Interview #28 – Responsiveness and Populism in Latin America

In this interview Simon Bornschier explains us why in Latin America people opt for populist outsiders in some countries but for moderate candidates in others. Opposing neoliberalism seems to give credibility to left-wing populist parties, while diluting their brand by supporting neoliberal measures seems to be (on the long term) a very bad strategic move.

Comparing Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay, and Venezuela, it emerges that left-wing populism is not necessarily dangerous for horizontal accountability and liberal democracy. In fact, populism can sometimes give voice to voters and represent demands that were neglected. Moreover, while in certain cases voters choose a populist party because of its populism, sometimes they do it because of the party’s concrete policies.

This, and much more, in a dense and articulated interview with one of the major experts of populism in Latin America and Western Europe. Even more relevant after that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was attacked by drones carrying explosives while he was giving a speech in Caracas. (To know more about the Venezuelan case, Maduro, Chavismo and populism, listen to prof. Kirk Hawkins.)


POP) Let’s start from the basics and have some context. How would you define the so-called Latin America’s left turn? Why is it crucial to understand the reasons behind the success or failure of left-wing populism?

SB) In the period of the so-called Washington Consensus in 1980s and early 1990s, governments’ economic policy options were restricted because of high levels of inflation and the debt crisis in which international monetary institutions put leverage on governments to pursue In the 1990s, the economy recovered and voters demanded a more equitable distribution of the fruits of the economic upturn.

But why did they turn to moderate left-wing parties that promised incremental reforms in some countries and populist parties that called for a radical break with the past in others? This is an interesting puzzle. It is important because it tells us something about voters’ ability to influence economic policy, and because the radical option sometimes poses a threat to liberal democracy. For a long time, there were no convincing answers around.

POP) Coming back to what you just mentioned: Why do people opt for populist outsiders in some countries (e.g. Venezuela, Bolivia) but for moderate candidates in others (e.g. Brazil, Chile)? Is representation failure a necessary condition for populist success? Is it correct to say that populist actors can capitalize on anti-elite sentiments only when the established parties have lost touch with voter preferences?

SB) The crucial question was whether voters found credible left-wing parties to implement the policy shift they wanted. In some countries, the left itself had helped implement the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s and 1990s. By converging with the right in their economic policy positions, these mainstream left parties severely damaged representation. The crucial condition for voters to exert an influence on economic policymaking is that parties present contrasting policy options. If they don’t, the programmatic linkage between parties and voters breaks down. When this occurs for extended periods, citizens lose confidence in elites, and become amenable to anti-elite mobilization by populist actors.

In countries in which voters found long-established left-wing parties that had opposed neoliberalism, on the other hand, a credible non-populist option to implement “left turn” in policymaking was there. Under such conditions, voters are unlikely to support a populist outsider. Voting for an outsider is risky, it brings uncertainty – and voters are generally risk averse.

POP) During the neoliberal era, in some countries the left pursued market reforms whereas in others it opposed neoliberalism. Is it a good idea for moderate left parties to “dilute their brand” and endorse neoliberal measures?

For a Left Populism cover artwork final.indd

It recently came out Chantal Mouffe’s new book on left populism. Definitely worth reading.

SB) It is often very costly for parties to abandon their traditional ideologies and to “dilute their brands”. It takes a long time to establish a credible brand. Some of the moderate left-wing parties such as the Frente Amplio in Uruguay or the Workers’ Party in Brazil invested two or more decades to consolidate their organizations and their ideology, and to communicate their ideology to voters. The left in Chile is even older. On the other hand, the literature on brand dilution neglects the stickiness of ideology. The Peronists in Argentina pursued neoliberal policies in the 1990s under Menem, but the party was so strongly anchored in the working-class movement that the Kirchners were able to shift the party back to the left and establish new links to lower-class constituencies, including the informal sector, which traditional left parties have difficulties to mobilize. Other parties that did not have such strong brands such as the mainstream left in Venezuela or Bolivia simply vanished when they pursued neoliberal reforms. In these cases, the policy shift was extremely costly.

POP) You told us under which circumstances the populist left can be more successful than the moderate left. But what happens to the party system responsiveness after the rise of the populist left? Is left populism always a corrective for democracy?

SB) This is an interesting question. The literature tells that populists constitute a danger for horizontal accountability and liberal democracy more generally. But they may bring in voters and represent demands that were hitherto neglected. In my research on Venezuela, I found that this was not the case. People voting for Chávez or the parties of the Chavista movement had extremely diverse ideas about economic policy-making. They were united only in their rejection of the established political class. Many of them benefited from the poverty relief programs the government set up, but the movement does not allow voters to influence policy making and many are not aware at all of the economic policy choices made. Voters were unable to hold the government accountable programmatically also because they did not have clear ideas about the policies they wanted to see.


Actually, I had expected the situation to be similar in Bolivia. But when I analysed to which extent parties were responsive to voter preferences after the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) and its populist president Evo Morales reached power, I found that the situation was very different here. MAS voters had very clear ideas about the economic policies they wanted. They are programmatically strongly aligned with the party, and my quantitative measurement of the responsiveness of the party system to voter preferences revealed that the Bolivian party system outperformed those in Chile or Brazil in representing voters’ substantive preferences. So, I tried to understand where this difference between Venezuela and Bolivia came from, and discovered that the populist left’s internal organization differed in the two contexts. These differences had been one of the most productive strands of the literature on the “left turn”, but the insights of this literature had not been applied to the issue of representation.

POP) What is the difference between populist movements with substantive ideologies and “purely” populist ones? Do they perform differently in terms of party system responsiveness?

SB) You can only get a party system to be responsive to voters’ programmatic preferences if populist voters agree on more than populism (i.e. the rejection of the elite and the claim that it should be the people to decide in politics). To improve responsiveness in economic policymaking, voters need to have clear ideas about their position on the state-market cleavage, and they need to base their vote on those ideas. The same goes for other dimensions of conflict: If divides over democracy or the deepening of democracy are to be represented, parties need to have clear profiles with respect to this dimension, and rally voters that are aligned with them in their democratic regime preferences. For this reason, once the “rascals are thrown out” the capacity of “pure populists” – such as the Chavista movement in Venezuela – to achieve responsiveness is limited. Populist movements in which substantive ideologies are important – I call them “programmatic populists” – are different in this respect. In Bolivia, Morales’ discourse has become less populist over time. After all, his party has been running the government for years. But this does not hurt MAS because the party system is programmatically anchored. Here, populist rhetoric may have been important in the early mobilization of the movement, but it is clearly subordinate to substantive ideological claims.


Let’s break the silence pact. In reference to former soldiers involved in cases of human rights violations during Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. Santiago de Chile, spring 2016. Another consequence of the left-wing turn in Latin America.

POP) You say: “Populists are successful where non-populist challengers have failed to resolve responsiveness deficits.” This gap might be filled by other (maybe radical but) non-populist parties. Why this is never the case?

SB) I’m not sure whether this is never the case. Probably we are just much more attentive to populist as opposed to non-populist newcomers. In Venezuela, two left-wing parties, Movimiento al Socialismo and La Causa Radical, rose in the 1980s, before the Chavista movement broke into the scene. As scissions from the Communist party that had been outlawed earlier on, these two parties had very credible ideological commitments. They also opposed the degeneration of the established parties into clientelistic and corrupt electoral vehicles. But then they entered into governing coalitions with these same established parties. They did so in the context of a severe economic crisis, and many would probably say they acted responsibly by doing so. But the costs were extremely high. This behaviour paved the way for the rise of Chávez, who ultimately made Venezuela slip into authoritarianism.

The same thing happened with two successive left-wing challengers in Bolivia that entered into coalitions with parties that didn’t really fit their ideological profiles. But Bolivians were luckier with the populist challenger they ultimately got. Morales is different from Chávez, but most of all, MAS is different from the Chavista movement. This is what I mean about the uncertainty outsiders bring into politics. In sum, I think the populist option is successful above all when voters have become sufficiently disillusioned with non-populist challengers that promised to break with the status quo but did not stay true to their promises.

POP) Do you think that we might witness a “right turn” in those countries where left populist movements failed to restore or improve party system responsiveness? Or is it rather the moderate left that will gain from this situation?

bornschier_2010SB) Perhaps the right can profit from the disillusionment with populist governments that at some point can’t deliver on their promises in economic terms. But the policies of the right are not particularly attractive to the populist left’s electorate, and there are less resources available today to mobilize voters by clientelistic means. In Venezuela, the populist left has responded to the threat of losing power by curtailing democratic rights. But even if competition were more open, it would not be that easy for moderate left parties to capitalize on the failures of the populist left. It takes a long time for moderate left parties to build credible commitments. The literature tells us that this occurs under rather extraordinary circumstances. Either the left needs to have deep historic roots to a period in which polarization was intense, as in Chile or Uruguay. Or it needs to build a strong reputation by opposing a military dictatorship and spend a long time in opposition, as the PT did in Brazil. Because these circumstances are so exceptional, if the populist left fails and the regime remains democratic, the result may well be protracted periods with high volatility. This has been the case in many Latin American countries throughout the 20th It will be interesting to see what happens in Ecuador in the next few years, with Rafael Correa out of power and no strong party to occupy the space that he left vacant.

POP) In conclusion: Do you see any similarity between the success of left-wing populism in Latin America and right-wing populism in Europe?

SB) I would argue that a lack of responsiveness on the part of the established parties is a precondition to populist success in both contexts. And the distinction between “pure” and programmatic populism travels as well. Right-wing populists in Europe are clearly of the programmatic Whether we like it or not from a liberal democratic point of view or in terms of the ideology that these parties represent, the radical populist right has improved the responsiveness of party systems in Western Europe. These parties’ followers have a very coherent ideology in terms of the universalism-traditionalist divide prevalent in Western Europe – they constitute the ideological counter-pole to the New Left that rose in the two decades after 1968. The populist element in the mobilization of the right-wing populist party family is actually quite negligible. The Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) in Italy, on the other hand, is different. This is one of the rare European examples of pure populism. In substantive policy terms, its voters agree on very little.

Another similarity between the two contexts is that the strategic behaviour of the established parties matters a lot in determining whether populist challengers can be successful. In Western Europe, some mainstream parties were able to absorb the right-wing populist potential for a long time – think of Germany. Once the Christian Democrats progressively lost their credibility in defending tradition and communitarian values, and only then, Alternative for Germany (AfD) broke into the party system. The bottom line is that even if the voter demands underlying the rise of populists are similar within Latin America and Western Europe, how and when these potentials manifest themselves is heavily dependent on how established political actors respond to new issues making their way onto the political agenda.

Bornschier_quadratischSimon Bornschier directs the Research Area Political Sociology at the Institute for Political Science at the University of Zurich. He has worked on party systems in Western Europe and the rise of right-wing populist parties. He published Cleavage Politics and the Populist Right (Temple University Press, 2010) and Globalization, Cleavages, and the Radical Right (Oxford Handbook of the Radical Right, 2018). Currently, much of his research focuses on party systems in Latin America, both in historical perspective, as well as with a focus on the competitive strategies of contemporary political parties.

His most recent publications include Historical Polarization and Representation in South American Party Systems, 1900–1990 and Populist success in Latin America and Western Europe: Ideational and Party-System-Centered Explanations (In The Ideational Approach to Populism: Concept, Theory, and Analysis, Abingdon: Routledge, 2018).

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