The high popularity ratings of the President of the Republic are noteworthy, despite the impact of the pandemic – incidentally still incipient -, the economic debacle and the uncontrolled problem of public insecurity.
This leads us to reflect on the arguments of the populist leaders and why they permeate with such force in the minds of the « good people », manipulating reality.
The noun « populism » is not included in the RAE dictionary. Define the adjective « populist » as « belonging or relating to the people », an idea that in current Castilian would rather correspond to the adjective « popular ».
Populism is not easy to define. Very often it is used in a pejorative sense, attributing it to phenomena that, at least, lack serious content. Years ago, a political scientist proposed abandoning the term, as indefinable. The obstinacy with which it continues to be used indicates, however, that the disparate phenomena to which we apply that name must have something in common so that it is worth trying to agree on its meaning.
The movements or political figures who are called « populists » base their discourse on the people / anti-people dichotomy. The first represents countless virtues; the people are disinterested, honest, innocent and endowed with an infallible political instinct; it would be much better if we let him act, or at least listen to him. Its antithesis, on the other hand, the anti-people, is the cause of all ills; and it can take shape, according to populisms, in internal or external entities: the conservatives, the neoliberals, the corrupt, the officials of previous regimes …; in the dominant discourse today, in Mexico, it would be those who in theory oppose the interests of the « good people » should not be understood, of course, the proletariat or the working classes. Sociological descriptions and class analyzes are useless here. « Pueblo » is a mere rhetorical reference, a ghostly invocation. What matters, the key to everything, is that the People, the Will of the People, is the supreme principle of legitimacy. Invoking the popular will, such as divine dictates for believers, allows us to skip the requirement of respect for the law.
Another common feature of populism is the absence of concrete programs. The ideas of populist leaders are too ambitious to try to capture them in a program. Populist regimes do not declare themselves right or left. Their projects are inspired by the greatest wishes: « save the country », establish a « real democracy », but not how they intend to do it, they do not make their plans known in the institutional, economic or international fields.
In the populist discourse, emotional appeals dominate over rational approaches. They appeal to action, youth, morality, boldness, honesty. The verbiage that dominates populist politics. The purpose of these invocations is not to make their listeners think, but to mobilize them, so that until now indifferent or marginalized groups enter the political arena. A mobilization that is usually extra-institutional, through channels other than those provided by the « system ».
« Nobody can call populists anti-democrats, » says historian José Álvarez Junco in his latest book Las historias de España. « On the contrary, the government of the people is exactly what they want. But democracy is a concept that admits at least two meanings: as an institutional set, game rules that guarantee the participation of the different forces and political options in terms of equality; and as ´government for the people´, a political system whose objective is to establish social equality, favor the weakest. From this second perspective, many dictatorships can declare themselves « democratic »; Castro’s Cuba, for example, a regime that did not call for free and plural elections but that boasted great educational or medical achievements for the popular classes. The formation of clientelistic networks is also typical of any populism, since the main function of the leader must be to protect the weak, ”says Álvarez Junco.
Another characteristic of populist regimes, perhaps the one that most influences the manipulation of consciences and the blind following of their decisions, is the existence of a leader endowed with redeeming qualities. The « movement » is led by a chief, a leader, an iron surgeon, who presumes honesty, strength, disinterest and, above all, identification with the people, with whom he has a special connection, a kind of direct line, without need for polls or polls. “It is striking that among its virtues there is not knowledge, technical capacity. Populist anti-elitism carries a significant dose of anti-intellectualism and anti-technicalism. More than a modernizing feature, this key element seems to be a remnant of religious messianism or monarchical paternalism of the Old Regime. Invoking the will of the people to bypass respect for the law is one of their habitual resources. They thus mobilize the apathetic, but their eagerness to eliminate the democratic constraints opens a dangerous path to tyranny, « says the historian.
“A common characteristic, which does not correspond to the ‘movement’ itself but to the environment in which it flourishes, is that all populisms thrive in a very deteriorated institutional context, in which traditional parties and the legal channels of political participation, for Corruption or lack of representativeness, they are discredited to scandalous levels, « says Álvarez Junco. Sound familiar?
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