by Katerina Hatzikidi*
Reviewed by Matheus Lucas Hebling
Few concepts in political theory are as disputed as populism. For some analysts (i.e., Finchelstein 2014, Müller 2016), it is a political phenomenon that is incompatible with pluralism, and hence a permanent threat to modern liberal democracies. For others (i.e., Laclau 2005), populism is an inherent part of democratic politics, expressing popular demands. The increasingly larger and ever-more interdisciplinary academic community that researches populism has not yet reached a consensus, even though different approaches do tend to agree on a minimum definition; one that emphasizes the people-centrism of populist discourse and the binary division between ‘us’ and ‘them’, or ‘the people and ‘the elite’/ ‘the establishment’ and so forth (Ostiguy et al. 2021).
Oftentimes seen as exclusionary -particularly in its far-right and authoritarian expressions- while other times understood as inclusive -especially in European leftist populist experiences- populism continues to escape precise definitions. To better understand this slippery concept, the Laclauian/Essex School proposes a discursive approach to populism. It understands the latter as a logic of political articulation that ‘avoids a priori assumptions about the specific contents and the ideological or programmatic features of populist actors’ (Katsambekis 2020: 10). According to this approach, ‘a populist politics is never exhausted by its populist dimension’ (de Cleen and Stavrakakis 2019: 318) and, in general, ‘populism tells us very little about the democratic “content” of any political project’ (Moffitt 2016: 133). In a similar vein, this lack of pre-filled content has been described by Enzo Traverso (2019) as populism’s ’empty shell, which can be filled by the most disparate political contents’ (2019: 16).
In Brazil, discussion of populism has long occupied a central place in scholarly and public debates. With a great many expressions of populist leaders in the country’s history, it stopped being associated with a particular period or political characteristics but was largely seen as a ‘real curse on domestic politics’ (Ferreira 2001: 12). Populism ended up being an accusatory term, turned against political rivals and all sorts of ‘others’; it was never an attribute proudly ascribed to oneself. To overcome this stalemate, some scholars opted for the use of emic concepts, which they hoped would be better able to describe the specificities of a given historical moment and socio-political context (e.g., Gomes 2014). To foreground the particular (national) about the general (global), such approaches often linked specific political phenomena to Brazil’s distinct history. Special emphasis has been placed on the country’s authoritarian tradition (Schwarcz 2021), as populism, by and large, continued to be associated with the manipulation of the masses which gravitated towards a high-handed charismatic leader.
More recently, exploring whether bolsonarism can be considered a populist phenomenon or not, Ichimaru and Cardoso (2020), from the standpoint of a liberal approach to populism, argue it should instead be understood as anti-democratic. This, they argue, because ‘[d]espite Bolsonaro’s intentions of taking part in elections, there is ample evidence of the fragile and opportunistic character of his loyalty to democracy’ (2020: online). While there is little doubt about Bolsonaro’s democratic credentials, it is worth considering why would his lack of democratic commitment exclude him from being understood also as a populist? Indeed, if we conceive of populism as a logic of political articulation that centers around the nodal point of ‘the people’, creating an antagonistic frontier between ‘the people’ and ‘the elites’, ‘the system’, or ‘the establishment’, then we can argue that Bolsonaro has successfully articulated such an antagonistic discourse.
Despite a long career in the Brazilian congress, during most of which he acted as a lobbyist for the armed forces, Jair Bolsonaro reinvented himself as an ‘anti-political establishment’ presidential candidate. He largely dissociated himself from the tainted image of a politician at a time when Brazil was shaken by the revelation of a series of corruption scandals. He did so by emphasizing his military past and inviting the reserve Army General, Hamilton Mourão, on his ticket. With a messianic far-right populist discourse that rallied Brazil’s ‘righteous citizens’ (cidadãos de bem) against the corrupt elites (understood in both material and moral terms), Bolsonaro won by a landslide in 2018 (Hatzikidi and Dullo 2021).
During his first term in office, Bolsonaro has strived to maintain his popular and populist appeal tapping into a diverse array of performative and discursive registers. Among those, his strategy of opening up the semantic field of the ‘enemy’ to adopt a flexible and plural definition thereof is of the essence. The ‘enemy’ in Bolsonaro’s case becomes associated with multiple and often shifting categories ranging from ‘leftist psychos’ (esquerdopatas) to ‘criminals’ (bandidos), ‘anti-Christians’, vaccination enthusiasts, and to anyone who dissents from the government’s official line. As different analyses of populists in power have evidenced, populist discourse in office commonly shifts its target or changes the intensity of its accusations. Letícia Cesarino (2021) has eloquently described this phenomenon as ‘narrative hedging’: a strategy of risk management that allows one to appeal to various fronts at the same time, minimizing risks and maximizing benefits.
How are we then to understand Bolsonaro, as a political leader, and bolsonarismo, as a political phenomenon, concerning populism? The observations above point to the inherent ambiguity of populist politics. This ambiguity, as Laclau (2005) has observed, is ‘not because of any cognitive failure, but because [the language of a populist discourse] tries to operate performatively within a social reality which is to a large extent heterogeneous and fluctuating’ (2005: 118). Similarly, Bolsonaro’s often ambivalent and shifting (enemy) discourse is a strategic adaptation to changing social realities and a form of maintaining his popular appeal. Understanding populism in its performative and discursive dimensions, without ascribing any ideological characteristics to it beforehand, allows us to distinguish between the features of the ’empty shell’ and the specific content which fills it at a given historical and political conjuncture. Bolsonaro and bolsonarism are profoundly shaped by militarism, anti-communism, and authoritarianism, among other things. But Bolsonaro is also undeniably a populist leader who infused a wide range of ideological elements into an attractive logic of political articulation that in 2018 was able to launch him as Brazil’s unlikely president. It remains to be seen if his articulation will continue to resonate with the Brazilian population in the forthcoming elections, or whether a more relevant message will be embraced instead.
Katerina Hatzikidi is a social anthropologist (DPhil, Oxon) and postdoctoral researcher at the ERC-funded PACT: Populism and Conspiracy Theory project at the University of Tübingen. She is also Research Affiliate at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford, and Associate Fellow at the Centre for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, University of London. Katerina’s work explores, among other things, questions of political and religious transformations, with a special country focus on Brazil. She has recently co-edited the volume A Horizon of (im)possibilities: A chronicle of Brazil’s conservative turn (University of London Press, 2021).
Cesarino, Letícia. 2021. ‘A desinformação como método: Bolsonaro e o novo regime de verdade na pandemia’, Jacobin Brasil. Available online at: https://jacobin.com.br/2021/02/a-desinformacao-como-metodo-bolsonaro-e-o-novo-regime-de-verdade-na-pandemia/ [accessed on 31 January 2021].
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Hatzikidi, Katerina and Eduardo Dullo. 2021. ‘Introduction: Brazil’s conservative return’. In Katerina Hatzikidi and Eduardo Dullo (eds.), A horizon of (im)possibilities: a chronicle of Brazil’s conservative turn, pp. 1-33. London: The University of London Press.
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Katerina Hatzikidi (2022) "Populism’s ambiguity: reflecting on bolsonarism". Brazilian Research and Studies Blog. ISSN 2701-4924. Vol. 3 Num. 1. available at: https://bras-center.com/populisms-ambiguity-reflecting-on-bolsonarism/, accessed on: May 21, 2022.