Seeing and Not Seeing Populism in Latin America
I suggest a different, if complementary approach to understanding populism by turning to the specificity and complexity of Latin American politics in the 20th and 21st century histories. First, I view populism in the context of Latin American nations’ failures to achieve equality and inclusion as they modernized. In so doing, I consider together what I call “the first coming of the people on the scene,” between the Mexican Revolution and the military governments of the 1960s and 70s, and the “second coming of the people on the scene,” between the 1980s and the present. I suggest that we are seeing today a repetition of mid-20th century experiences and that the present should be seen as a replay, with key differences, of the 1960s and 1970s.
Second, and following from the first, I consider the heterogeneity of urban poor and lower middle class populations. I do so by addressing the experiences of poor people who gained new, modest-but-significant material and cultural resources during Latin America’s Pink Tide governments and commodity booms of the 2000s. I suggest that this group –dubbed “the new middle class” by policymakers and marketing consultants, and seen in Brazil as one base of 2018 electoral support for President Jair Bolsonaro– is far more heterogenous and changing, and more robust and diverse in its actual and potential political identities, than most analyses of populism suggest. Understanding this presses us to understand today’s “populism” in Latin America as contingent, partial, and rooted in a range of histories and experiences.