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Populism as a democratic response

The growing support in several countries for populist leaders may be worrying. However, it is plausible to think that it is a response consistent with the basic beliefs of societies affected by a process of growing economic inequality and social exclusion.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the American psychologist Abraham Maslow developed his theory about the needs that guide human beings. He classified them into more basic or physiological needs for subsistence, such as food, shelter, and rest, and higher-order or more sophisticated needs, including self-esteem and self-fulfillment. Maslow assumed that once the more elementary needs were satisfied, individuals would begin to concern themselves with needs of a more complex nature.

Maslow’s ideas inspired the political scientist Ronald Inglehart to theorize about what he called materialistic and post-materialistic values. These axes would allow understanding the choices and actions of citizens in different societies. According to his studies, individuals with materialistic values were characterized by having lower socioeconomic levels and focused on demanding from the political system issues such as decent wages, fair working hours, etc. On the other hand, post-materialists, who had the most basic needs for subsistence covered, focused on demanding from the public power solutions to other concerns such as environmental care, freedom of expression, or some rights that our parents or grandparents would not have imagined, such as same-sex marriage, decriminalization of abortion and animal rights, to name a few. 

Inglehart’s approach assumed a progression of humanity in values that would have repercussions on specific ways of organizing each society politically. Thus, the predominance of individuals with post-materialist values would pave the way for the emergence of pluralistic democratic regimes respectful of civil liberties and political rights, while societies where materialist values predominate would be less concerned with social tolerance and ethical or environmental priorities and would emphasize order, material security and immediate financial subsistence. Consequently, where materialistic values predominate, vigorous democracies have less chance than authoritarian deviations, including populist experiments, capable of seducing large majorities precisely because they promise material well-being and social discipline over other priorities.

Is the emergence of populist leadership the result of societies focused on materialistic values? 

Discourses anchored in anti-politics, the enthronement of force and repression in favor of order and against the subtleties of the balance of powers or institutional procedures respectful of freedoms and rights, and the rhetorical commitment to policies that solve the most basic needs of the population, such as food, have a special echo among the most needy, those who were most severely impacted by social inequality and the economic gap resulting from globalization.

For these vulnerable and sensitive sectors to a discourse that places them as an official priority, the emergence of populist leaders not only represents them at the level of their needs and values, but they can also interpret their support to these authoritarian and demagogic proposals as a bet for a democratizing response. In what way? In general, in the world and Latin America, we have observed recently how the feeling of dissatisfaction with democracy has been on the rise, while it is increasingly common that in different opinion barometers citizens support the option for a non-democratic government as preferable, under the condition or promise that they can solve problems related to the economy and basic needs for subsistence.

The increase in the preference of citizens in various countries for populist leaders (such as Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, or even democracies like the United States) may be worrying. However, it is plausible to think that it is a response consistent with the basic beliefs of these societies, affected by a process of growing economic inequality, social exclusion and precariousness of their lifestyles. In other words, these leaders do not emerge by spontaneous generation, but often they are precisely a protest against a form of government (democracy) that has ceased to respond to the needs that it was expected to solve.

The Mexican case

Cases such as the Mexican case illustrate the above. In 2018, a populist leader, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), became president and won the presidency of the republic with a recently created political party, in addition to the majority in Congress and the governorships in dispute. For the subsequent midterm elections of 2021, this party continued to grow, in such a way that the party system that had remained stable since the so-called Mexican transition to democracy in 2000 collapsed, leaving the PRD and the PRI on the verge of extinction. 

Here some discursive elements in AMLO’s campaign, but also some actions during his term as president, come into play to understand his success. AMLO’s most important slogans in two of his three runs for the presidency of the republic have been based precisely on the response to materialistic demands. For example, in 2006 his campaign slogan was “For the good of all, first the poor”. In 2012, he was accompanied by the legend “True change is in your hands”, and, finally, in 2018 the guiding phrase of his campaign was “For the good of Mexico, first the poor”. AMLO’s 2018 campaign focused on issues such as corruption and the economy, connected to the idea of generating order, security, and material well-being for those in need.

López Obrador’s government has focused on economic issues such as pensions for senior citizens or scholarships for students at different levels, among other support aimed at covering basic subsistence needs, and this helps to explain his levels of social popularity. Post-materialist values linked to ethics, the environment, civil rights, institutional cleanliness, and respect for democratic norms are conspicuous by their absence since they do not resonate in the heads and hearts of the materialist majorities. Under this logic, the defense of republican institutionality is presented as a forgetfulness of the most needy and their priorities: to ensure their subsistence. Populism thus emerges as a response that seeks to represent the balance of values in force in society.

*Text presented in the agreement framework between WAPOR Latin America and the Mexican Journal of Public Opinion.

**Translated by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva from the original in Spanish.


Cientista político y profesor de la Universidad de Guanajuato. Maestrante en Análisis Político por la Universidad de Guanajuato (UG) y licenciado en Ciencia Política por la Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (UAM).


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