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.

Book Fact Friday: The Latino Catholic Experience in America

InMatovina_LatinoCatholicism light of the recent election of Pope Francis, a native Spanish speaker and the first of his position to hail from the Americas, we thought an excerpt on Catholicism among those in the United States with origins in Latin America would pique your interest.

FACT: “Catholics comprise the largest religious group in the United States, encompassing nearly a fourth of all U.S. residents. Hispanics constitute more than a third of U.S. Catholics. They are the reason why Catholicism is holding its own relative to other religions in the United States. According to researchers of the American Religious Identification Survey, without the ever-growing number of Latinos in this country, the U.S. Catholic population would be declining at a rate similar to mainline Protestant groups. And given the relative youthfulness of the Latino community, Hispanic Catholics will continue to represent an increasing percentage of U.S. Catholics over time. They already comprise more than half of U.S. Catholics under the age of twenty-five and more than three-fourths of Catholics under eighteen in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Robert Putnam and David Campbell succinctly sum up these demographics in their much-discussed 2010 study about the state of American religion, avowing that the Catholic Church in the United States ‘is on its way to becoming a majority-Latino institution.'”
Timothy Matovina in Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church

Read chapter one here: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s9545.pdf

Most histories of Catholicism in the United States focus on the experience of Euro-American Catholics, whose views on such concerns as church reform, social issues, and sexual ethics have dominated public debates. Latino Catholicism provides a comprehensive overview of the Latino Catholic experience in America from the sixteenth century to today, and offers the most in-depth examination to date of the important ways the U.S. Catholic Church, its evolving Latino majority, and American culture are mutually transforming one another.

Timothy Matovina assesses how Latinos’ attempts to celebrate their faith and bring it to bear on the everyday realities of their lives have shaped parishes, apostolic movements, leadership, ministries, worship, voting patterns, social activism, and much more. At the same time, the lives and faith of Latino Catholics are being dramatically refashioned through the multiple pressures of assimilation, the upsurge of Pentecostal and evangelical religion, other types of religious pluralism, growing secularization, and ongoing controversies over immigration and clergy sexual abuse. Going beyond the widely noted divide between progressive and conservative Catholics, Matovina shows how U.S. Catholicism is being shaped by the rise of a largely working-class Latino population in a church whose leadership at all levels is still predominantly Euro-American and middle class.

Latino Catholicism highlights the vital contributions of Latinos to American religious and social life, demonstrating in particular how their engagement with the U.S. cultural milieu is the most significant factor behind their ecclesial and societal impact.