“Speak for Me”: Populist Leadership in Latin America and the Mirage of Horizontal Politics
Populist charismatic leaders have power to mobilise the people. According to Laclau (1977), the articulation of a populist discourse, where a leader will typically claim to speak on behalf of the people, can provide a valid alternative to an increasingly discordant dominant ideological discourse. Furthermore, and this is particularly true of Latin America, populist leadership has been most successful in political terrain's where first, the political culture has traditionally endorsed personalised forms of leadership and second, where political institutions have traditionally been weak. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that the ever-present spectre of authoritarianism continues to undermine the fragile democracies of Latin America. It is also true that such forms of leadership pose serious constraints to the possibility of a shift towards more horizontal organisational forms in politics. But, as this paper argues, there are problems with the assumptions that radical democrats make, particularly in regard to representation and popular sovereignty; furthermore, the fundamental premise that 'the people' are able to organise and lead themselves seems unduly optimistic. It is concluded that leadership is essential to the political process, and in particular that populist and/or charismatic leaders are effective agents of political transformation, whilst acknowledging that they can be dangerous to egalitarian sociopolitical causes attempting to enhance the autonomy of civil societies. These dynamics are illustrated by the ambiguity inherent in the role played by Mexico's Subcomandante Marcos: whilst he deliberately avoids populist tactics that might undermine the ideals of horizontal anti-hierarchical politics, ironically it is his personal appeal that has been crucial in promoting his political message.
Online Proceedings: OCIS 2008