at the School of Political Science of the Diego Portales University in Santiago de Chile. He is the co-editor, with Cas Mudde, of Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy? (Cambridge University Press, 2012), and together with Juan Pablo Luna he is completing an edited volume titled The Resilience of the Latin America Right that will be published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 2014.

Kirk A. Hawkins is an Associate Professor at the Department Political Science of Brigham Young University. He is the author ofVenezuela’s Chavismo and Populism in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2010), and is the Project Director of “Team Populism”, a cross-regional research project focused on the study of the causes of populism.

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