Wolfgang Muno and Christian Pfeiffer explore Latin American populism through the lens of Peronism. From its roots under Juan Domingo Perón, through neoliberal shifts, to its modern-day forms, Peronism exemplifies the chamaeleonic nature of populism and its enduring appeal through a strong sense of political identity
In their compelling introductory blog, Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti tackled three myths around populism, encouraging researchers to discuss further. And in Latin America, where populism is the political norm and social inequality deeply rooted, there is certainly plenty to discuss.
Upper class and establishment detachment from large segments of the population fosters populism in all countries of the region. Notably, the integration of marginalised groups has been a key facet of Latin American populism. Here, we aim to address each of the three myths using Peronism in Argentina as an example.
Since the mid-1940s, Peronism has constituted the political mainstream in Argentine politics. This contradicts the myth that populism inevitably drifts to the political spectrum's edges and is represented by outsiders. Nikolaus Werz even posits that Peronism renders the Argentine political system sui generis. And Alejandro Grimson asserts that failing to grasp Peronism would be akin to deciding not to understand Argentina in its entirety.
Juan Domingo Perón initially served as Argentina's Minister of Labor and Welfare. Starting in 1943, he implemented measures that substantially improved the social situation of people previously excluded from politics. He continued this approach during his first presidency from 1946 to 1955, but his authoritarian and anti-pluralistic governing style attracted substantial criticism. After the military coup of the 'Liberation Revolution' Perón was forced into exile, in Spain. However, from afar, Peron remained Argentina's defining political figure until his return to the presidency in 1973.
We agree with Zulianello and Guasti that antipluralism is a key feature of populism. As our research underlines, antipluralism, moralising and a Manichean friend-foe distinction form the crux of populist politics. Consequently, under populist rule, harmonious solutions to conflicts between different ideas, individuals or social forces are not pursued. Populists, drawing from populist logic, lay claim to exclusive representation in the people's name.
Peronism exemplifies this. In its diverse forms, it exemplifies populism's chamaeleonic nature, as emphasised by Paul Taggart. Following his return to power in 1973, Perón faced a divided supporter base, with the left and right wings clashing relentlessly. Perón aligned with the right, but remained in power for only one year, until his death in 1974. The ideology of Juan Domingo Perón, however, lives on.
In 1989, Carlos Menem ran as the Peronist presidential candidate. Anti-elite rhetoric marked his campaign; it scarcely addressed substantive issues, except for traditional appeals to the grassroots and vague promises. Nevertheless, he secured almost 50% of the vote in the 1989 election.
Previously, Peronism had leaned towards a state-centred approach. But Menem surprised everyone with a neoliberal turn, which resulted in the privatisation and deregulation of the economy.
In its diverse forms, Peronism serves as a paramount example of the chamaeleonic nature of populism
From 2003 to 2015, Argentina was once more governed by a left-wing populist Peronist government, initially under Néstor Kirchner, followed by his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Kirchnerist economic policies were executed through a robust, development-oriented state and propped up by a commodity boom. An expansive social policy and increased minimum wage led to notable social improvements.
In summary, Peronism under Perón was developmentalist and nationalist-protectionist, establishing a conservative welfare state. It was, in general, more conservative. Under Menem, there had been a neoliberal shift and, overall, the ideology was generally more economically liberal and socially conservative. The Kirchners' era, meanwhile, saw a resurgence of developmentalism, protectionism, and economic nationalism. Their period of governance was markedly more progressive left, as evidenced, for example, by support for LGBTQ+ rights.
But why, despite its chamaeleonic policies, does Peronism continue to attract votes from a relatively stable base? The answer, as we argue elsewhere, lies in populism's nature as a political identity. For instance, workers and the poor were divided over economic policies. In retrospect, they clearly suffered as a result of neoliberal reforms. But blue-collar voters still predominantly supported Carlos Menem's government because it was Peronist.
Recurring narratives of a shared history define and reinforce the Peronist identity
Menem's cultivation of a traditional political style, as well as his repeatedly professed allegiance to the 'classical' values of Peronism and to Perón, reinforced the Peronist identity. This identity is primarily defined by recurring narratives of shared history, particularly the historical and mythical figures of Perón and his wife Eva.
The narrative incorporation of Peronism's traditional base appears to be significantly more vital than the actual outcomes of Peronist policies. The pragmatism of Peronism has proven to be highly effective. It leads not only to programmatic flexibility, but also to corresponding diversity and, as a result, to an internal heterogeneity within the Peronist movement. The diversity of programmatic declarations has a genuine catch-all character; an adherent of Peronism could always find some support within its ideology. Peronism's programmatic ambiguity is counterbalanced by the personal style that most Peronist politicians adopt. This bolsters clientelist ties with charismatic elements.
An integral element of Peronism, like all populism, is its emphasis on the political adversary, a sort of counter-image to Peronism and its base. Historical Peronism professed to represent the authentic, working-class Argentine. Meanwhile, the political opponent was associated with Europeanisation, cosmopolitanism, imperialism and the oligarchy. Even today, Peronists often depict their adversaries as enemies of the people, and thus anti-Peronist and anti-national.
Even today, Peronists often depict their adversaries as enemies of the people, and thus anti-Peronist and anti-national
Fundamentally, since Peronism's inception, deputies, judges, and the public have tended to unquestioningly support 'their' president. The political agenda is thus perceived as a 'national mission', with loyal backing mobilised from the top down, and the opposition dismissed as illegitimate, even traitorous. Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser have characterised this as 'Manichean distinction' – and it was conspicuous in all three variants of Argentine populism. Manichean distinction has contributed to a highly polarised political atmosphere.
The enduring appeal of Peronism lies in the fact that it has maintained a strong political identity, created effective narrative myths, and adeptly discredited political adversaries. It is testament to the persistent power and appeal of populism in Latin American politics.