CRF Blog

How Does Populism Turn Authoritarian?

by Bill Hayes

In How Does Populism Turn Authoritarian? for the New York Times, Max Fisher and Amanda Taub use Venezuela as a case study in how populism can turn a democracy into an authoritarian state.

When Hugo Chávez took power in Venezuela nearly 20 years ago, the leftist populism he championed was supposed to save democracy. Instead, it has led to democracy’s implosion in the country, marked this past week by an attack on the independence of its Legislature.

Venezuela’s fate stands as a warning: Populism is a path that, at its outset, can look and feel democratic. But, followed to its logical conclusion, it can lead to democratic backsliding or even outright authoritarianism.

Populism does not always end in authoritarianism. Venezuela’s collapse has been aided by other factors, including plummeting oil prices, and democratic institutions can check populism’s darker tendencies.

The country is feeling the fundamental tensions between populism and democracy that are playing out worldwide. Those tensions, if left unchecked, can grow until one of those two systems prevails. But although countries must choose which system to follow, the choice is rarely made consciously, and its consequences may not be clear until it is too late. [more]

For a related free classroom lesson, see “Putin’s Illiberal Democracy.” It is available from  CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive. It is currently only in PDF and you will have to register (if you haven’t already), which is free.