Populism and religion in Brazil and Mexico. A brief reflection

Reception: June 2, 2020

Acceptance: August 18, 2020


The relationship between populism, religion and politics is analyzed, both on a theoretical level and in the cases of Brazil and Mexico. It begins with a critique of the article by Joanildo Burity on “the Pentecostal people” in Brazil and on the relevance of using Laclau's theory of populism to explain this phenomenon. The same arguments are then used to analyze, in contrast, contemporary Mexican populism, embodied in President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, highlighting its religious background.

Keywords: , , , ,

populism and religion in brazil and mexico. a brief reflection

Abstract: This text analyzes the relation between populism, religion and politics, both in a theoretical plane and in the cases of Brazil and Mexico. It begins by critiquing the article by Joanildo Burity on the “pentecoastal people” in Brazil and on the propriety of using Laclau's theory of populism to explain this phenomenon. The same arguments are then used to analyze, in contrast, contemporary Mexican populism, personified by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, highlighting his religious background.

Keywords: Populism, people, Pentecostalism, Brazil, Mexico.


To appeal to a theory of populism to explain the formation of great political movements in times of crisis is tempting, suggestive, and even necessary. Various theorists of democracy have long argued that democracy always moves between two extremes: faith and skepticism (Oakeshott, 1998), or redemption and pragmatism (Canovan, 1999). The extreme believer is very close to religion, as he attributes to the popular will an instituting capacity that creates a political order whose moral bases, in modernity, start from the principle of human dignity and autonomy (liberalism) - already presupposed in Christianity - or, more categorically, the essential equality of men (more recently of women as well). In more contemporary political currents, the principle of a substantive / distributive justice (socialism) complemented the moral principle of equality with a material precept. The hope of achieving emancipation presides over the great political narratives, an expectation closer to faith than reality. Great political speeches always propose some kind of re-foundation, and the bigger the feat, the more symbolic power its bearers (party leaders, leaders) have. At the pragmatic extreme are most of the politicians and citizens of established democracies. The harsh reality of the inevitability of capitalism (although better or worse regulations may be imposed on it) and the precariousness and permanent need for the renewal of the democratic political order force us to assume a pragmatic attitude in the face of realities that refuse to be “re-founded” at will. of the sovereign. From this perspective, democracy is seen as a permanent negotiation within a narrow framework of options.

It is logical that in moments of crisis in the political order there is a need to consider a great renovation. It is the ideal time for the emergence of leaders who offer great, sometimes magical solutions to the pressing problems of today. And that is why studies of extraordinary forms of leadership, and especially of populism as a form of politics, have a long genealogy, as does the phenomenon itself.1

The relationship between populism and religion is one of elective affinity, as Weber would say. Populist leaders pose great deeds and appeal to primordial identity principles, almost always based on religion, understood as the basis of national culture and / or as a moral foundation for the recovery of politics (Arato, 2017). For this reason, the churches enter into a peculiar relationship with the populists: they appreciate their faith, support their cause, allow the use of religious tropes in political language and seek advantages for their flock, but when it comes to the exercise of power, they confront each other. ethical dilemmas and uncomfortable situations.

Populism is situated on the "periphery" of democracy, at its redeeming extreme. He is in constant tension with her, she is at her limits. It is born in democracy, but its institutions hinder it. Populism maintains a similar relationship with religion: appeal is made to its imagery, to its principles, but the interference of the churches in earthly affairs is not accepted.

The symbolic axis of populism is precisely "the people." Defining it is essential, since it establishes distinctions between friends and enemies in the political field. It is the populist leaders who define who the people are. But in certain political processes, the construction of a political identity from the religious field can go through the use of the category of people (De la Torre, 2015). It is worth wondering if the self-description of a social group as "people" from a religious base is a valid exercise also from the sociological point of view.

This article addresses this discussion, and tries to contribute to an understanding of the relationship between populism, religion and politics, both on a theoretical level and by applying the reflection to the cases of Brazil and Mexico. Obviously, this short exercise is very basic and is more of a provocation than anything else. The text consists of two parts. In the first, a critical reading of the main article of the dossier of this issue, that of Joanildo Burity on “the Pentecostal people” in Brazil. Given that the author resorts to Laclau's theory of populism, the discussion forces us to consider the interpretations of populism and their relevance to explain the case of the Pentecostal movements in our sister country. In the second part, the arguments presented in the first part are used to analyze, in contrast, contemporary Mexican populism, embodied in President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, highlighting its religious background.

"The Pentecostal People" in Brazil

Joanildo Burity's article is an excellent analysis of the process of shaping a group of evangelical sects into a kind of “political town”. Burity uses Ernesto Laclau's theory of populism to explain the complex and contradictory trajectory of multiple, politically plural evangelical churches, which over several decades became a social movement. This process managed to create a shared collective identity that, under extraordinary historical circumstances, such as the crisis of the Labor Party government in 2016, gave rise, at least partially, to the creation of a collective sense of being part of a “people ”. Burity certainly does not claim that Pentecostals are the people, but rather a part of a more abstract entity that for now has expressed itself fundamentally in negative terms through the open rejection of the Brazilian political elite as a whole in the 2018 presidential elections, and in the risky support for a completely unlikely leader and fortuitous like Jair Bolsonaro.

Burity places the rise and consolidation of evangelical churches in Latin America within the broader context of the imposition of neoliberalism in the region and the political pluralization that democratization brought with it. These churches have advanced hand in hand with the social and moral crisis created by the new economic and political order. On the one hand, neoliberalism ended up breaking the old forms of popular horizontal solidarity and created a demos fragmented, whose maximum sociodemographic expression is in the chaotic urban popular neighborhoods that characterize the cities of Latin America. In these social contexts, in which people live in the most complete precariousness and suffer from the breakdown of traditional solidarity relationships, it is where Pentecostal churches have managed to prosper by offering a space for collective mutual aid, for the construction of solidarity networks. interpersonal - whether momentary or fleeting - and an ideology that revalues conservative attitudes and principles as the foundation for success in life. This anthropological explanation addresses the part of the problem that refers to the causes of the growth of these churches in democratic contexts in which hypothetically there is a multiple political offer available and clientelistic networks that are activated at least in each election. Indeed, although there are favorable objective conditions for the deployment of alternative institutions that produce collective solidarity and identity, such as the Pentecostal churches, this is not enough to explain their gigantic development in Brazil and in some Central American countries, where they have achieved great economic and political power.

In the article there is a confirmation of this growth, but not an explanation of it. The fact that in other Latin American countries the Pentecostal churches are not so central implies that there must be specific factors in each country that explain the nature of this process. At least in this article we do not find this explanation, which has to do both with the territorial presence of certain actors but also with the absence of others, such as the state and the Catholic Church.

Burity analyzes the growing politicization of the evangelical churches, that is, the way in which they have progressively incorporated into the political field until they have become an almost hegemonic force within the conservative field, at least in the last presidential election in Brazil. The author supposes that the empowerment of these churches has to be explained by their success in the constitution of an "evangelical people", in "the evangelical emergence as the construction of a new political subjectivity”, That is, in the construction of a new town. Or even in the re-hegemonization of the town. Not at its origin, but at its destination. First, through the demand to be a legitimate part of the nation-people (here anti-Catholicism and the vindication of the lexicon of citizenship rights are the main movements). Then, especially in the last five to six years (this is written at the beginning of 2020), assuming itself as a constituted political subject, with the intention of redefining the nation-people as a evangelical people (Burity).

For readers unfamiliar with Brazilian history, it is difficult to understand the size and diversity of evangelical churches, their territorial distribution, and their social penetration beyond the popular areas of Brazilian cities (Kingstone and Power, 2017). In reality, the Pentecostal market is fragmented and competitive, as these churches lack a central authority and a unified doctrine. For this reason, it is difficult to understand how a point can be reached where the various churches seem to converge in the same political project and insert themselves into a far-right government whose president contradicts in each of his words and actions the religious principles that sustain Pentecostal identity.

To explain this apparent paradox, which is not unique to Brazil, but we can also observe it in the United States of Donald Trump and in India of Narendra Modi, the author resorts to Laclau (2005) to explain how a project is constructed discursively common from disparate and inconsistent elements from the logical point of view. Indeed, Laclau's theory offers an explanation of the psychological, sociological and political foundations on which populism is based. Populism is, according to Laclau, a way of doing politics so basic and generalized today that the Argentine philosopher ends up considering that populism is the politics of our time. The argument is that given the collapse of the legitimacy of political parties, and given the fragmentation of contemporary capitalist society, it is no longer possible to develop democratic politics through party representation. The fragmentation of the social can only be overcome through a symbolic condensation constructed by discursive means and through the action in the political field of a strong leader that unifies the popular field. This fictitious unit is built from a demand or set of real demands of a part of society, and later, through a discursive process, turn that particularity into a generality, that is, turn that part into a whole. This discursive mechanism requires the existence of an “empty signifier”, that is, a demand or political expression that channels and synthesizes all the biases, which summarizes the majority feeling in a concrete expression. For this, this empty signifier is articulated through a “chain of equivalences” with the demands and the particular discourses of each group or sector. This significant void can be any demand, depending on the given historical circumstances: the rescue of the nation, national pride, social justice, the fight against corruption, the rejection of elites, the rescue and defense of traditional moral principles. , etc. Once the empty signifier is defined, a political field formed by friends and enemies is built. The first are those who make up the people, the others are those who oppose its success and constitute the enemy to be defeated.2 The problem is that someone must enunciate that empty signifier. And for this enunciator to be at the same time the representative of the unity of the diverse, it has to be united to the population - otherwise dispersed - by emotional means, establishing an affective bond that replaces the rational granting of representation. The leader thus becomes the incarnation of a kind of diffuse popular will.

This theory has a negative effect on democracy. On the one hand, his diagnosis of politics reduces it to a discursive exercise of enunciation of one or some phrases / demands that synthesize the complexity of social needs appealing not to reason but to emotion. The representative bond, the foundation of democracy and in general of association and participation, that is, of democracy and politics from society, is abandoned alleging a kind of obsolescence in our late democracies. Representation implies an exercise of limited authorization (someone is chosen to do something for a certain time), and a mechanism of supervision or accountability, even if postfactum, such as elections, or through the activation of other control mechanisms (from the division of powers to the pressure of public opinion (Pitkin, 1967). Urbinati (2014), for example, defines representative democracy as an articulation of willwill), expressed through the electoral decision, and opinion, that is, the ways in which the elected leaders are critically controlled. The key here is the existence of a balance of powers and a critical public sphere. Laclau's theory dispenses with opinion, declares that politics is only will, and that this will is, ultimately, that of the leader who embodies the popular will that only he is capable of expressing.

Laclau thus returns to Carl Schmitt's (1991) criticisms of the Weimar Republic, to his concept of the political as the definition of friends and enemies, and to his idea that the identity between leader and people is the true essence of society. democracy. Laclau adds an articulated theory of discourse to his post-Gramscian theory of hegemony to recycle Schmitt by giving him a "rational" veil. With this, he believes to establish the floor of a new “radical” politics, which is only so inasmuch as the most probable net effect of such a policy is the destruction of democracy itself.

Laclau highlights the inclusive potential of populism and, in that sense, its democratizing character. Populist leaders give a voice to those who do not have it, they speak for those who no one listens to. What distinguishes contemporary populism is that it arises within democracy, it is one of its products, a kind of corrective for its excesses or deficits (Canovan, 2005; Urbinati, 2019). Arditti (2014) says that populism is situated “on the edges of liberalism”, to point out that this type of politics is on the limits of democracy. It arises in it, lives in it, but somehow it collides with it and, in extreme cases, puts it at risk, as confirmed by the cases of Venezuela (where Chavista populism led to a destructive dictatorship) and Hungary, where Víktor Orbán has annulled parliament and the judiciary, persecuted civil society actors, and instituted a one-man government.

From this theoretical perspective, one would think, in the first place, that evangelical churches cannot be the vehicle for shaping a discourse that manages to articulate other discourses and actors. Their religious values are by no means an empty signifier sufficient to create a politically unified social front, at least not in contemporary Western societies, where there is a certain religious and political plurality, and which are generally quite secular. There have been historical moments and there are countries in which a religion can become a central element of a kind of empty signifier, such as the fundamentalist Hinduism of Narendra Modi or the conservative Catholicism of the Polish political leaders. But in both cases we speak of truly hegemonic religions, historically constituted in the national territory and culture. Pentecostalism is not hegemonic in Brazil and perhaps it is not until today in any other country in Latin America.

Laclau's theory is a theory of hegemony, that is, a theory that presupposes that a certain discursive articulation manages to be recognized as the axis of public morality and of a majority political project. Pentecostalism as a religious expression cannot be the articulating axis of a hegemonic discourse in today's Latin American societies. Burity is not trying to convince us of this, but that Pentecostals have “become a people”, which he understands rather as an identity movement with political representation. But in populist theory there is no place for many peoples, only for one. That is precisely what populism is all about. Therefore, to speak of a "Pentecostal people" from Laclau's theory seems a logical contradiction. At any given time, Pentecostals may be part of the people and their demands may have been partially expressed as part of the chain of equivalences within an empty signifier constructed by someone else. The active participation of Pentecostals through their various political formations in the movement that led Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency of Brazil is a circumstantial act, the product of a peculiar political conjuncture, which precisely because it is, is not a firm basis for a potential new hegemony.

Indeed, as the author himself explains, it was the hegemonic crisis of the Labor Party that opened a political juncture that ended in a leadership vacuum and an organic crisis of the political system. In 2013, the gigantic demonstrations of Brazilian citizens in all the large cities of the country already announced the exhaustion of the hegemonic capacities of the pt. The historical party of the Brazilian left, the largest mass party in Latin America, the party that promoted the most extensive democratic experimentation in the region, was from that moment rejected by a growing proportion of the population because it had not complied. with the expectations of continuous improvement of the living conditions of the popular and middle classes, and instead had institutionalized a political system based on the exchange of favors and systemic corruption. It must be said that this system had been tolerated for decades, since it was the only way in which political stability could be built in a country in which regional elites retained a veto power over all federal governments (Avritzer, 2016). Paradoxically, the very democratization of public life promoted by the pt allowed the political use of endless corruption scandals to gradually build an image of the pt as the promoter of everything that conservatives considered "political sins": corruption, multiculturalism, tolerance for sexual diversity, the very relative empowerment of women. In the middle classes weighed the incoherence of a discourse based on justice and participation with a practice of politics based on corruption, which not because old and traditional had to continue to be tolerated (Avritzer and Filgueiras, 2012; Power and Taylor, 2011).

In reality, there are multiple factors that explain this structural crisis of the Brazilian political system, which was not only a crisis of the pt, but the set of parties that made up the dysfunctional democratic regime and its constitutional design itself. Precisely because it is the end of the epoch, a juncture was opened in which it was easy to articulate a critique of the existing order of the traditional populist type: “death to the political oligarchy that governs us; were the corrupt elite; Enough of subverting the moral principles of society ”. In other words, an identifiable enemy could easily be constructed: the political elite as a whole and its intellectual and cultural allies, which contrasted with a good people, depositories of the moral reserves destroyed by politics. To make matters worse, the internal civil war of the Brazilian political class between 2015 and 2018 ended in its self-destruction, which opened the door to an opportunist leader from the political class itself, but always marginal within it, who knew how to take advantage of the enormous void of leadership and politically articulating an anti-political protest movement, lacking in a program, which represented only a feeling of boredom, an almost irrational rejection of politics.

Pentecostals did not play a central role in this process, but they did join the government that emerged from this extraordinary election. As a context, it must be said that for many years Brazil has had Pentecostal mayors, deputies, senators, ministers and governors. The insertion of these churches into politics has been going on for almost three decades and has been growing as the political crisis has worsened. Remember that in Brazil it is said that the main benches of the parliament can be classified into three B: the ox (cattle ranchers), the Bible (Pentecostals) and the bullet (military). This ultra-conservative coalition vetoed the most daring initiatives of a little risky and very pragmatic pt and opened the door to Bolsonaro's populism by conspiring to deliver a coup of dubious legality to President Dilma Rousseff, promote the imprisonment of former President Lula, fuel the country's political polarization and destroy the institutional safeguards that protected the democratic constitution of 1988 (Avritzer, 2016). Throughout this process the Pentecostals acted politically not as a “people”, but guided by the same pragmatic leaders who once supported from the parliament and participated in the governments of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Lula and Rousseff, and that in the new Circumstances considered it opportune to go to the opposite side, first, for political convenience, and second, for a certain ideological affinity with Bolsonaro.

Jair Bolsonaro's populism is anything but akin to Pentecostalism, except in his defense of patriarchy and his opposition to abortion and marriage equality. Bolsonaro is openly trying to destroy the Republic, calling for the closure of Congress, where his bench has only 10% of seats; to the dismissal of the Supreme Court of Justice, because he fears that one day his children (suspected of the crime of a black and lesbian councilor of Rio de Janeiro) and himself will be prosecuted; and he is openly calling for a military coup, reinterpreting the 1964-1986 military dictatorship as a "golden age." He has been married several times and has shown a contempt for women, for Indians, for nature and for the lives of the poor that no one in Brazil had dared to articulate as a public discourse. Could this ex-military coup and proto-fascist be the leader of a “Pentecostal people”? The “empty signifier” that Bolsonaro used to win the presidency of the Republic was a well-known set of anti-elite and morally conservative values: “death to the corrupt”, “down with the political elites”, “moral order and end of tolerance for the gays”,“ Brazil first, the world later ”,“ God and strength to end crime ”. Performatively, Bolsonaro has played the role of the macho, militaristic and provocative leader who goes above everything and everyone. It is very difficult to attribute to a leader like this a heavenly halo.

More importantly, from the point of view of Laclau's theory, the “Pentecostal people” lacks the unified leadership that gives a sense of mission to their endeavors. There are certainly very powerful shepherds. One of them owns a gigantic television network, and many others have their own media, especially radio stations. Pentecostal pastors have understood better than anyone the importance of the media in the age of "audience democracy", as characterized by Manin (1998). But none would recognize themselves in a single leader. And if the leader came from outside, he would transcend the limits of the "Pentecostal people." More importantly, Pentecostals are not excluded from the political system. Its senior pastors have been professional politicians for many years and are successful business owners. They have installed schools, universities, hospitals and companies taking advantage of their political power. They have created not only religious networks, but a vast clientelistic empire. And in that process, they have long since ceased to be marginal. In more conventional terms, Pentecostals have become a network of pressure groups with a high capacity for political representation and advocacy. For this reason, a study of the leaderships in the Pentecostal religious field, and of their function as mediators between the private religious space and the public-political space, is missed.

Sooner or later Pentecostals will have to separate from that leader, Jair Bolsonaro, who offered to put God first just to create hell on earth. And in doing so, the "Pentecostal people" will have to transcend the private sphere as the source of their public actions (decency, the pursuit of economic success, the defense of patriarchy, etc.) to act in defense of the public interest in what public: respect for the law, human rights, and ultimately, democracy.

For a contrast: López Obrador's populism and his religious background

I start here from a line of argument that Andrew Arato has presented in various texts (Arato, 2013; Arato and Cohen, 2017). In the first place, it is necessary to remember that democracy is, symbolically, a break with the old premodern order, which based its legitimacy on the divine character of the investiture of the monarchs. Claude Lefort (1990) starts from the critique of the medieval conception of “the two bodies of the king” (Kantorowicz, 1981). One of them was the divine representation (theological), given by the papal blessing and the correct noble succession, and another was the physical one, the one who commanded, the earthly human who inherited the throne (secular). Power was held by a man (or woman) who was accountable to no one. The desacralization of power produced by democracy presupposes that power becomes an “empty” place. It is no longer occupied by an absolute sovereign, there is no longer a divine legitimacy, nor indefinite permanence on the throne. Power is temporarily occupied by a man or woman who has diverse controls and limited capacities legally and politically. Symbolically, the recognition of the plurality and division of society is instituted. There is no longer an organic society, but one composed of semi-autonomous subjects and corporations. A “people” unified by the double body of the king can no longer be located, but a diverse and dispersed people that governs itself through mechanisms that imply a temporary representation, always in suspense. This is the ideal, as illusory as that of the absolute power of the monarch, which was never so either. But the moral-legal principle of democracy is adequately described by the trope of the emptiness of power.

Democracy has never worked very well anywhere, but, as Mexicans know well from experience, in one way or another we all aspire for it to come a little closer to the ideal. The long struggle for democracy in all countries, and the incessant denunciations of authoritarianism in all its forms, reflects that the aspiration to freedom, well-being and justice go through the construction of controls to power, the most basic of which it is the possibility of getting rid of a president in a peremptory time. Competitive elections are therefore essential. But there is more than that, since democracy presupposes a series of controls, formal and informal, which imply the existence of other powers, and of public spaces for citizens to express their disagreement.

The populist critique of democracy is based on the intrinsic limitations of such an order: in one way or another, economic elites accommodate or colonize political power; the politicians themselves become an elite separated from the masses, a “privileged caste” (De la Torre and Peruzzotti, 2008). Even top professional civil servants, intellectuals and artists, benefit from the crumbs that the elites throw at them to buy their silence and gain their acquiescence. Only the power of a unified people can counteract the power of these “extractive mafias”. And to build such power, you need a leader who unifies, who represents the excluded, who speaks for them, who goes beyond the limits that the elites want to impose on him.

As we mentioned above, we are living today globally in a populist era, typical of the end of the historical cycle. For years now, neoliberal globalization has accentuated inequality to intolerable levels, without democratic governments having done anything to limit the precariousness of work, the destruction of nature, the demolition of rural life and the consolidation of a of urban life that is a daily ordeal for the majority. The subjects of democratic competition, the political parties, have lost their legitimacy and relative autonomy from the powers that be. It is not surprising that for ten years the world has experienced an unprecedented wave of protests and social movements. In the absence of responses in the formal political arena, a vast space has opened, a true pathological void that has been filled by populist leaders around the world (Rosanvallon, 2020).

These leaders share a logic that has four essential components (Arato, 2017: 288): a conception of the people as a unit (there is only one people, not a plurality of actors); the part (the good people) replaces the whole as the symbolic subject / object of politics; the friend / enemy logic is the rule of politics (there is no tolerated criticism or partial alliances, no negotiation, only subordination or exclusion); the recovery of the logic of the incarnation of power, in this case in the leader, who represents the entire people, which gives it a semi-sacred aura.

It is this last characteristic that institutes a theological understanding of politics. Populisms vary in the degree of theologization, but all have as the symbolic basis of their mission a higher good, be it the defense of the true religion, or the protection of the purity of culture and national values against the interference of immigrants and other external forces, or the recovery of the old imperial greatness, destroyed by incompetent and incapable, or the recovery of republican decency and morals in the face of the impudence and frivolity of generalized corruption and undue privilege, and so on.

In Mexico, the economic, moral and political crisis of the neoliberal semi-democratic regime allowed amlo decisively win a presidential plebiscite election in 2018 (Olvera, 2020). During his long presidential campaign, he built a very simple and realistic friend / enemy opposition: the "good people", the poor, poorly paid workers, despised and not represented by anyone - neither in the political field nor in civil society - against the "Elite in power", allusion to a vague collection of businessmen, politicians and intellectual and media elites. He developed the most elementary "empty signifier": the "fourth transformation", which synthesized historical feat, radical change, spirit of justice and political will. From there, any specific demand could be incorporated into the chain of equivalences. He had the advantage that his leadership was already consolidated, since it was his third presidential campaign and in 2013 he had created his personal party, Morena. His credibility and legitimacy were beyond any doubt, since he always criticized neoliberalism, corruption and denounced the privileges of "those above." And, without ever giving up his leadership, but on the contrary, affirming it, he had the ability and pragmatism to create an opportunist electoral front, led by his few faithful, but which collected the leftovers of the other parties and used them to create in a very short time a national network of political operators (Olvera, 2020). His triumph was unquestionable and he achieved a majority for his party and his allies in the federal congress and in most of the state congresses.

Already in power, President López Obrador has built a project that is based on a “theological political version of a secularized prophetic imaginary” (Arato, 2017: 288). amlo It has its pantheon of lay saints, in which Juárez, Madero and Cárdenas stand out, heroic presidents in their own way and in their time, from whom modesty, personal disinterest and nationalism, respectively, are retaken. He himself embodies those values: he has abandoned the luxurious presidential residence of Los Pinos and has settled in the (even more luxurious) National Palace; he travels in commercial airplanes and for a time he rode in modest cars; the salary has been lowered and it has forced all the high commanders of the administration to admit substantial cuts to their income, in addition to taking away the privileges of expenses, assistants and capacities to distribute jobs; is rescuing, above all economic logic, to pemex Yet the cfe to restore the economic centrality of the state, as in the irrecoverable times of statist developmentalism. He is changing the rules or canceling the contracts established by the past administration with large energy companies, and he thinks that the command personnel of all areas of the State and almost all the businessmen are guilty of the sin of corruption.

López Obrador is undertaking a titanic task: to achieve a "Fourth Transformation" of Mexico, equivalent to the historical feats of independence, reform, and revolution. And this implies not only punishing the corrupt, supporting the poor and reconverting the bad (criminals are for him victims of injustice), but also changing collective mentalities, captured by a savage and consumerist capitalism and by the perverse culture of the corruption. So great is the mission that the president himself said that he "no longer belongs to himself," implying that his material being belongs to all Mexicans.

In this amlo he differs from Trump and of course from Bolsonaro. Although, like them, its utopian horizon is the reconstruction of a mythologized past (make America great again, the progress and order of the military dictatorship, statist and paternalistic developmentalism, respectively), López Obrador has invested his mission with a religious aura. He is an evangelizer, not just a vigilante. It must change the mentality of Mexicans. To do this, in an act of great communicative intelligence, he has instituted the "mañaneras", his press conferences with which he communicates daily with his people, half of which are dedicated to denouncing the bad acts of the past and to instruct on good manners; he makes weekly tours of the country to be in contact with his people, receive complaints and petitions, and magnanimously deliver various goods and services; he scolds and corrects his officials and always imposes the last word on all matters. He is a father for Mexicans, in the double sense of a paternal figure who protects, rewards and punishes and keeps women and children in their proper place, and as a priest or pastor, who listens to sinners and forgives them, punishes them. the infidels who do not believe in the cause, and preaches the benefits of decency and good customs (Christian), in addition to bringing the good news of a better future if we behave well.

It is for all this that amlo somehow returns to the beginning of the two bodies of the king. It has an almost divine, transcendental component, since it carries a historical mission; and a physical one, his inauguration as president, which legally and legitimately authorizes him to command. Its power is twofold: symbolic and political. And while he does not demand indefinite permanence in power, he wants to leave an indelible mark in the short term of his mandate.

It is this urge to transcend that makes his government risky. Although up to now the norms of coexistence have not been violated, the polarization that his friend-enemy conception of politics induces, fed by his most radical faithful, reduces to almost disappearance the spaces for dialogue typical of democracy; Their rush to rescue parastatal companies, promote their pharaonic works in the south of the country and distribute welfare and parental support to the poor (young people, the elderly, peasants) puts public finances at risk and forces a radical (neoliberal) reduction of the State, which has already led to the loss of state capabilities3 in all areas, especially in health, education and public safety.

amloLike any good populist, he feels that the state apparatus, the rules, the laws and the existing institutions are a cage that prevent him from moving at will and rushing his mission. That is why it is necessary to go over them, which implies weakening them, colonizing them (as is being done with the Supreme Court, the National Energy Commission, etc.), politically annulling them (as was done with the National Human Rights Commission) , or outright destroy them, as was done with the Federal Police.

As an embodied leader, amlo he does not need mediation between himself and the people. Direct representation makes mediations of all kinds superfluous, unnecessary and even risky. Hence his criticism of civil society actors, who represent particular interests, not those of the people; to the clientelistic and corporate intermediaries, so basic for the pri for decades, and with whom he learned to live bread, and who in reality only appropriated the resources that should reach the workers and peasants; to associations and representative bodies of businessmen, who only look out for the sectoral interest. amlo He goes directly to the town, for that his tours and his "morning". If you have to ask the people something, "consultations" are made ad hoc, even if there is no appropriate legal regulation or even the few existing ones are violated. There is an exaltation of direct democracy, in his opinion the one that best expresses the popular will (Olvera, in press).

The problem of amlo, which is that of all populists, is that it does not have an alternative government proposal (Peruzzotti, 2017). The program of amlo is a motley and disjointed collection of ideas typical of the pri from the stage of statist and paternalistic developmentalism, and an interpretation of national history starring benign heroes who confront historical enemies of the nation. The "Fourth Transformation" is actually a project of returning to a supposedly idyllic time (stabilizing development), in which the State had control of economic development, and there was no separation between State and society (such was the PRI idea of merger between State and society) (Olvera, 2003). The problem is that not only was developmentalism not idyllic,4 Rather, it is impossible to return to it, since Mexican capitalism is completely integrated into that of the United States, and the State cannot recover economic centrality, even less when the state oil company is technically bankrupt (Shields, 2020) and the government has a monumental fiscal weakness.5 And the fusion between state and society is an unacceptable organicist / corporate idea in a modern democracy, which is also not compatible with the principle of leader / people identity.

The coronavirus pandemic has further complicated the viability of the “Fourth Transformation”. Not only was the seriousness of the problem not recognized in time, but a failed attempt to reorganize the health sector in late 2019 left it in legal and operational uncertainty, severely underfunded and, for all practical purposes, without direction. To make matters worse, the economic crisis has not been recognized either and Mexico is today one of the few countries in the world without a countercyclical policy and without programs to support the unemployed, micro and meso-entrepreneurs, or the informal economy. The prospects are not good and the consequence may be an exacerbation of polarization. There is a risk that the president will lose his magical-religious aura if the country sinks into a prolonged crisis. Then this populist regime will have to define if it is willing to push the limits of democracy or if it abides by its fundamental rules.


The use of the category of town is problematic, as confirmed by the many treatises on the subject. The concept is polysemic and controversial. In the present phase of the crisis of politics on a world scale, in which populism as a form of politics has reached a global dimension, the concept of the people is defined in the discursive field as an identity marker, variable and elusive. In this sense, the concept of the people does not refer to a sociological, political or cultural reality, but to a symbolic construction for political purposes.

We observe the difficulties of using the concept of "people" to speak of a particular people, such as the "Pentecostal people", especially from Laclau's perspective. Although it is true that the construction of a Pentecostal political-religious identity has been the product of many years of discursive construction, but above all organizational and political in Brazil, this does not mean that the Pentecostal churches themselves or their leaders have managed to identify themselves themselves as "the people" or be recognized as such by others. Other concepts and approaches seem necessary to study the political power of these churches. Their integration into the political coalition and the Bolsonaro government does not imply another step in their constitution as a "people", but one more strategic decision by their leaders, which will have enormous costs in the medium term. In any case, they have temporarily integrated into a reactionary and fascist "people", following an unpredictable leader, without achieving a symbolic legitimizing effect, but on the contrary, putting their own legitimacy at risk.

In the case of Mexico, Laclau's argument is, paradoxically, more applicable. López Obrador has truly built a town with all the characteristics that theory marks. There is an empty signifier, the "Fourth Transformation", which synthesizes a vast set of chains of equivalence, ranging from the fight against corruption, the primacy of the poor, the Franciscan austerity of the government, to the rescue of the nation, equalizing to this one with the parastatal energy companies. amlo He has defined a political field with enemies and friends, plays at permanent polarization, and shows complete disdain for negotiation and recognition of other actors. His unipersonal government acquires a mystical-religious character, as the president is the bearer / subject of a historical mission superior to all individual wills and capacities, a mission that is not only political, but also moral and moralizing.

Populism in Brazil and Mexico shows dangerous signs of authoritarianism. Bolsonaro is certainly more radical and truly proto-fascist, which López Obrador is not. But that does not make amlo in a "left" referent. State paternalism, developmental statism, centralization of power, denial of politics as debate and participation are not characteristic of left politics in the contemporary world. Rather, it is a painful and anachronistic return to a remote past that has fortunately died out in the struggles for democracy of the last thirty years. This does not prevent a new type of populist authoritarianism from appearing in Mexico. We will see if society allows it.


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Alberto Javier Olvera Rivera He is a researcher at the Institute for Historical-Social Research of the Universidad Veracruzana. Doctor in Sociology from the New School for Social Research. Member of the National System of Researchers and of the Mexican Academy of Sciences. They stand out in their work Civil society, public spaces and democratization in Latin America: Mexico, fce and uv, 2003; Democratization, accountability and civil society, Porrúa / ciesas / uv, 2006 (with Ernesto Isunza); The dispute over democratic construction in Latin America, fce / ciesas / uv, 2006 (with Evelina Dagnino and Aldo Panfichi); The frustrated democratization, ciesas / uv, 2010. He has published more than one hundred articles and book chapters in various countries, as well as popular books. He has been visiting professor at the Universities of California San Diego, York, Federal de Minas Gerais, Nacional de Colombia and flaccid-Mexico.

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