Populism reflects the rhetorical style of political leaders who claim to govern directly for the people. In the context of Latin America, populism can therefore be used to describe “mass-popular movements… based on an emotive call… and often organized around a single charismatic leader”. As the political theorist Carlos Alberto Montaner puts it:
Populism is an ideological trend and a form of governance that amalgamates all the errors and political vices blithely practiced by Latin Americans throughout the 20th century: strong-man rule, patronage, statism, collectivism and anti-Americanism.”
Politicians whose view can be described as populist wish their people to regard them as endowed with real or imaginary attributes of goodness, generosity, courage, and concern for the poor. These are politicians who pretend to speak for the people even though, as the late historian José Honório Rodrigues observed, socio-economic problems in Brazil have been aggravated by such “false leaders of the agitator type, restless and dominated by feelings of shame and guilt.”
During the colonial period, the Portuguese Crown was largely dependent on the landed aristocracy for the development of Brazil’s economy and for its military security. Landowners administered justice across their lands and possessed their own private militias for the purposes of maintaining public order. Being independent of the law, they became paternal protectors of the population surrounding their homes.
Hence, as history professor Márcio Valença points out, “a patron-client relationship was based on mutual exchange and the expectation of both sides that it would provide future yields. The patrão provided resources, protection and links to the outside world… The “client” offered support and obedience… The patron-client system depended on the interaction between individuals and favoured informal flexible relationships”.
With the fall of the Brazilian Empire on 15 November 1889, local rural bosses became the mediators between citizens and the government. These local bosses maintained their traditional power by demanding the personal loyalty of those under their paternal protection. The economic security and social well being of individuals flowed directly from their bosses’ personal dominion. There was indeed a certain sense of noblesse oblige on their part, with their vassals developing an attitude of personal loyalty to them.
As the late American anthropologist Charles Wagley explained:
Frequently the local political boss, the coronel was a sort of patrão to his followers, who received favors and expected future favors. A lower-class worker without a patrão of the kind or another was a man without a protector in time of need. The patrão provided some measure of social security – generally the only form available to the worker.
An important text for those interested in understanding, in detail, the role played by the political boss in Brazilian society, and in particular the way political power has been exercised since the beginnings of Brazil’s colonization, is the classic text, Os Donos do Poder (The Owners of Power) written in 1957 by the late Brazilian jurist Raymundo Faoro. In one of the last and most important paragraphs of this seminal book, Faoro provides a general explanation of why personal power is of such significance in Brazil:
“The chief protects particular interests, grants privileges and incentives, and distribute jobs and benefits. It is expected that he will make justice without any attention to objective and impersonal rules. In the person of the sovereign is concentrated all the hopes of the rich and the poor, because the state is the centre of all power in Brazilian society… The chief is not subject to the landed aristocracy or the bourgeoisie. He governs… directly over the nation.
“He speaks directly to his people, not intermediaries… He is the people’s father, not… a legal and constitutional ruler. He is the good prince who… carries out welfare-state policies in order to guarantee the support of the masses. To avoid any [real] popular participation, he often appeals to street mobilizations; public rallies where the only thing left behind are the dust of his meaningless words.
“As the son of state providentialism, he strengthens the state power by using all the means this [statist] tradition offers. In extreme cases, he will become the social dictator of a socialistic type, who satisfies popular aspirations by calming down the people with bread and circus.”
The process of industrialization initiated in the 1930s created a large urban class which developed apart from the old influence of the landed aristocracy. This period of internal migration saw political power transferred from a landed oligarchy to urban political leaders. The rise of populism is identified as a by-product of that industrialization process emerging on the political scene when the popular masses migrated to the urban centres in search of new opportunities.
However, all this change of socio-economic structure did not modify traditional patterns of behaviour, since those who moved from the countryside to the cities preserved the tendency to view all relationships, including those with public officials, in personal rather than impersonal (legal) terms. In other words, those in power were still expected to be “generous” towards supporters and personal acquaintances.
The first political leader to capitalise on the preservation of the political mind-set inherited from the countryside was Getúlio Vargas, a prosperous caudillo (rural oligarch). In 1937, he masterminded a coup that installed the Estado Novo (New State), a populist dictatorship where he assumed the role of paternal ruler who directly appealed to the popular masses as their supreme ruler and benefactor. As Joseph Page points out:
“Upon assuming the presidency after the revolution of 1930, he set about creating a relationship of dependency not only between government and private enterprise… but also between government and labor. This relationship turned out to be a mirror image of the traditional tie between haves and have-nots in rural Brazil.
“Peasants who moved to the cities encountered a social structure quite different from the one to which they were accustomed. They have to live in amorphous slums and, as Brazil industrialized, to toil in impersonal workplaces. Thus it was easy for Vargas to substitute the government as the authority figure that would take care of the needs of employees, just as the landlord had done in the countryside.
Curiously, Vargas was a lawyer and landowner who began his political career with the support of other rural oligarchs from his native Rio Grande do Sul. But he was wise enough to perceive that the urbanization process would dramatically reduce the power of landowners. Originally, however, as the political philosopher and former Brazilian ambassador J.O. de Meira Penna explains:
“Vargas was linked mostly to the landlords of his own state, whose interests he continued defending even after he had turned into a populist rabble-rouser. Just after the 1930 “revolution”, one of his young followers, Lindolfo Collor, suggested the introduction of a new labor law… Vargas accepted Collor’s ideas with misgivings: “Let’s hope this little German will not cause us too much trouble”… But then he understood that the new labor and social welfare laws were copied from the Italian fascist Carta del Lavoro, keeping labor unions strictly under the thumb of the Ministry of Labor in his own government. Thus, the proletarian masses could eventually be mobilized to his advantage…”
Vargas constructed around himself the image of a paternal ruler modelled on the pater familias. He posed as the great “father” of the working classes, expecting absolute loyalty from them to such an extent that, from 1937 to 1945, laws were little more than a tool for the imposition of his personal will. In fact, Vargas was virtually free to instruct public authorities to kill, arrest, and torture anyone he wished.
After visiting the country in 1938, a famous political scientist, Karl Loewenstein, wrote that the greatest asset of the Brazilian dictatorship was the dictator himself, who, as he put it, carried the regime “on his shoulders”:
“The dictatorship is personalistic in character. In that, it is altogether different from the European totalitarian pattern. No government party protects it, and no coercive ideology supports it. The regime rests on no visible props, except the army; it is based on the popularity of one man alone.”
Even since, some of the most successful Brazilian politicians have been proud “disciples” of Vargas. They admire the former dictator for his “progressive” policies of national-statism and welfare-state labourism, which are also very appreciated by voters who wait expectantly for a “saviour” to inaugurate a “tropical paradise” in Brazil.
These voters rationalise: “Vargas was a dictator but for us he was good”. Or, as one worker put it: “I never permitted anyone to say anything bad about Vargas… I knew that he always gave us benefits, my work papers… I thought, I am a worker, and he has given me so many benefits”.
According to the Brazilian sociologist Maria Lucia Victor Barbosa, populism is strong in the country because many Brazilians “make a more emotional reading of the world”, so that they are also keen to accept demagogical promises of “messianic nature”. This undemocratic aspect of Brazilian society might explain the results of a survey conducted by the United Nations which found in 2004 that only 30.6% of Brazilians regard themselves as democrats.
The survey may reflect nostalgic feelings for previous “benevolent” dictatorships. Its results could have been worse had those who answered favourably to the idea of democracy been asked to explain what they mean by it. Due to the nature of Brazilian society, many Brazilians associate democracy with majority will but not with the rule of law. Indeed, the whole process of “mass mobilization” tends toward the personification of power, isolating the supposedly “democratic” power of demagogic-populist leaders from the rule of law.
As a result, under the current populist government of President Lula da Silva, corruption has reached unprecedented levels. The Lula administration is responsible for the biggest series of corruption scandals in the country’s history. According to James Petras, a left-wing sociology professor and expert on Brazilian politics, “every sector of Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT) has been implicated in bribery, fraud, vote buying, theft of public funds, failure to report illicit campaign financing, and a host of other felonious behaviour”.
The fact that President Lula remains so popular in the midst of so many scandals involving hundreds of millions of US dollars should come as no surprise to those familiar with the political workings of Brazil. For instance, the Government has spent millions of dollars on political propaganda. While such propaganda does nothing to reduce social problems, it serves to boost the President’s charismatic image as “a former factory worker with no university degree who speaks to his people as one of them”.
Support to the government is also obtained from the fact that the federal administration has employed within the state machinery thousands of members and supporters of the ruling PT party. A large number of party cadres, including trade union leaders, have been appointed to high positions in the government. This is so common place that a retired Supreme Court chief justice, Maurício Corrêa, has denounced that even the most highly technical jobs are going to unqualified party members, who nonetheless pay the party a levy constituting up to 20% of their salaries.
Another example of populism taking place involves the distribution of money to families in the form of a supposed anti-poverty programme called Bolsa Família (family fund). This programme is controlled by the federal government and provides direct cash to millions of Brazilians, roughly a fifth of the country’s population.
Such “generosity” offers no real solution for the problem of poverty, although it encourages the poor to regard President Lula as a “generous” paternal leader and provider. Unfortunately, demagogic governmental programmes such as the Bolsa Família end up aggravating the excess in government bureaucracy and spending, which is actually one of the reasons that public debt, taxes and interest rates are so high in Brazil, with its government claiming an estimated 40% of GDP in the form of taxes and contributions.
In Brazil, taxation to subsidise government expanding is overwhelming and the amount of red tape confronted at all levels of government is simply enormous. According to the 2008 Index of Economic Freedom, “starting a business in Brazil takes more than three times the world average of 43 days, and obtaining a business license takes more than the global average of 234 days”. (1)
Finally, “inflexible employment regulations”, which is another problem that populism certainly aggravates, is found to have created “a risk aversion for companies that would otherwise hire more people and grow”.
(1) Miles, Marc A. et al; 2006 Index of Economic Freedom. The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal, 2006, p.120
Augusto Zimmermann, LLB, LLM, PhD is a Lecturer in Law at Murdoch University, Western Australia.