Kurt Weyland is the Mike Hogg Professor in Liberal Arts. He has written many books. His most recent is Democracy’s Resilience to Populism’s Threat: Countering Global Alarmism. He has also authored the article “Why Democracy Survives Populism” in the Journal of Democracy.
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Populist leaders want polarization. They start polarization. They confront.
- Introduction – 0:45
- Democratic Breakdown in Peru – 3:37
- The Populist Threat – 19:27
- Institutional Strength – 26:00
- Countering Global Alarmism – 47:00
Democracy is unbelievably resilient. Sometimes it breaks down, but far less often than you might imagine. Moreover, in those countries where it does fall apart, institutions like elections and legislatures remain intact. This makes it easier to revive democracy after an autocratic breakdown.
Indeed, it’s dangerous to describe democracy as fragile or fleeting. It gives the impression dictatorship is a superior form of government. It is not. Dictators fall from power far more often than democracies break down. Most autocrats govern out of fear because they know their regime could collapse at any moment.
Kurt Weyland makes many of these points in his new book Democracy’s Resilience to Populism’s Threat: Countering Global Alarmism. He argues populism is a threat, but it is one democracy can withstand most of the time. His book comes out as an eBook in late January and as a hardback in February. But you can preview those arguments in his recent article in the Journal of Democracy, “Why Democracy Survives Populism.”
Our conversation touches on some key themes from his book including an example where democracy does break down. But we focus quite a bit on the concept of institutional strength. For Weyland this is the reason why democracies do not collapse. So, I wanted to understand why some democracies had such strong institutions. I also wanted to better understand how democracies could strengthen those institutions. Like most of our conversations, we didn’t come to definitive answers. But I hope it gets you thinking as we continue to explore the idea of democracy.
The Democracy Paradox is sponsored by the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, part of the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. The Kellogg Institute was founded by Guillermo O’Donnell, one of the giants of democratic thought, more than 40 years ago. It continues to sponsor research on democracy and human development. Check them out at Kellogg.nd.edu. You’ll find a link in the show notes to their website. If you’re interested in becoming a sponsor of the podcast, please send me an email to [email protected]. But for now… This is my conversation with Kurt Weyland…
Kurt Weyland, welcome back to the Democracy Paradox.
Well, Kurt, I really loved your new book, Democracy’s Resilience to Populism’s Threat: Countering Global Alarmism. It’s another one of these really important books and articles, publications, that are coming out that are helping to remind us about how resilient democracy really is. Because I think that we’ve done a lot to emphasize the fragility of democracy, but in some ways, I think that paints too bright of a light on something like authoritarianism or autocracy as if it’s somehow overpowering and just capable of doing all these different things and democracy is this weak, fragile thing that’s precious but incapable of actually accomplishing anything. I just don’t think that that’s true. I think it undermines the whole reason why we advocate for democracy itself. So, your book was very refreshing. Your article that just came out, “Why Democracy Survives Populism,” again, reinforces many of those arguments.
I want to start out a little bit counterintuitively. I know that this discussion is going to be about how democracy resists populism, but I think central to your argument is to explain those cases. where populism actually does overthrow democracy to explain later on why democracy can overcome it much more often than it gets overthrown. So, let’s start out with a key example from your book, which was Alberto Fujimori. In your words, how did Fujimori overthrow democracy in Peru?
So this is a very interesting case, because what you see is that many Latin American countries have democracies that suffer from significant deficits and weaknesses. When Fujimori was elected, Peruvian democracy had been inaugurated only 10 years earlier. You see many other Latin American countries had recently emerged from military dictatorships and there was a great fear that these new Latin American democracies would be very subject to breakdown. But my analysis of the Peruvian case and what is very important there – and I mean that is essentially the logic of my whole book, putting it in comparative context. So you see that Alberto Fujimori managed to destroy Peruvian democracy, but only under very exceptional conditions. Because when he got elected, Peru was suffering hyperinflation.
Peru had been in hyperinflation, which is strictly defined as price increases more than 50 percent per month, which is absolutely catastrophic and at the same time, the Peruvian state was being entailed by two brutal guerrilla movements. There was sort of almost a virtual civil war. People were wondering whether the Peruvian state could sustain the assault from the Shining Path. It’s only under those tremendous crises that Fujimori, surprisingly as an outsider, without a team, without an organized body, managed to do significant headway. He ended hyperinflation in a very drastic way. He ended up being able to decapitate, capture the leadership of the Shining Path and it was the coincidence of those two tremendous successes that gave Fujimori the massive, fabulous support with which he could get away with his self-coup.
So, what is important there is to emphasize the exceptional situation in Peru, because there was Carlos Menem in Argentina where the country was also suffering from hyperinflation. Menem acted similarly against hyperinflation, as Fujimori did, and Menem eventually managed to end hyperinflation, but that was not enough to give Menem the tremendous support with which he could strangle democracy. Menem was successful. Menem got himself reelected. He managed to change the constitution, but he had to stay inside the institutional framework. The other contrast case that I make a big deal about is Álvaro Uribe in Colombia who also faced a civil war, who also made significant headway, who also got the constitution changed, got reelected, but couldn’t destroy Colombian democracy. So, the point about Fujimori is, yes, in that one case, a populist leader managed to destroy democracy, but only under very exceptional conditions.
Presidents that had faced one of these crises and succeeded in making significant headway didn’t have the support to do that. So, the point about Fujimori is this was a very unique case. Many Latin American countries suffered from a ton of problems. Some people tried to imitate Fujimori. They didn’t get away with it. Fujimori is the exception. You explained the logic of the book very well. I look at the exceptions and then say look how exceptional that is and where not all of those conditions are fulfilled at the same time, democracy survives.
I think the Fujimori case is really important because it highlights the fact that in this scenario it took two different crises for democracy to be overthrown. Can we take a second to explain how Fujimori is considered a populist though? Because obviously a lot of different leaders could have stepped in and solved different crises because they were in the right place at the right time, but been described as different kind of leaders. I mean, what exactly makes Fujimori a populist? I think that might help us understand a little bit more about why populism itself is widely considered a threat to democracy.
Fujimori was in some sense an interesting populist given the great disagreements about the concept of populism. There are people who define populism essentially by discourse. You know, these leaders who spout big slogans and who claim that they attack the elites. When you look at Fujimori, he wasn’t actually that big into discourse. He wasn’t that big into talking. One of Fujimori’s main points was first you act and then you talk. So, by a discourse definition, Fujimori might not fit very well the notion of populism. But what I employ is a definition of populism that I call political strategic. It looks not at what these people say and talk about and the slogans they spark. It looks at how they act and the conditions under which they act.
I think for political analysis that is a more valid definition because it helps us understand, especially when they get into government and they have to take action. The discourse definition might be good when you look at these populists like in Western Europe who are out of government and who spout stuff and who try to promote their parties in elections. But once you have to govern, the political strategic definition is much better because you see what these people actually do and the political strategic definition emphasizes personalistic leadership. So, leaders who essentially claim extraordinary capacities to govern. The second feature is plebiscitarian mass support. They do not have an organized party. They cannot rely on disciplined partisan support, but rather they appeal in a personalistic way to their followers.
So, populism in that sense is based on these overbearing personalities who claim that they need concentrated power. That they cannot be hindered by liberal constraints so that their extraordinary capacities can really come to the fore. That was Fujimori. He tried to concentrate power. He dismantled checks and balances because he said that’s what I need to combat Sendero. That’s what I need to force down inflation. Fujimori fits it perfectly because Fujimori was a complete nobody. Fujimori emerged as a complete outsider. He had no party. During his 10 years in government, Fujimori for every new election created a new flimsy electoral vehicle. He didn’t create a party that he then cultivated and organized and used government resources to consolidate. It was a completely frail, flimsy base.
What you see is when these leaders have high success, they can get massive support. Fujimori for his self-coup got 82 percent of popular support and nobody can resist that. But this personalistic leadership that isn’t based on organization, on discipline, is also inherently frail and hollow. You see that again in the downfall of Fujimori, because Fujimori did very little to institutionalize his rule. He didn’t build a party. He didn’t build a kind of institutional political structure. He relied more and more on personal connections and, frankly, on simple corruption. His spy chief, Montesinos, simply bought off people. So, the Fujimori regime was a house on cards and when the corruption scandal became known, it collapsed within a few weeks.
So, you see that nature of populism based on flimsy, feeble connections. When they are successful, they are on top of the world. They can concentrate so much power that they can destroy democracy. But it’s always precarious and when something happens like one of the videos in which a spy chief bought off somebody becomes public, it’s like a balloon – pop – and the whole thing deflates. Fujimori within weeks was out. So, in that sense, for the political strategic definition of populism Fujimori is an emblematic perfect case.
I think the Peruvian case is a great example too, because it clearly overthrew democracy. So many of the examples that we talk about these days are difficult cases where democracy feels like it doesn’t exist, but elections continue to occur. I mean, we look at a case like Erdoğan in Turkey and we just had a major election where a lot of people thought that Erdoğan might lose the election. That doesn’t feel like a dictatorship. But if you look at all of the journalists that are in jail, if you look at the way that he treated the mayor of Istanbul and put him in prison over things that he said. It certainly does feel like a dictatorship.
Peru was a case where when we say self-coup, when we say autogolpe, I mean, he literally dismissed Congress and seized all of the power for himself. It wasn’t much of a question of whether or not this was actually dictatorial. This was a pretty clear case of dictatorship, whereas some of the other populists out there continued to hold elections. Even Chávez continued to hold elections up until his death. Do you feel that these other cases that you’re bringing up like Menem or Uribe, do you think that they were actually looking to overthrow democracy the way that Fujimori did or do you think that they accepted democracy, but they just governed with a populist style?
So, this is a very interesting and very difficult question because it ultimately involves leaders’ intentions, goals, and interests and we have really no way of knowing that. Even if you sat down with Uribe and give him a couple of beers and said, ‘Now let’s be honest. What was the ultimate goal?’ Obviously, he wouldn’t confess. So, it’s very hard to figure that out. My approach to this is first, logically, and second, that I in some sense take as given the grave concerns that people have mentioned. Since the election of Trump, there has been a lot of concern about democracy – what I call global alarmism. A whole number of books highlight how, as you mentioned, fragile, how weak democracy is and, in some sense, highlighted the machinations that crafty sneaky leaders can take.
So, the whole image that we have is, ‘Oh my God, these people get elected and democracy is in really sad shape because they have easy ways of undermining democracy.’ In some sense, I took that as given. I didn’t examine, I didn’t investigate the intentions and the goals of those leaders, but what I said is, assume they have a goal of concentrating power and under what conditions can they be successful. What then came into play is also my political strategic approach to populism, because the definition of populism by a personalistic legislatorial leadership assumes that it’s an inherent tendency, an impulse, almost like a natural impulse, to power concentration.
If you are a personalistic leader, you cannot rely on support organizations. You know that you are feeble and frail because you don’t have disciplined links to your followers. You depend on your popularity. You depend on your success. The natural incentive is for you to increase power because you are worried. I mean, we think these leaders are so powerful. I think a lot of them are driven by fear and by power and they feel that enemies are after them. You know, like Erdoğan, ‘I’m under threat. There are dangers out there.’ The natural inclination is to concentrate power and the natural inclination is to see liberal institutions as obstacles. So, the natural impulse of populism is power concentration, dismantling of checks and balances, and all of that is naturally deleterious and dangerous for democracy.
My approach is I take as given that expansive kind of illiberal, undemocratic tendency. What I highlight is the conditions under which that can take its course and how far it can take its course. So, Fujimori encountered conditions with these two tremendous crises that he could leverage into massive support, so Fujimori could go especially far. Menem encountered conditions in which he could move to some extent. So, Menem ended hyperinflation. He had a good deal of popularity, leveraged it to a constitutional reform, and got a second term. So, you can see he was on the path of Fujimori, but he encountered obstacles and difficulties and didn’t have the leverage and the mass support at the end of his second term to move further.
So, my analysis is all of these people essentially were driven by the same logical inherent tendency of power concentration and the variation emerges not from their intentions, but emerges from the context conditions that allow some to go really far, others to go to some extent, and many others to be limited in the beginning. There are other approaches. So, for example, my friend Scott Mainwaring emphasizes the intentions of these leaders and says Fujimori wanted to destroy democracy. Menem didn’t want to destroy democracy. I don’t find in that argument a lot of explanatory power.
It’s almost tautological because how do I know the person’s intentions? I see the outcome and then I say that was the intention. But does that give me explanatory power? Am I satisfied with that explanation? I think it’s in some sense a more satisfactory explanation to look at the impulse. I mean, as soon as these leaders find the opening, they extend their power. You can see the tendency.
Do you think maybe it’s possible that the leaders aren’t looking to undermine democracy or overthrow it, but they’re looking to weaken institutions because they think that gives them a better pathway to governance?
So, I don’t think these leaders go out and say, I want to destroy democracy. They say I want power and I need power. I need power partly because I face enemies. Of course, they need power and face enemies partly because they are inherently polarizing and they turn politics from a democratic competition into a war. So, they start attacks. They start the war. Then they feel threatened. Then they need more power. You see the logic. They don’t necessarily have to go on destroying democracy. They want to have power, but in obsessively trying to concentrate power in systematically trying to undermine constraints, in putting pressure on civil society, on the opposition, they end up destroying democracy.
Yeah, what I’m saying though is oftentimes, these leaders come into power because of governance challenges within democracy itself. The checks and balances can easily become very rigid, even when they’re not supposed to be. Checks and balances that are supposed to be used with institutional forbearance oftentimes become very rigid where they’re used all the time. For instance, in the United States, the filibuster was not supposed to be used on every single piece of legislation, but now it’s become necessary to be able to get 60 votes on any piece of legislation out of the United States Senate. There isn’t much institutional forbearance where they use it only when they feel that it’s absolutely necessary to stop a piece of legislation.
A lot of checks and balances work that way in democracy over time because different norms are established, different tools are discovered, and eventually things that used to be able to provide checks on governance in extreme cases can sometimes become just the rule for how it’s used. A lot of these populist leaders seem to emerge during those periods where it’s difficult to govern because democracy starts to become very rigid and they start to tear down those institutions as a result to say in order to govern effectively, I just need to not have these institutions in place.
It doesn’t mean that democracy gets worn away, but it can. If elections become one of those institutions that gets in the way, elections would have to go. If Congress is one of those institutions, that’s a problem. You would dismiss Congress. But at the same time, if you can get away and govern effectively just by weakening those institutions in a way that Uribe or Menem did maybe that’s all that needs to be done. Maybe you don’t need to tear down democracy. Maybe that’s not the goal of even somebody like Fujimori from the beginning. It was just to weaken institutions enough to be able to govern.
It’s a difficult issue to discern to what extent were these people driven by real substantive needs or a sense of mission. And to what extent were they cynical opportunists to use crises to advance their own power hunger? Some of those people… You know, think of Milei, right? I mean, the guy seems driven by the chainsaw – to finally cut back the overgrown Argentine state and rectify an economy that for decades has been in trouble. So, is he just a crazy, committed guy to a drastic mission? What is interesting is that a lot of these populists. don’t seem to be very coherently committed to a sense of mission. Think of Fujimori. Fujimori in the 1990 election campaigned against Mario Vargas Llosa, who wanted to have a neoliberal shock and Fujimori said we don’t really need that. We can do it gradually.
So, then he wins power and people say forget your gradualism. It doesn’t work. So, Fujimori says let’s do a shock that is worse than what Vargas Llosa wanted. Okay, that’s a first kind of betrayal of his campaign promise. You can say the situation was so bad that he was convinced and he was sincerely committed to this neoliberal program. But Fujimori for two years enacts a neoliberal program. He ends hyperinflation. The economy turns around. His economic team says that’s only the first step. Now we need the second set of reforms. Now we need to deregulate. We need to privatize. We need to do a whole bunch of structural reforms in order to consolidate this economic model.
Fujimori says thank you. I don’t need that, because I want to govern. I turned around the economy. Now the economy is growing. I’m not a committed neoliberal. So, the economic team is like, ‘Oh my god’ and the IMF, ‘Oh my god. You did such a good job in the first phase, now just continue.’ I’m not committed to a mission. I’m not an ideologue. I’m not a technocrat. I want to govern. Now that the economy grows and I can get reelected. Essentially, I’ll do the minimum neoliberalism that’s necessary, but I’m going to attend to my political goals. And you see that in a whole number of cases that these people are not really committed to a program.
The shifts and the twists and turns that these leaders do, especially when they are in power, suggest as far as we can infer back on intentions and goals that they’re not that committed to missions and ideologies and programs. I think of populism as opportunistic, as changing. Paul Taggart in a book from 2000 emphasized the chameleonic character of populism. They changed colors along the way. They can be non-neoliberal in the election, then become neoliberal. Then they say let’s put that on hold. That would suggest that they’re opportunists. They’re not ideologues.
So, I infer from that power, maintenance of power, extension of power that it is related to personalism, because if you’re a personalistic leader, you’re not committed to a greater cause and ideology. The ideology is in you. Think of Hugo Chávez, 21st century socialism. Did anybody ever know what that was? It was essentially Hugo Chávez ‘s thought. That wasn’t an ideology. It was whatever came to Hugo Chávez mind.
Yeah, I think when we say that these leaders want to govern, it’s obviously a very egotistic form of governing. It’s the idea that only I can be able to get it done. Again, it’s not a mission. It’s not ideological. It’s this just overbearing confidence and to some extent to be able to rise up outside of institutions is almost par for the course. I mean, it’s hard to imagine how you can come to power as an outsider and not have just an overwhelming ego in the first place. That’s reason why a lot of these populist leaders all sound the same. They all look the same in a lot of ways and share a lot of these characteristics.
But as we’re talking about the way that these leaders really go after institutions, I think this comes back to the heart of the book for why democracy becomes resilient, because you make the case that it’s the strength of those institutions that really protects democracy. Can you talk a little bit more about what makes democracy so resilient against these populist threats?
So that is interesting, because for many years of my career, I wasn’t as much of an institutionalist as many of my colleagues. When I started putting together the work for this book, you know, it’s a broad comparison because it covers Latin America, Europe, especially Eastern Europe, and it also covers the United States. Of course, the United States case is absolutely essential because it was the election of Trump that kind of lit the fire under this global alarmism. Of course, the US case, once again, with Trump’s ever more likely return is at the forefront of that whole issue.
So, when you look in a broadly comparative fashion, you see that institutional strength really matters and also, the different setup of institutions – presidentialism in Latin America, parliamentarism in Europe, and contrary to a lot of established work like by Juan Linz that presidentialism is especially dangerous for democracy and parliamentarism isn’t, my research suggests that parliamentarism in some sense is more open because the integration between the prime minister and the majority in parliament gives the prime minister who commands the majority a much more open path. That’s the example of Orbán. Then, of course, you see the US where institutions are so strong and so well entrenched. That is partly a product of institutional habituation and consolidation. You know, like the US Constitution is just rock solid.
So many of these populist leaders somehow or other want to overturn the Constitution. I mean, Chávez, Fujimori, Orbán, for all of them one of the decisive steps towards authoritarianism was overturning the Constitution, having a new tailor-made Constitution. Trump, in his wildest tweet storms, never had the idea, ‘I’m going to convoke in Philadelphia a new constitutional convention. I’m going to change this.’ So, you see the differential strength of institutions and you also see what openings different institutional frameworks provide, so you see that in my argument. We talked before about Fujimori. Latin American presidential systems have more checks and balances than European parliamentarism.
Therefore, in Latin America you need the exceptional coincidence of substantial success against two crises to overthrow democracy. In Europe, parliamentarism is more open, so one crisis, an economic crisis in the cases of Hungary, Orbán, and Erdoğan in Turkey opened the path to authoritarianism. So, the book advances and substantiates an interactive argument. Situational setup, institutional strength, institutional characteristics is one type of factor that then interacts with the special conjunctural opportunities that populist leaders would need in order to overturn the institutional framework that they face. It’s that interaction that is decisive. From that interaction, you see again, my emphasis on the restrictive conditions under which populists can overthrow democracy. It’s not that easy. They face institutional obstacles and constraints and depending on the strength and resilience of the institutions, they need more or less conjunctural opportunities to then have the overwhelming mass support to do in democracy.
What makes an institution strong or weak? I mean, we talk about institutional weakness and I find that it’s a very difficult concept to wrap your head around. State capacity, in some ways, is a little bit easier to understand because you either have a lot of capacity within the state and you give it resources or it just doesn’t have the capacity. Institutional weakness, I feel like, is such a fuzzy term. It’s difficult to understand. How do you think of it?
This is a difficult issue again, because institutional arguments can have a quasi-tautological character and I try to avoid that by looking at the resilience of institutions to strengthen before the populist leader comes to power. So, for example, in the Latin American cases, I distinguish cases of what I call high instability from those where institutions have some weaknesses, but still have a good amount of strength. Where high instability prevails, you have had several irregular terminations of presidential terms. So, think, for example, when Rafael Correa in Ecuador gets elected in 2006. In the ten years before, three presidents were pushed out of office through mass protests, through civil-military coups. The institutional framework was battered. It was very, very weak before Correa got elected.
So, I tried to avoid that quasi-tautological nature of institutional arguments by looking at what happened before they get elected. Compare it to the Peruvian case. In the Peruvian case, hyperinflation started in September of 1988. There were some concerns. Can Alan Garcia serve out his term? No coup attempt and Alan Garcia despite a disastrous performance served out his full term. So, in Peru, in its institutions there was some margin of maneuver, but they were comparatively strong. You can assess it before the populist leader gets elected. Stephen Levitsky and Victoria Murillo have done a lot of work on that kind of stability. How changeable are institutions? How much can they command behavior? How much can they get away with just infringing on institutions?
The other factor is, of course, just the formal setup of institutions. So, in the formal set of institutions, the presidential system, three relatively independent branches of government, especially if you then have a bicameral legislature, you have what George Tsebelis called several veto players. It’s not that easy for a president to overturn democracy because you have a bicameral legislature, you have a senate, you have a judiciary. Parliamentarism is much more open because if one party wins a majority and has the prime minister and a majority in parliament, they have a much easier way of enacting changes that can be illiberal and doing damage to democracy. So, the formal setup of the institution also matters.
I think the American case really highlights the idea of institutional strength, because the Supreme Court has no way to be able to enforce its rulings. And yet, anytime that they come out with a decision, generally everybody accepts it even when they seriously disagree with the outcome of the court. Everybody gets in line and they say the Supreme Court decided this, so everybody kind of moves with it. That’s institutional strength. The fact that they’re able to make a decision and without an enforcement mechanism, everybody works together to enforce the decision. It takes time and it takes a lot of steps to be able to get there.
The US Constitution is another great example. Nobody considers rewriting the American Constitution the way that we see happen in Latin America where every couple years a president can get elected and say that we need to have a completely new constitution. That doesn’t happen in the United States. Nobody would consider that. The claim is whether or not the constitution is being followed. But nobody has considered rewriting or setting aside the constitution itself. That’s institutional strength. But it begs the question of how do we get to that point? How do we make institutions stronger to protect them against populists? And how is it that they can become weaker so that they become more vulnerable to the populist threat?
So, when people say we need to strengthen institutions, I think this is a very slow process. You mentioned the early 19th century in the US. I mean, how do institutions become strong? I think a lot of it is habituation. It just becomes unimaginable. Nobody has done it and you just don’t consider it. Then you have what institutionalists call value commitment. That this institution is so sacrosanct. I mean, the US constitution is like on a shrine. It’s not just a political document. There’s a veneration for it. I think it takes a lot of time. So, in the short run, you’re not going to say, ‘Oh my God. We have Milei. Let’s strengthen Argentine institutions.’
Also, there is the problem of precedent. I mentioned the case of Ecuador. A highly successful president, Abdala Bucaram, gets thrown out in early 1997. That sets a precedent. It sets a precedent, because in the Ecuadorian case, the guy was so unviable and so utterly corrupt that the Congress wanted to get rid of him so quickly that they did not follow actual impeachment procedures. They relied on an expedient that was in the constitution that if a president suffered from mental incapacity, they could throw him out with a simple majority rather than the super majority required for an impeachment. What that means is the urgency of getting rid of the guy essentially led them to seriously bend institutional rules, because the guy was not mentally incapacitated in the sense that we normally think of. That sets a precedent.
So, you have one breach and then the next breach becomes easier. That means, in some sense, that institutional strength is very important, but you can’t create it easily and you can’t impose it. One of the problems of populism is that populist leaders weaken institutions and then by promoting a lot of their cronies and filling the state with a lot of loyalists rather than competent people when the populist leader falls from power, the subsequent government is induced and forced to throw out those people. But that weakens institutions again, because those people have been put in. So, then the subsequent government tries to use expedience to get rid of those people. You see in some sense the deleterious impact of populism. They do damage and then to undo the damage, the subsequent government does more damage.
So, you see that once institutional weakness has emerged… Think of the Peruvian party system. Fujimori completed the destruction of the Peruvian party system in the early 1990s. Thirty years later there is no real party system in Peru and for 30 years that country has suffered from a collapsed, disaggregated party system. It was a theme that Samuel Huntington emphasized in his famous book, Political Order and Change in Society. Institutions are hard to build, but easy to destroy and populist are institution destroyers.
It reminds me a little bit of Laura Gamboa’s recent work about the way that oppositions can play a big role in either preserving democracy against a populist threat or undermining democracy. The fact that if opposition groups overplay their hand, they further weaken those institutions by giving populists an opportunity to be able to set new precedents.
I have serious problems with that argument. I think the basic approach is highly problematic because it is blaming the victim. I mean, the actor who initiates the conflict and the war is the populist leader. It was Chávez, not the opposition, who moved and threatened democracy. I think she seriously underplays this. The comparison between Venezuela and Colombia is seriously problematic, because Chávez on day one took his oath on this moribund constitution and pushed through the convocation of a constituent assembly that he engineered for his supporters to have 95 percent support. They did his bidding and he used the constituent assembly to close the established congress. Uribe, from day one onward, acted very differently. Uribe did not push and shove and use power and legal means to convoke a constituent assembly.
So, the attack came from Chávez. The attack was so strong that Chávez took over all the established institutions. If you are an oppositionist and you see this guy making a serious concerted move towards power concentration that you have very good reason to think will destroy democracy, as an opposition, what do you do? You compete in the established institutions where you are destined to lose because the guy occupies everything? So what do you do? Well, then you protest. You go out into the streets. Yes, at some point they overplayed their hands, but to start the story with the opposition and not Chávez and to depict Chávez’s and Uribe’s strategy and actions and course of action as essentially similar and the different outcomes to the opposition, I think, is seriously flawed. I think the comparison doesn’t work.
I think the whole approach of emphasizing the role of the opposition doesn’t work, because the initiator was Hugo Chávez. Uribe acted from day one onward very differently, because he knew that Colombian institutions were stronger. He didn’t face the conditions that Chávez took advantage of. Venezuela was, at the point Chávez took over, suffering from high instability. Chávez himself had spearheaded a coup attempt. There had been a second coup attempt in the subsequent year. The political class, in a very politicized way, impeached the president, so Venezuela was suffering from high instability. Chávez took advantage of it. Columbia was not suffering from high instability. Uribe knew that he couldn’t act in the same way as Chávez. He acted in a significantly different way. And that is the origin of the different outcome, and not the opposition. And the opposition in Columbia could draw on Congress, could draw on the elections, because Uribe wasn’t illegitimately occupying everything and making it impossible for them to play a role.
Chávez started a frontal assault on day one on Venezuelan democracy and put the opposition essentially against the wall. And when you’re against the wall, what do you do? You make desperate moves. You try at all costs to defend what you still have. So, the starting conditions in Venezuela were very different from Colombia. The actions of the populist leaders from day one were very different from Colombia. The role of the opposition was the product of the populist assault.
Also, the argument that she makes that protests don’t work against populists is just empirically not true. A whole bunch of protests have thrown out populist leaders. There were protests against Gutierrez in Ecuador in 2005 that threw him out. There were protests against Bucaram in Ecuador in 1997 that threw him out. There were protests against Robert Fico in Slovakia in 2018 that threw the guy out for a while. There have been a number of cases in which protests played a big role in throwing out populist leaders. The idea that conventional participation works and protests don’t work is empirically not true.
I didn’t get the impression that she said protests don’t work. I had the impression that you need to have strong institutions to be able to get things to work. That if the institution’s already weak or damaged and you use that as your tool to overthrow a leader or to try to preserve democracy that you risk weakening that institution further. The reason why I bring it up is because I think that we look at the cases of Uribe and Chávez. Chávez definitely was able to weaken Venezuelan democracy through a series of different episodes that existed and at every turn was able to further erode institutions that made it so that if democracy had not collapsed under Chávez, it certainly made it just a house of cards that was prepared to fall under Maduro.
Uribe was poised to have a third term in office over in Colombia, but it was the strength of two different institutions that made it so that was impossible. It was the strength of the Supreme Court within Colombia and it was the strength of just the sense of term limits for executive power within Latin America that really constrained him.
Again, it’s not about so much Gamboa’s argument as much as it is interesting to look at how those strong institutions are able to further work to be able to make democracy much more resilient in the case of Colombia and how in the case of Venezuela, we see how weaker institutions played into Chávez ‘s hand to be able to erode democracy over time. It took a series of years before we got to a point that Venezuela really looked as autocratic as it does today. I mean, even if Chávez from day one was acting autocratically, there’s a massive difference between Venezuela in 1998, 1999 and Venezuela in 2024.
Obviously, there’s a massive difference, but I think it’s very interesting to see that Chávez made a frontal assault from day one on. Uribe tried to do the same thing, because when he was elected, he wanted to have a referendum that would have closed the current Congress, that would have had new elections, that would have abolished the Senate. So, in some sense, the interim proposal was very similar to what Chávez was doing in Venezuela, because Chávez with his constituent assembly closed the existing Congress, convoked new elections, and created a unicameral legislature. The votes were very much the same. Chávez pushed that through. Given the high instability of the Venezuelan institutional framework essentially in not fully legal ways, but the courts let him get away with it and he just did it. Then he engineered an overwhelming majority for his supporters.
Meanwhile, Uribe felt compelled, given that Colombian democracy was stronger, to go through the Congress. And the Congress said we have to approve a referendum and we’ll have a referendum for you, but they cut out the proposal to have a unicameral legislature. They cut out the proposal to have new elections and then the courts dismantled the referendum from one into 15 different questions. They made his life so miserable that when the referendum was finally held, he couldn’t get enough people to vote for it. He won the referendum, but the electoral participation was too low. So, you see the fundamental difference from the beginning. You see that that was conditioned by the high instability in Venezuela and the greater institutional strength in Colombia. The decisive thing wasn’t that the constitutional court in 2010 didn’t allow him a third reelection.
In my analysis in the book, I emphasize the decisive thing was. 2002-2003 when that initial referendum was weakened and dismantled and eroded and corroded such that he didn’t end up winning. If Uribe had been able to push through that referendum, which would have done very similar things as Chávez in Venezuela, it would have been a completely different ballgame. So, at the beginning, in some sense based on prior institutional differences, the beginning of those two populist experiences where the proposals, the political proposals, were surprisingly similar conditioned what the opposition could do. It wasn’t the opposition doing things sort of on their own.
So, the subtitle of your book is Countering Global Alarmism. In talking to you today and in talking to you the last time that we talked on the podcast, to be honest, there’s a real theme that if we overreact to democratic threats that we can unknowingly further democratic erosion. I mean, that’s my takeaway. That’s what I walk away with. Why is it so dangerous overreact to democratic threats? Why wouldn’t it be better to overreact and to buttress democracy so that we’re better prepared against threats like populism?
We should definitely buttress democracy and we should be very well prepared to defend it, but in the proper ways and with the proper mechanisms and with the proper rhetorical framing. So, one of my concerns is that if opponents to populism overreact and accuse them, for example, of being fascists and being dictators that just fuels the polarization that populist leaders deliberately foment in order to strengthen their mass support. As I told you in my political strategic definition, populists are not on very firm ground. So given that they don’t have organized and disciplined support, they try to increase the fervency, the intensity of their support. For that purpose, they turn politics into a war because politics is in a war and the dangerous forces that try to attack the populist and their followers.
You rally around the flag and the populist leader can command more intense support. Populist leaders want polarization. They start polarization. They confront. If we overreact and we accuse them of being dictatorial and fascist, if we jump on Trump’s joke that he wants to be a dictator for one day, we play into his hands, because then we increase the polarization from the other side and we divide his followers into his own camp. So, the risk is that we are tempted to enter the confrontation under the populist leader’s terms. That we give the populist leader the means of strengthening their own mass support and saying here are the establishment forces. They call us all kinds of names and they put us in the corner and they attack us over a little comment I made or a little joke and see how they played up.
So, that is one of my main concerns. That if you face a problem, you need exact a precise diagnosis and you need well targeted countermeasures. You don’t want to overreact. The design of countermeasures to populists, for example, have a good sense of the strength of the institutional framework. The United States, very strong institutions. In the United States, you’ll want to combat populists, especially, by fomenting conventional participation, elections, candidates. You don’t want to go into a big protest. You don’t want to have Antifa in the streets.
So, if you call Trump a fascist and play up the severity of the threat, you might get people to act in disruptive ways that play into Trump’s hands. You want to say yes, there is a danger. Yes, there is a threat. Trump is a serious problem. But we can take advantage of the institutional strength of the US and we’re going to do conventional participation. We’re going to combat the guy in the electoral arena and we’re not playing his game of disruption and contention. If you have a mass demonstration of a hundred thousand people and there are ten people who smash windows, that will be used by Trump. You don’t want to give him that pretext. You don’t want to give him video images that he can use.
Well, Kurt, thanks so much for joining me today. I think that this is really important to not just understand the resilience of democracy, not just to think through the threat of populism, but also to understand what democracy is at its core. I think it really helps us better understand what it is that we’re talking about when we think of democracy and what it is that makes democracy what it is. So, the book, one more time, is Democracy’s Resilience to Populism’s Threat: Countering Global Alarmism and the recent article in the Journal of Democracy is “Why Democracy Survives Populism.” Thanks for writing those. Thank you for joining me today.
Thank you for having me. It was very interesting to talk to you and you asked some very difficult questions.