Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Pragmatism or Populism in Latin America?

Robert Muggah and Brian Winter argue in Foreign Policy that populism is poised to make a comeback in Latin America. I don't really agree, in large part because "populism" has ceased to mean anything very meaningful anymore in popular discourse (labeling Michelle Bachelet as part of this is problematic, for example). As I've argued before, what we're seeing is not necessarily radicalization or a move to populism, but rather anti-incumbent sentiment. I wrote this in July 2016 and I think it holds up:

What you're really seeing is the development of democratic rule in the region. Too many people have a tendency to see elections as the "death of the left/right" in some way, without taking the larger context in mind. As I've written over and over, Latin American voters are more pragmatic than we give them credit for, and will continue seeking solutions to the problems they face. If the left can't do it, they'll look to the right, and vice versa.

Will anti-incumbent arguments lead to radical populism? Sure, they can, but there is no reason to assume they are going to "set alarm bells ringing," as they argue. I get that the LAPOP data should concern us, but it could also be a blip so in my opinion it's premature to panic.

I don't mean to argue that nothing bad could happen. They note correctly how screwed up Brazil is, and how easily this could lead to radical candidates. But I am not sure how much the Brazilian case can be compared too fruitfully to other Latin American countries. In general, my instinct is to be wary of alarmism.


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