Journal of Latin American Studies



Populism and Neo-populism in Latin America, especially Mexico 1


ALAN KNIGHT Professor of the History of Latin America and Fellow a1
a1 St. Antony's College, Oxford

Abstract

‘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.



Footnotes

1 This article is partly based on an earlier paper, given at a conference in Mexico in 1992, and subsequently published as ‘El abrigo de Arturo Alessandri: populismo, estado y sociedad en América Latina, siglo XX’, in Maria Luisa Tarrés, (coord.), Transformaciones sociales y acciones colectivas, América Latina en el contexto internacional de los noventa (Mexico, 1994), pp. 49–76. I would like to thank Michael Conniff and Paul Cammack for comments on an earlier draft.