Americans upended the status quo. President-elect Donald Trump astounded seasoned observers throughout the campaign, securing the Republican nomination, then winning control of the world’s most powerful country. In spite of an aggressive discourse that alienated many, a weak campaign organization, and a platform with little policy depth, Trump prevailed. Promising to right historic wrongs, restore national pride, and overturn an elitist political system, his contrarian approach animated voters—though not a popular majority, it was at least enough to win the electoral college.
Long considered an ill of developing countries, in the past year populism has taken the developed world by storm with Britain’s surprising vote to leave the European Union, the growth of right-wing nationalist parties in Europe and now the election of Trump.
For Latin American scholars the trends are particularly worrisome. We have seen this movie before, and it rarely ends well.
In that regard, Latin America is a powerful and often sad demonstration of the anti-institutional pitfalls of populism.
What is populism?
Populism features a charismatic figure who frames politics as a struggle between common people and a corrupted, unresponsive elite. Whether from the left or right, populists are difficult to pin down ideologically and their policies are a flexible, unpredictable blend of personal whims and broad popular demands. By focusing on the individual candidate, there is less need for clear ideologies or party platforms. Usually political outsiders, populists promise to take power from an indifferent political class and dramatically change politics to empower the humble, hardworking majority. In doing so, populists appeal directly to voters and develop personal ties that bypass traditional sources of representation found in political parties and legislatures. In one of Latin America’s populist heydays that was the “plaza;” today it seems to be Twitter.
Since the 1930s, Latin America has experienced waves of populism, ranging from labor-sympathetic corporatists to neoliberal capitalists to radical leftists. Nevertheless, this disparate group is united by a similar governing style: using their mass appeal and popularity to lay waste to democratic norms and institutions.
History has shown four common ways that populists undermine checks and balances in democratic institutions. More than benchmarks, the list below should be seen as “canaries in the coal mine:” warnings of a dangerous deterioration of institutions and democracy that should give us pause.
1. Watch for popularly justified constitutional change
Populists emerge during times of economic instability and crises in political representation, promising a rupture with the past and quickly acting to sweep away the perceived ills of the present. Their electoral majorities are built on constituents ignored by traditional politicians. Getúlio Vargas (1930-1945; 1951-54) of Brazil and Juan Perón (1946-55; 1973-4) of Argentina wooed the unorganized working class and women. Peru’s Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) and Argentina’s Carlos Menem (1989-1999) appealed to small business owners and unorganized labor groups. Ecuadoran Rafael Correa (2007-) and Venezuelan Hugo Chávez (1999-2013) presidents focused on workers in the informal economy and those struggling in the aftermath of neoliberal reforms.
Populists enact measures championed by their voters, often offering sweeping changes of protection and inclusion. The promises and their initial radical sweep, make populists popular, as they catapult previously-excluded demands to the forefront of government. What comes with that are dramatic changes to the institutional and constitutional framework of their countries, leveraged with their popularity and often crushing horizontal accountability or checks and balances in their wake.
When he dissolved Congress and jailed opponents, Peruvian auto-golpista Fujimori constantly referenced citizen support for the measures. Similarly, former Venezuelan strongman Chávez used referenda to dissolve Congress, create a Constituent Assembly, approve a new constitution, and abolish term limits. Similarly, Ecuadoran populist Correa—like Chávez before him—called a popular referendum to rewrite the country’s constitution and when that became too binding called more popular referenda to give him the authority to overhaul Ecuador’s legislature, constitution, and judiciary. Particularly, his 2011 referendum changing the judicial branch used technical jargon that was so complicated, it is hard to believe most voters understood the questions or their implications.
While plebiscites and referenda crudely gauge citizen sentiment, they also neutralize or steamroll minorities and opposition in legislatures and the judiciary. Populist leaders typically seek new means to directly connect the leader with voters, such as citizens’ councils, fora, and other forms of direct democracy such as plebiscites and even informal meetings.
The end result is a political system that feels like a permanent campaign with the president taking center stage and one in which, with immediate popular support expressed through a channel of the president’s choosing, anything becomes permissible.
2. Beware shrinking legislative power
In presidential systems, passing bills is an arduous process. Laws are negotiated between the executive and legislative branches before a compromise is achieved. When the president faces an opposition-controlled Congress, legislation grinds to a standstill.
Checks and balances of normal democratic systems are impediments to dramatic change and require substantial revision. Before dismantling and redrawing new legislatures, neither Fujimori, Chávez, nor Correa controlled their respective congresses. They soon made sure they did, though, once they were in power.
Yet, even legislatures controlled by populist majorities can be an encumbrance to populists who seek unbridled power. Although Chávez enjoyed legislative majorities in his later years in government, he still sought—and was granted—emergency powers permitting him to rule by decree. In over 14 years in power, he used these powers for four and a half years, issuing 215 decrees in that period. In 140 years of history Argentina witnessed 35 presidential decrees. But in his two terms, Menem accumulated 398 presidential decrees, nearly one per week.
While curbing legislative initiative, populists gut their political parties of any non-electoral purpose because they can limit the leader’s autonomy or supply political competition. In 10 years, Fujimori created four different political parties. At the end of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega gradually ejected all political rivals from the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) to make it his personal possession. The revolutionary party’s headquarters were relocated to the Ortega’s mansion. Using three successive electoral defeats to consolidate power within the party, Ortega still struggled to win more than 40 percent of the vote during national elections. After negotiating a pact with a corrupt former President Arnoldo Alemán, the first round threshold for victory was lowered to 35 percent with a 5 percent margin of victory. With 38 percent support, Ortega finally returned to the presidency in 2007 and has not looked back. Earlier this month, Ortega picked his wife, Rosario Murrillo, as his running mate and sailed to his third straight victory with an ease that would impress even Frank and Claire Underwood.
3. Once judicial independence is compromised watch out
Sometimes control of the legislative branch is insufficient. An independent judiciary is an integral part of democracy because it represents a crucial check on presidential overreach.
As a result, it also falls into the crosshairs of any populist.
The traditional method that Latin American populists use is to stuff Supreme Courts with supporters by expanding their size or forcing opposing justices into early retirement—or sometimes both. To expedite his plan to unilaterally privatize public companies, Menem increased the Supreme Court from five to nine members and appointed the new members. His hand-picked majority conveniently dismissed high-level corruption allegations on multiple occasions.
In Nicaragua, Ortega packed both the Court and the Supreme Electoral Council with supporters. As a result, in its 2016 report, Freedom House concludes that “the Supreme Court is a largely politicized body controlled by Sandinista judges.” In the run-up to this November’s election, the Court intervened to strip opposition parties of their legal status. The Court then expelled Ortega’s chief rival from the largest opposition party and imposed a more “Ortega-sympathetic” leader on the hapless opposition party.
4. Government comes to revolve around the one big personality
Populists are a mixed bag when it comes to democracy. They empower long-neglected sectors of society, expanding voting rights and responding to popular grievances. Over time, governments can become sclerotic and distant. Institutional changes can foster greater participation and representation.
The problem is that populists are dangerous agents of change. They personalize their rule to the point where institutional change inextricably concentrates greater power in the hands of the leader, and all too often what comes next—from Vargas to Chávez—is that these leaders, who claim to indefinitely embody the popular, strip away term limits. Traditional institutions and organizations are sidelined in favor of direct linkages between leaders and followers. Absolute, indefinite vertical control becomes the means of doing business within the state and often within their parties. Populist leaders manipulate media to produce favorable portraits, while people are supposed to be passive consumers blessed by the prebendal gifts bestowed upon them by their esteemed leaders. Voter demands are expected to come with an on/off switch expressed only for certain elections, plebiscites, and demonstrations.
The overwhelming emphasis on the individual alters the political system. Populists can successfully rule for long periods, and when they leave power, the country is often a polarized mess. The military was forced to intervene in Brazil and Argentina to remove Vargas and Perón from power. Outside Venezuela and Cuba, today’s Latin America is less likely to succumb to military rule. A more common effect of contemporary populists is to produce a never-ending cavalcade of outsider candidates. As soon as Menem left office, he was soon replaced by the populist Kirchner family of Néstor and Cristina Fernández. Although the current president, Mauricio Macri breaks this tradition and offers technocratic expertise, one must wonder about the longevity of the political party he has created. Peru has elected outsider presidents like Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006) and Ollanta Humala (2011-2016) only to see their parties virtually vanish in the next election cycle. Devoid of political content, elections become popularity contests and focused on flashy personalities. Accountability vanishes as political parties collapse and new personalist vehicles emerge every electoral cycle.
So what does this mean for a Trumpista United States?
While promising to “drain the swamp,” thus far Trump’s proposals for institutional reform look modest. He is mainly focused on curbing lobbyists’ power and creating congressional term limits (although his Mexican counterpart, President Peña Nieto, might counsel differently). Additionally, the United States has enduring parties, an independent judiciary, a skeptical legislative elite, and robust federalism. Those contrasts of horizontal and vertical accountability may temper the more fantastical, personalistic whims that Trump exposed on the campaign trail.
While enticing, populists should not be the preferred route of institutional change. Their short-term improvements undermine long-term stability. While some analysts and Trump’s representatives claim there will be a “taming effect” of holding executive office, it is difficult to predict the degree to which institutions could withstand executive pressure and what President Trump will do in office.
For staunch optimists, the cautionary tale is Venezuela. By 1990, most observers concluded the country had achieved a stable democratic government on par with Uruguay. With a secure two-party system, a constitution, an independent judiciary, and bountiful oil, Venezuela looked poised to prosper. Times have changed rapidly since the passing of Hugo Chávez. No institution can credibly broker society’s problems and the country continues its descent into its darkest moments. Although the U.S. may not be headed quite that far, the uncertainty about the future is disconcerting.
Grant Burrier is an Assistant Professor of Politics & History at Curry College. He has traveled throughout Latin America and researches development, the environment, and democratization.