First of all, congratulations are in order for our friend Rodrigo Guerra, who in January was appointed as an ordinary member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences (PASS). Rodrigo is already a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, and a member of the theological commission of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM), and this new appointment only reinforces the confidence that the Church has placed in him as a thinker, advisor, and member of the lay faithful.

Last month, Rodrigo gave a presentation entitled “Fratelli tutti and the challenges of Neo-populism” as part of a webinar on Fratelli Tutti sponsored by the PASS. We are pleased to share it with you here, as it touches upon some of the sociological and political challenges we face in trying to turn Pope Francis’s vision of fraternity into a reality.

Another reason I am pleased to share it with you is because it is written and delivered in English! Rodrigo gives presentations and talks quite regularly, but they are usually in Spanish (although he has been kind enough to let us translate his work).

Update 4/10/2021: Now the text of his presentation has been published by Vatican News! Our links have been updated to direct readers to that version of the text.


4. Populism and neo-populism

Among the various issues that Fratelli tutti addresses, there is one of particular political relevance: neo-populism. Chapter V of the Encyclical, dedicated to “a better kind of politics,” just begins by tackling this question. The neo-populism of which we speak today is not a mere linear continuation of the classic populism of the thirties and sixties of the twentieth century[5]. The populism to which Fratelli tutti refers is caused by the weakness of the democratic culture of some nations since 1990. We cannot here make a comparative analysis of the similarities and differences between both stages of populism. Much less can we distinguish in this brief space between Latin American and European neo-populism. In fact, the soundest thing, both yesterday and today, is to speak of “neo-populisms” that specify to a greater or lesser extent a pack of elementary characteristics.

More than 10 years ago, at the Social Observatory of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM) we tried to approach this reality[6]. Over time, it is not possible to provide a definition of “neo-populism” that will please everyone, and yet we will try to give one, once more, below. At present, the concept of neo-populism is used to indicate a large number of realities of very diverse ideological lineage: Donald Trump, Evo Morales, Viktor Orbán, Jair Bolsonaro, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Matteo Salvini, Nicolás Maduro, and a long etcetera. We wanted to put the names of various contemporary political leaders to underline that, in all cases, the role of the more or less messianic caudillo appears as a constant.

From our point of view, the new populism is not so much an ideology, but a way of exercising power. Following Enrique Krauze a bit, we can say that the new populism is the demagogic use that a charismatic leader makes of democratic legitimacy to promise access to a possible utopia and, upon triumph, to consolidate power outside the law or transforming it to convenience[7]. In our opinion, neo-populism tends to include, to varying degrees, some – or all – of the following ingredients:

      • An ideological reading of national history, which serves as an argument to explain the arrival of a providential “caudillo”.
      • The exaltation of the “providential leader” who will solve the problems of the people and who, in one way or another, seeks to affirm himself as the incarnation of the latter. The “caudillo” is constituted as such by his messianic character and by his authoritarian way of exercising power.
      • The use and abuse of the word: the populist considers himself the supreme interpreter of the general truth. With his speech, he occupies as much of the public space as he can and administers freedom of expression at his discretion.
      • The arbitrary use of public funds: the treasury is used for megaprojects that do not go through a rigorous economic analysis that evaluates their viability and relevance.
      • The money is distributed in a targeted and welfare manner, without seeking to strengthen intermediate organizations, and trying to generate political loyalty in the beneficiaries.
      • The definition of an internal enemy that generates social outrage: the businessmen, the rich, the oligarchies, who in many cases have really been corrupted and serve as a perfect example of what to fight against.
      • The definition of an external enemy that can be blamed in case of need. Enemy who, on the other hand, can give more than one reason to be considered this way.
      • Acceptance of some elements of the market economy, insofar as they strengthen the existence of a business community loyal to the ruler. It is what some call “crony capitalism”.
      • Contempt for the legal and institutional framework, which is sought to be transformed at convenience.
      • Manipulation of the secular nature of the State, which on occasions will limit the scope of action of the churches to private life and, on others, will accept the discretionary use of cultural and religious elements for the public legitimation of power[8].

Pope Francis, in Fratelli tutti, clearly identifies that any positive meaning that the term “populism” might have had in the past has been nullified in the present scenario. Neo-populism has currently become “another source of polarization in an already divided society[9].” It is a cause and effect of social fracture. Its nature emerges when a leader captivates the population, seeking to “exploit politically a people’s culture, under whatever ideological banner, for their own personal advantage or continuing grip on power. Or when, at other times, they seek popularity by appealing to the basest and most selfish inclinations of certain sectors of the population. This becomes all the more serious when, whether in cruder or more subtle forms, it leads to the usurpation of institutions and laws[10].”

Something that should be highlighted, from the quote we have just mentioned, is that Francis points out that current populism can occur “with any ideological sign.” Indeed, the neo-populisms of the right and the left, apparently confronted, quickly tend to find sympathy and meeting points with each other. The recent case of the synergy, collaboration and closeness of Andrés Manuel López Obrador with Donald Trump is an extremely eloquent example.

Read it all.

(To listen to our 3-part interview with Rodrigo last year, click for part 1, part 2, and part 3.)

Image: Rodrigo Guerra Lopez with Pope Francis.


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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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