‘In all matters of importance, style and not content is the important thing’: Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest.
Populism is a concept which, despite repeated critiques, refuses to disappear from Latin American studies. This article reviews some of the literature, suggesting that populism is best defined in terms of a particular political style, characteristically involving a proclaimed rapport with ‘the people’, a ‘them-and-us’ mentality, and (often, though not necessarily) a period of crisis and mobilisation; none of which makes it exceptional, abnormal, ‘unmediated’ or irrational. Mexican – among other – examples are invoked. The article questions some received opinions: that populism is typically urban, relates to particular historical stages of development, or distinctively derives from either multi-class alliances or elite manipulation. It also queries the fashionable notion of ‘economic populism’. Finally, the article notes the recent phenomenon of ‘neo-populism’, embodied by Salinas, Menem, Fujimori, etc., which a suitably loose (‘stylistic’) definition can usefully accommodate, thus suggesting the continued, if limited, utility of the concept.
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