Where do we go now? – Five years of #populism (2015-2020)

They were so powerful they wrote the laws to benefit themselves. They got away with everything because they banked on us, all of us, to trust the system, that was our vulnerability and they took advantage of it. (…)
Everything we’ve been through led up to this one moment: the greatest redistribution of wealth in history. We just Robin Hooded those evil motherfuckers! *

In February 2015 appeared the first post for Political Observer on Populism. It was titled Sheep in New Zealand, Pinocchio and Robin Hood. It discussed topics such as Brexit, the role (and style) of Yanis Varoufakis in the unfolding economic crisis, the possibility of an “Italeave” promised by Five Star Movement and Lega, the political use of conspiracy theories, and so on. The benefit of using Twitter to spread the content of the blog seemed self-evident, although over time the air has become increasingly toxic, like in every other commercial social media. As long as it will be worth it, the Twitter account will remain active: probably, however, it won’t be for much longer. What matters is the content published here, the exchange of ideas it feeds, the connections it creates, the people saying “keep the good work up”. This blog already constitutes a powerful tool to better understand populism®, it gives voice to the most brilliant scholars on the topic, and if you want to contribute pass by –> here.

Half a decade later POP is still around and Brexit too, modern Godot which will surely come but not today, maybe tomorrow. Lega and Five Star Movement have formed a government together — which already ended in farce — and contrary to their promises they never mentioned leaving the Euro. The book Varoufakis wrote in 2015 (Adults in the Room) has now become a movie. Populism has been normalized and mainstreamed even in Germany and Scandinavia. Podemos governs Spain together with PSOE, crystallizing and institutionalizing the instances of the Indignados, bringing the previous cycle of struggles right into power, waiting for the new one to reject its compromises. In 2015 Obama was going towards the end of its second mandate, now Donald Trump (under impeachment) and Boris Johnson lead a plethora of populist and nativist politicians with a terrible haircut, which however does not qualify them as a working class phenomenon.

In the meantime, the unfolding of history in front of our eyeballs taught us that no country is immune to populism and nativism, Poland and Hungary can hardly be considered liberal democracies with Fidesz and PiS in power, and Green parties seem to finally be able to compete with right-wing populism for the votes of disillusioned voters who no longer feel represented by mainstream parties. After the Great Recession and the refugee ‘crisis’, climate change and global warming seem to be the third critical juncture of the 21st century. In the next decade they will probably fill the news in a cyclic repetition worthy of Sisyphus. The economy goes down, a wave of refugees, global warming cannot be ignored anymore, the economy goes down, a wave of refugees, etc etc…

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Available here.

2019 saw protests raging around the world: Chile, Hong Kong, Algeria, Catalonia, Brazil, Venezuela, Iran, to mention just a few cases. The Gilets Jaunes and the scandal about Cambridge Analytica ideally connected street protests against old-fashioned capitalism and a global movement against “surveillance capitalism”. Direct democracy proved to be easily manipulated, a new nationalist wave is crossing the continents, and authoritarian tendencies confirm more than ever that democracy is not the only game in town. Spain spent months discussing about Francisco Franco’s remains, Portugal discussed the possibility of a museum (or study center) about the dictatorship in Salazar’s home town, and in Italy the crypt with Mussolini’s tomb has been re-opened to the public. The past is coming back and it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore it. It’s the fascist Zeitgeist, baby.

Two parties that are exceptionally good at exploiting the lack of historical perspective are the League and the Five Star Movement. In a country like Italy, that created fascism and then found more convenient to hide behind the Resistance, selective amnesia opened the doors of power to (post)fascists already in the 1990s. I was asked to write an article about their ideological roots, and in a few days this piece took form. It is not the first time I talk about these two parties, but I never did it at such length, and I believe that the type of populist discourse they articulate, post-ideological in one case and nativist in the other, offers an interesting insight into the kind of populism that will characterize the 2020s.

Enjoy the reading…

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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.)

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Interview #14 – The Strange Case of Dr. Populist and Mr. Corruption

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Lisa Zanotti

Lisa Zanotti is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at University Diego Portales in Chile and a Ph.D. researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands. She is currently working on her doctoral thesis, a project that aims at studying the factors influencing the emergence of the populist/anti-populist cleavage in Italy in comparative perspective.

In this interview POP discussed with her about the role of corruption in triggering populism both in Latin America and Europe, both theoretically and empirically, with a focus on Italy, France, the Netherlands, Chile and Brasil.


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Interview #12 – Historia Magistra Vitae and the Absence of Populism in Chile

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Prof. Rovira Kaltwasser

POP came back to Latin America for an interview with Prof. Rovira Kaltwasser, associate professor of political science at Universidad Diego Portales 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) as well as the co-editor, with Juan Pablo Luna, of The Resilience of the Latin American Right (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). His new book Populism: A Very Short Introduction, written together with Cas Mudde, will be published by Oxford University Press in February 2017.

The interview is very dense and full of insights about populism in Latin America and beyond, opportunity structures, political actors and parties, similarities with Europe, and peculiarities of the Chilean case. Enjoy the reading. Continue reading