🌈 Left-wing populism, democratic erosion, and patriarchy

Scholars and journalists tend to focus on the misogyny of right-wing autocrats. But Jennifer Piscopo argues that we mustn't overlook the patriarchal attitudes of left-wing populists. They may not directly attack women and gender minorities, but they also roll back gender equality gains

In their opening piece for this series, Conny Roggeband and Andrea Krizsán argue that aspiring right-wing autocrats use misogyny deliberately and strategically.

Leaders like former US president Donald Trump and current Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán do not just ‘accidentally’ demean women and ‘coincidentally’ roll back their rights. Rather, fomenting backlash to gender equality contributes to democratic erosion: misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia win votes, undermine opponents, and shore up patriarchal rule.

Yet left-wing leaders with authoritarian tendencies cannot deploy misogyny so easily.

Women are key participants in the class-based social movements that catapult leftist presidents to power. Ameliorating gender-based inequality figures marginally in these leaders’ populist projects. Yet open misogyny may alienate their electoral base.

Examples from Latin America show that while left-wing authoritarians share the right’s patriarchal tendencies, they rarely attack women and gender minorities directly.

Women's votes are key to bringing leftist presidents to power. Open misogyny therefore risks alienating their electoral base

Instead, left-wing populists pursue two strategies. The first is policy mitigation, wherein they allow but then later undo feminist wins. The second constitutes defensive dismissals, wherein they say nothing about women or gender until called upon to defend their record — in which case they minimise feminists’ concerns.

Unravelling democracy from the left

Would-be authoritarians rise to power through elections but then unravel the very democratic institutions and norms that benefited their rise.

Latin America’s right-wing presidents clearly fit this mould. For example, former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro combined openly misogynistic comments with concrete rollbacks to women’s rights. He reduced the number of women in cabinet and slashed the budget to combat violence against women by 90%.

Latin America also faces aspiring autocrats on the left. Usually populists, their legitimacy hinges on undoing class-based inequality. They are champions of oft-neglected social groups, like the urban and rural poor celebrated by Mexican president Andrés Manual López Obrador (AMLO) or the Indigenous peoples led by former Bolivian president Evo Morales.

The charisma and mass-based social movements of such politicians carry them to electoral victory but they, too, undermine democracy in order to remain in power.

A Morales-packed high court scrapped term limits so Morales could run a third and then a fourth time. AMLO — whose Morena party enjoys a congressional majority — recently passed an electoral law that hobbles the independent institutions ensuring Mexico’s free and fair elections. A weakened National Election Institute and federal electoral court system could very well deliver Morena an undeserved victory in 2024.

The populist left and gender

Like the communist revolutionaries of the past, left-wing populist leaders contend that women’s liberation will be achieved via class equality. In reality, their policies often shore up traditional gender roles. Take the soup kitchens organised by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez: direct service provision to the poor relied on women’s domestic labour.

Men leaders on the left also prove just as sexist as men on the right. By his own admission, Morales loved macho and homophobic jokes. Chávez blew kisses at women diplomats and commented on their bodies. AMLO said that while changing women’s roles was a ‘just cause’ of feminism, it was still tradition for Mexican daughters to care for their parents.

Policy mitigation

Hiding sexism behind tradition matters because left-wing populists rely on women’s support. They appoint women to high-profile roles. These figures are not mere pinkwashing: women ministers and legislators receive significant policy latitude in left populists’ administrations and implement important women’s rights reforms.

During Morales’ tenure, a revised constitution achieved gender parity for Bolivia's legislature. Legislative reforms established Indigenous women’s land rights and expanded access to abortion.

Rather than openly deriding or opposing moves towards gender equality, left-wing populists permit, but then mitigate them

Likewise, a landmark 'parity in everything' constitutional reform was passed in Mexico during AMLO’s term. The law requires gender parity at all branches and all levels of government. A cross-partisan group of women legislators, party members, and feminist activists — including women from Morena — fought for the reform.

Rather than openly deriding or opposing these measures, left-wing populists permit, but then mitigate, feminist gains.

After Bolivia’s abortion liberalisation bill passed, conservative groups cried foul. Morales responded by ‘requesting’ the legislative assembly to repeal the law — which it did. In Mexico, the recent electoral reform reduces election authorities’ enforcement over parity in everything and waters down provisions that prevent accused sex offenders from standing as candidates.

Defensive dismissal

Rollbacks to women’s rights often happen without the fanfare that accompanied the initial victory — and without the glee expressed by authoritarians in right-wing regimes. Sexist comments aside, openly attacking women is not part of left populists’ brands.

Yet when asked to defend their records, left-wing populists reveal their true colours.

Mexico has shockingly high rates of violence against women, but AMLO has cut funding for services, especially in Indigenous communities. He’s repeatedly diminished feminists’ critiques of his inaction and their concerns about rising femicides.

Attacking women is not part of left populists’ brands, yet when asked to defend their records, they reveal their true colours

He characterised the record numbers of calls to emergency hotlines during the pandemic as ‘fakes’ and ‘pranks.’ He dismissed feminists' claims that the gruesome killings of women merit particular concern, responding that ‘all murders matter'. When thousands of women marched to demand justice on International Women’s Day, AMLO erected barriers around the presidential palace. He accused the feminist movement of becoming ‘conservative.’

Women are welcome in left populists’ coalitions — until they challenge the patriarch’s power. They then become enemies of the progressive political project; their concerns dismissed.

A mixed bag

Left-wing populists erode democratic checks and balances, but without directly attacking women and gender minorities. Their statements about women are decidedly patriarchal and patronising, but they avoid comments unless pressed. After all, women and feminists form an important part of their base, and of their leadership teams.

So on the one hand, left populists champion women leaders and women’s rights, allowing key gains. But on the other, they pass additional measures that mitigate gender equality policies’ effectiveness.

This duality underscores the need to better theorise the relationship between misogyny and democratic backsliding in leftist regimes. Presidents like Chávez, Morales, and AMLO are no less patriarchal than Trump, Orbán, and Bolsonaro, but perhaps less brashly so.

No.7 in a Loop thread on Gendering democracy. Look out for the 🌈 to read more in this series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Jennifer M. Piscopo
Jennifer M. Piscopo
Professor of Politics and Gender, Royal Holloway University of London / Co-Editor, European Journal of Politics and Gender

Jennifer's research on women, gender and political representation has appeared in over 30 journals, including Politics & Gender, The American Political Science Review, The American Journal of Political Science, and Comparative Political Studies.

Her public-facing writing on women, gender, and elections has appeared in domestic and international media outlets, and she works closely with international organisations like UN Women on best practices to improve women's political empowerment.

The Right to Be Elected 100 Years Since Suffrage Edited by Jennifer M. Piscopo and Shauna L. Shames

The Right to Be Elected: 100 Years since Women's Suffrage
Boston Review / Forum, 2020



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