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


‘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.


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.