By Gretel Cuevas
Latin America Analyst
The COVID-19 pandemic has placed governments all over the world under strain, putting to test their capacity to adequately balance the tradeoffs between effective health management and economic growth. Government responses in the three most populated countries of the American continent— Brazil, Mexico, and the United States—have been influenced by the populist approach of their leaders. The use of divisive rhetoric that ignores science under the excuse of defending “popular will” from elites and institutions, as well as the use of nationalist narratives to justify the failure of their own policies has been the bread of every day. While previous research shows that the support for populist political leaders tends to increase in times of crisis, such as the 2008 financial crisis, the electoral victory of the United States Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, puts into question whether this hypothesis will hold true for the COVID-19 pandemic. This leads us to the question, what is the future of populism in America? Will COVID-19 unmask the inability of populist governments to provide better policies for “the people” leading to a retreat of populism?
Firstly, it is important to define populism as a political style of leadership characterised by the division of society into two antagonistic groups, “the people” and corrupt elites or outsiders. This division tends to occur along cultural, socio-economic, or anti-establishment lines. Cultural populists— such as Bolsonaro in Brazil or Trump in the United States— see native ethnic and religious groups as the true people while minorities and cultural elites tend to prevail as the other. Differently, socio-economic populists such as Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico see the working class as “the people,” and both domestic and international business elites as the antagonist. Independently of the ideological lines that define this division, populism operates under the idea that only the decisions made from below are legitimate, and to an extent morally superior. Therefore, there is a natural discrediting of experts and intermediary institutions that has been seen in the reluctance of the three leaders to adopt clear COVID-19 containment policies.
While many analysts predicted the strengthening of populism in the face of an economic crisis, the increasing number of deaths in the three countries combined with the inability to address the economic needs of their political base is starting to expose their lack of competence. Today, the United States, Brazil, and Mexico hold the first, third, and fourth countries with the highest COVID-19 death toll respectively. Despite the fatal outcomes in the three countries, the results in terms of popularity have varied.
In the case of the United States and Mexico, President Trump and President Obrador have been punished in the polls for downplaying the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic. In the United States, the November 3rd elections revealed the loss of support for president Trump in the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania costing him the second term of his presidency. In the case of Mexico, the popularity of President López Obrador has decreased from 86% at the beginning of his mandate, to 56% in September 2020. The case of Mexico and the U.S. agrees with Evan´s and Chzhen´s Valence of Voting Model, which argues that party performance evaluations directly affect voter behavior. Under this framework, bad performance leads voters to start prioritising competence over emotional discourses.
The case of Brazil, on the other hand, contradicts this hypothesis as the popularity of president Bolsonaro has reached his highest level of approval since taking office in 2019. President Bolsonaro’s approval rose from 32% to 41% in October after extending until the end of the year the $110 monthly payments for low-income Brazilians. Bolsonaro has relied on the narrative of increasing support during times of increased insecurity to consolidate his power. This behavior posits a big risk of democratic backsliding by the suspension of democratic institutions through emergency laws.
The different impacts of populism in the popularity of its leaders depends to a great extent on the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic. Differently to the 2008 financial crisis that disrupted the US real estate and financial markets, or other types of environmental or political emergencies that affect certain sectors of the economy and geographical regions, the COVID-19 pandemic exerted a radical and abrupt effect on the world´s economy. There was a simultaneous and radical cut of supply and demand in March that continues to cause high rates of unemployment and affects most of the economic sectors internationally. Added to the economic aspect, the increasing number of deaths combined with border closures, quarantine regulations, and entry bans have put much more than the economy at stake.
To conclude, populists are likely to be weakened electorally in the short-run as voters support non-populists based on valence voting such as was the case in the United States. However, in the long-run, governments that are able to address the accentuated economic crisis may benefit populist parties leading to a similar case to Brazil. In the case of Mexico, despite the current decrease in popularity, whether Mexicans decide to punish the president’s policies and party, which currently represents the majority, will be revealed in the June 2021 elections when 3,528 popular representatives will be elected. As Daphne Halikiopoulou highlights in her analysis, What Now for Populism?, the future of populism depends much more upon how well governments can balance the trade-offs between effective health management versus economic growth, rather than on the nature of their leadership. Therefore, what will determine the political future of the region is the extent that governments are able to balance their populist leadership with their ability to protect human lives, the effectiveness of their health policies, and the economic growth they generate.
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