This article discusses how scholars have analyzed left populist governments in Latin America that include the previously excluded on the condition of their loyalty to the leader. It shows how different normative understandings of democracy have allowed the classification of populism as democratizing, a risk to democracy that could lead to competitive authoritarianism, or a sui generis combination of inclusion and authoritarianism. The paper distinguishes inclusion from democratization, and populists seeking power, from populists in governments, and populist regimes. It argues that the notion of polarized populist democracies captures better their autocratic and inclusionary practices. Populists maintain a commitment to elections hence selectively preserving rights to pluralism, free expression, and association. At the same time, they are authoritarian because populist leaders assume that they embody the people and consider that a section of the population represents the people as a whole, and that their mission is to redeem the people.
The Latin American historical experience with populist regimes as well as the theoretical reflections produced by Latin Americanists are particularly relevant not just for determining the nature of a very contested political concept but also for understanding the logic of populism in government and the threats it poses to liberal democratic regimes. Populism in government or the attempt at stabilizing a populist regime is no novelty for Latin America, a continent where populism has been a constant presence in politics since the 1930s. Along with their inclusionary impulse, those experiences left a long-lasting troublesome institutional and cultural legacy of political polarization, weak institutions, and recurrent authoritarianism. Populism made a comeback in several countries during the novel democratic period, largely due to the severe crisis that many of the democratic regimes encountered. Inspired by radical democratic ideals, contemporary populism actively engaged in a politics of regime transformation.
This contribution discusses the advantages and disadvantages of Cas Mudde’s minimalist definition to study populism. It argues that his proposal might facilitate consensus among scholars, yet his conceptualization is an obstacle to grasp the complexity of populism in its diverse manifestations over space and time. Moreover, some underlying normative assumptions limit the reach of his concept to small rightwing populist European parties at the fringes of the political system. The article argues for the necessity to recognize pluralism and hybridism avoiding any reductionism in populism scholarship. Populism cannot be reduced to one of its components, like a moralist ideology. Populism is also a strategy, a political style, and a discursive frame.