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Project Syndicate: Populism Without the People

Author: Jan-Werner Mueller
April 17, 2013

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"Calls for more popular participation are not essential to populism; rather, they are a symptom of perceived exclusion (which might well be a reality, especially in Latin America). But cries for political inclusion are different from demands for direct democracy. Where direct democracy is very much a part of normal politics – in Switzerland, for example – populist parties have been doing better, not worse, than elsewhere."

Nicolás Maduro's narrow victory in Venezuela's presidential election raises an important question (quite apart from the opposition's question as to whether Maduro really won): Can populism thrive without a genuinely popular, charismatic leader, or are movements like Chávismo doomed to fade into insignificance once they have lost their quasi-deities?

For many observers, populism is unthinkable without a strong, direct bond between an anti-establishment leader and citizens who feel neglected by mainstream political parties. Yet the role of leadership in populism is vastly overestimated. Indeed, given populism's importance as a political phenomenon, that view, along with two others – that populism is somehow a call for direct democracy, and that populists can only protest, but never govern – needs to be challenged.

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