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Populism Without the People

PRINCETON – Nicolás Maduro’s narrow victory in Venezuela’s presidential election raises an important question (quite apart from the opposition’s question as to whether Maduro really won): Can populism thrive without a genuinely popular, charismatic leader, or are movements like Chávismo doomed to fade into insignificance once they have lost their quasi-deities?

For many observers, populism is unthinkable without a strong, direct bond between an anti-establishment leader and citizens who feel neglected by mainstream political parties. Yet the role of leadership in populism is vastly overestimated. Indeed, given populism’s importance as a political phenomenon, that view, along with two others – that populism is somehow a call for direct democracy, and that populists can only protest, but never govern – needs to be challenged.