In recent years, books have been published such as Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum; How Democracies Die, by Ziblatt and Levitsky; Me the People, by Urbinati, or The Life and Death of Democracy, by Keane. Undoubtedly, the subcontinent and the world are living in a moment of democratic erosion, and much has been written about these regimes and their populist leaders. However, unlike the last century, these leaders no longer come to power by force of arms, but through democratic elections, and from there they begin to shape the institutional framework and weaken the structure of the state.
The rise of the new authoritarianisms through electoral processes implies that broad sectors of society feel attracted by their positions, speeches or even identify with these persons. The question then is: why, after 25 years of democracy, have many Latin American societies opted for anti-democratic candidacies?
People who sympathize with a project do so because they feel part of it and even the populist leader makes them feel that he himself comes from that harmed population. Therefore, there is a feeling of empathy between both of them. The seduction of a certain part of the population before a rhetoric that promises to put an end to their problems and make them participate in the decisions has an attractive effect, as opposed to the contrast of proposals characteristic of democracy.
Nostalgia and authoritarianism
Modern societies are experiencing institutional and social crises, which are the perfect breeding ground for broad sectors of the population to feel attracted to populist leaderships. The specialist Anne Applebaum affirms that this attraction arises because large sectors of the population yearn for the past of their nations or because of resentment against the political class that fails to combat their problems of security, poverty and inequality. As a result, these sectors are more likely to vote for populist proposals.
But populism does not act on its own; it uses a powerful weapon: disinformation. There are many examples of this, but one of the most recent was the takeover of the U.S. Capitol, a product of the fanaticism towards Donald Trump. To this must be added the rhetoric about electoral fraud, which was disseminated through different communication means, and which materialized in violent images never seen before in that country.
The result is a vast population sector attracted by populist and authoritarian profiles, a novelty for political science. Although this phenomenon has existed since Roman democracy, populism has several expressions and examples in history; from Nazism and Fascism in Europe, to the first Peronism in Argentina, Revolutionary Nationalism in Mexico, or Varguismo in Brazil. The similarity is that they were all based on a charismatic leader and an anti-system discourse.
Populism in America
Recently, there are two countries that have given the world images of what populism and fanaticism can cause. One is the aforementioned takeover of the U.S. Capitol in 2021. The second case was the seizure of the buildings of Brazilian three branches of government by Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters. The event occurred five days after Luiz Inácio da Silva took office as president.
Brazil’s experience is rooted in the position of former President Bolsonaro, who, although he did not call for an insurrection, encouraged it with his silence after the defeat in the second round on October 30, 2022. His supporters called for the entry of the Armed Forces to prevent what they call the socialism of the 21st century and through the argument that there was a fraud during the election day. These acts were extended through the taking of streets and marches by fanatics who felt obligated to defend their leader.
Does faith move countries?
At times, politics and institutions wear out and erode, and this is part of the transitions that countries go through. Faced with the discredit of parties, candidates and governments, outsider candidates emerge as a ray of hope for large sectors of the population that feel understood.
Nevertheless, when these leaders achieve power, they show a religious profile based on blind trust in their person in order to justify the concentration of power, the weakening of the law and the erosion of democracy.
Fortunately, politics is not cyclical and does not respond to established patterns, but to the inputs and outputs of national contexts and phenomena. Therefore, although populism can weaken the institutional framework of democracy, it will not prevail over it.
*Translated from Spanish by Micaela Machado Rodrigues