Populist Narrative, Polarization, and Democracy Fatigue

Populism has been defined as a discourse that conceives politics as a Manichean struggle between the will of a homogeneously good “people” and the interests of a homogeneously corrupt “elite”. Populism is, from the ideational perspective of political science, a set of ideas that think about politics not as the challenge of representing and processing different interests, identities, and preferences in binding collective choices — as the liberal tradition posits —, but as an irreducible moral opposition between two entities — the people and the elite — to which they reduce their social cosmogeny.

It is revealing to analyze the narrative or so-called “story” that populist leaders use to address their electorate. In general terms, the populist narrative is constituted by stories that simplify the inherent complexity of politics, through the selective appropriation of characters and events, which are presented as causally and temporally related to each other in a certain way. The populist narrative is very effective in making sense of complex events and facts, providing certainty to citizens facing the inherently ambiguous and diffuse reality of politics. The populist narrative offers a cognitive shortcut that endows the complexity of politics with simple meaning.

Appealing to a narrative is certainly not an exclusive feature of populism. All political leaders resort to stories that offer a selective view of political reality. This is an inherent attribute of all political discourse. In that sense, what is distinctive about the populist narrative is that, in the simplification of reality that it proposes, it constructs an order that orients audiences to make sense of politics not in terms of facts, but in moral terms. The populist narrative is not primarily about events, but about establishing moral distinctions. The populist narrative as a type of storytelling is largely independent of events. Although the populist narrative is based on some factual events, it is predominantly a moral story, with a clear sense of right and wrong, and where actors and facts are placed on one side or the other.

The ideational perspective of populism emphasizes the causal force of ideas and suggests that these, expressed in the rhetoric of leaders, influence the attitudes and behavior of voters. The portrayal that political leaders give of the social world seems to activate certain predispositions among citizens. Thus, pluralistic rhetoric — such as that of Barack Obama, — tends to arouse feelings of acceptance in the face of differences among citizens. On the contrary, populist rhetoric — such as that of Donald J. Trump — activates intolerant orientations toward what is different, whose extreme manifestation is polarization. In other words, the characteristics of the populist narrative seem to trigger emotions that tend to harden and radicalize the attitudes of citizens, in such a way that they not only make them more distant from each other but also less willing to cooperate — and even coexist — with each other. In this sense, populist rhetoric seems to feed the so-called affective polarization, defined in the literature of political science as the existence of intense affinity or sympathy among members of the same social group, while at the same time intense antagonism and hostility toward other social groups.

Affective polarization threatens social coexistence and constitutes a challenge to democratic values and institutions. The dangers of polarization are accentuated in a context such as the current one, in which the capacities of democratic regimes to process political representation are experiencing a significant depletion in much of the world. This phenomenon, which has been called democracy fatigue, is occurring in societies that, contrary to the binary and Manichean narrative of populism, are increasingly plural, diverse, and complex. The populist narrative and affective polarization seem to be at the very basis of the fatigue and delegitimization of democracies.

Affective polarization has important implications in terms of social order and conflict. In the words of Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate in Economics, strong identities of belonging to a group can fuel discord toward different groups. In a context of affective polarization, such identity sentiments — whether based on political, social, or cultural cleavages — can become exclusionary, expelling other groups from the legitimacy of the democratic political arena. As a consequence, affective polarization can lead to conflicts between these groups. In line with this theoretical argument, empirical research in political science and economics indicates that affective polarization certainly increases the likelihood of conflict, including violent conflict.

The phenomenon of affective polarization, fueled by the populist narrative, may be better suited than socioeconomic inequality itself to explain certain conflicts in Latin America. One argument in favor of this idea is the observation that inequality has remained constant and has even decreased significantly in several Latin American countries, nations in which, however, different forms of political and social conflict have erupted. As the UNDP report “Citizen Security with a Human Face” indicates, our region has experienced economic growth of 4.2% per year over the last ten years. Seventy million people have been lifted out of poverty, inequality has decreased in most countries and unemployment has fallen since 2002. However, political and social conflict has increased. The affective polarization generated “from above” — that is, at the level of political elites — could be an explanatory factor for different episodes of conflict in Latin America, such as the violent demonstrations and protests in Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil.

In conclusion, the populist narrative at the level of political elites could be the cause of affective polarization at the citizen’s level. There is recent evidence of this phenomenon in several countries in the region, such as Argentina and Mexico. However, there is little empirical work on the subject. The agenda of political psychology studies in Latin America needs to address more systematically the links between populist narrative and affective polarization. Political science must contribute to stop the process of delegitimization of democracy. Otherwise, democratic fatigue could lead us to authoritarian regressions, no longer “from outside” (as with the classic coups d’état of the past), but “from within”, that is, through processes of de-democratization led by leaders elected at the ballot box. The survival of democracy is at risk.

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

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