Hilda Sabato: The dilemmas of political representation

SabatoSince the beginning of the twenty-first century, the word “populism” has gained increasing space in the media, initially associated with political events in Latin America. The term is far from new, but it has reappeared to label very different regimes—from that of Chávez and Maduro in Venezuela, to those of Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador, and the Kirchners in Argentina. Unlike the spread of populist regimes in the postwar era, however, this latest wave has reached well beyond that continent, to include political and ideological movements all over the world. And while the success of the former was often explained by resorting to the long history of caudillos in Spanish America, it is quite obvious that such an argument cannot be applied to this new spread of populism across the globe. Both moments, however, share some common features that may better account for the flourishing of populism than any reference to a past tradition of caudillismo.

The end of the twentieth century heralded an era of political change on a global scale. Some of the main institutions and practices that had long reigned unchallenged in Western democracies have come under heavy scrutiny. The key political actor of the past century, the party, is in peril of extinction—at best, it will survive in new formats. Analysts talk about the crisis of representation, while most individuals feel foreign to the men and women in government, who they sense operate as a closed caste rather than as representatives of the people. In the words of Federico Finchelstein, “Democracy is confronting challenges that are similar to those it encountered during the Great Depression….” In that context, therefore, “Populism offers authoritarian answers to the crisis of democratic representation.”[1]

We are then, once more, at a critical turn in the history of modern politics, as it developed since the revolutions of the eighteenth century succeeded in introducing the sovereignty of the people as the founding principle of the polity and shattered the edifice of the ancien regime in several parts of Europe and the Americas. Within that framework, a key step in the actual organization of the new was the adoption of representative forms of government. In contrast to former experiences of direct popular rule, in the late eighteeth century the introduction of political representation offered a theoretical and practical solution to the challenge of making operative the principle of popular sovereignty.

Yet such a step posed dilemmas that have persisted throughout the centuries. Thus, the tension between the belief that power should stem directly from the people (an association of equals) and any operation whereby a selected few are set apart to exert power in the name of the many has run through the entire history of self-government. Modern representation did not overcome this quandary, although it offered a partial solution by combining democratic and aristocratic means: elections by all to select the few. Yet the attribute of distinction that marks those few—however chosen—keeps challenging the principle of equality, a value reinforced with the consolidation of democracy in the twentieth century. Besides this conceptual conundrum, the actual relationship between the representatives and the represented has always been, and remains, a crucial matter in the political life of modern times.

A second dilemma involved in representative government has posed even more challenges to the functioning of the polity. At the beginning of this story, although representatives were chosen by individual citizens embedded in their actual social conditions, they embodied, above all, the political community (the nation) as an indivisible whole, thus materializing the unity of the people. For almost a century, this issue informed the public debates around the unanimity or the plurality of the polity, and permeated the discussions on the forms of representation, which found one of its more heated moments late in that period in the controversies around the figure of the political party. By the 1900s, however, parties had become key institutions in the prevailing paradigm of representation, so much so that they were usually considered inseparable from democracy as it consolidated during the twentieth century. But today that whole edifice is crumbling, a clear sign that the challenges and dilemmas of political representation persist.

Republics of the New World addresses these issues at the time when modern representation appeared as a viable solution to the difficulties of instituting forms of government based on the principle of popular sovereignty. It traces the conflict-ridden history of representative institutions and practices in an area of sustained experimentation in the ways of the republic: post-colonial Spanish America. Two hundred years later, political representation remains problematic, and some of the same questions posed by the founders of those republics keep coming up, defying our democratic era. Today, like in the past, the way out of the crisis is uncertain and depends upon our own choices. In this context, populism offers a particular response to this predicament, while other political proposals resist its authoritarian features and seek to address the current dilemmas by enhancing the pluralistic and egalitarian elements of our democratic traditions.

Hilda Sabato is head researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) in Argentina and former professor of history at the University of Buenos Aires. She is the author of Republics of the New World: The Revolutionary Political Experiment in Nineteenth-Century Latin America.

[1] Federico Finchelstein, From Fascism to Populism in History, Oakland: University of California Press, 2017, p.29.