In the context of the global decline of democracy, The Authoritarian Divide analyzes the tactics that populist leaders in Turkey, Venezuela, and Ecuador have used to polarize their countries.
Political polarization is traditionally viewed as the result of competing left/right ideologies. In The Authoritarian Divide, Orçun Selçuk argues that, regardless of ideology, polarization is driven by dominant populist leaders who deliberately divide constituents by cultivating a dichotomy of inclusion and exclusion. This practice, known as affective leader polarization, stymies compromise and undermines the democratic process.
Drawing on multiple qualitative and quantitative methodologies for support, as well as content from propaganda media such as public speeches, Muhtar Meetings, Aló Presidente, and Enlace Ciudadano, Selçuk details and analyzes the tactics used by three populist leaders to fuel affective leader polarization: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Selçuk’s work provides a rubric for a better understanding of—and potential defense against—the rise in polarizing populism across the globe.
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List of Abbreviations
1. A Theory of Populism, Polarization, and Opposition
2. Affective Leader Polarization in Turkey, Venezuela, and Ecuador
3. Inclusionary and Exclusionary Populism in Turkey under Erdoğan
4. Inclusionary and Exclusionary Populism in Venezuela under Chávez
5. Inclusionary and Exclusionary Populism in Ecuador under Correa
6. Opposition to Affective Leader Polarization in Turkey, Venezuela, and Ecuador
Orçun Selçuk is an assistant professor of political science and the director of the international studies program at Luther College.
“A thorough analysis of the dynamics behind the affective political polarization fostered by populist leaders in power… a welcome addition to the literature.” —Julio F. Carrión, author of A Dynamic Theory of Populism in Power: The Andes in Comparative Perspective
“A very measured and cool-headed approach…. Selçuk convincingly demonstrates that, today, especially in cases of populists in power, polarization is not really about ideologies or parties but about leaders.” —Toygar Sinan Baykan, author of The Justice and Development Party in Turkey
Among scholars who study Latin American Politics, Venezuela under Chávez is one of the most well-known cases of affective leader polarization. Since their emergence on the political scene, populist leaders in Latin America notoriously polarized their countries between their followers and opponents. In that sense, Chávez resembles presidents like Juan Domingo Perón, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, and Alberto Fujimori, who personally dominated their countries’ politics and exemplified affective leader polarization. Beyond his historical predecessors in the region, the rise of Chávez represents an anomaly in contemporary Venezuelan politics. Unlike many South American countries that experienced decades of conflict between populism and military regimes, Venezuela in the second half of the twentieth century managed to avoid such confrontation. At least at the elite level, Venezuela in the 1960s and the 1970s was far from being polarized as the two main political parties actively cooperated with one another and contained ideological extremism through the distribution of abundant oil revenues (Coronil 1997). What is known as the Punto Fijo era was built on a rentier model of development and alternation of power between the two main political parties. Successive presidents from the center-left Democratic Action (AD) and the center-right Christian Democrats (COPEI) agreed on the basic model of governance and pacified any attempt by the radical leftist actors to destabilize the country (Premo 1988).
The economic crisis in the 1980s and the 1990s shook the foundations of the existing political system and discredited the two major parties that failed to address rising fiscal deficit, external debt, inflation, and poverty as well as the devaluation of the national currency (McCoy and Smith 1995). Mainly because of the rising social inequalities in this period, some scholars argue that Chávez was a consequence of polarization in this period between the rich and the poor. According to this approach, the rise of Chávez as an outsider was a direct result of structural inequalities around social class and race, which polarized the Venezuelan society between the haves and the have nots. Instead of focusing on Chávez as the primary agent of polarization, the left-leaning observers tend to point out to neoliberalism, colonialism, racism, and other deeply rooted divisions in an increasingly unequal society as the main causes of polarization in Venezuela (Ellner 2003; Cannon 2008; Macleod 2020).
In contrast to this structural explanation, which tends to be widely accepted among academic circles that are sympathetic to Chávez and his revolutionary project, another group of scholars attribute more agency to the populist leader and his movement in explaining the polarized state of Venezuelan politics. Acknowledging that the above-mentioned structural factors facilitated the rise of an outsider like Chávez, Handlin (2017) argues that Venezuelan politics became polarized because of the coalition between left-wing populism and pre-existing anti-systemic leftist parties, namely the Radical Cause and the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS). According to Handlin (2018), the polarization of the Venezuelan party system was because of Chávez’s alliance with the radical leftist parties and anti-neoliberal social movements. Although I agree with Handlin that Chávez’s populism was primarily responsible for polarization, I focus on mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion instead of an ideological shift toward the radical left. Rather than treating populist leaders like Chávez and Correa as ideologues, I emphasize their pragmatism over commitment to a radical left ideology.
Like Handlin, Corrales (2005) also focuses on Chávez’s personal role in polarizing Venezuelan politics, but he does that through analyzing contentious political events under his administration and successive presidential power grabs. Similar to what Keyman (2014) argues for the Turkish case, Corrales views polarization as a deliberate strategy that Chávez adopted especially after 2001. In his two articles on the subject, Corrales demonstrates how polarization paid off for Chávez who won consecutive elections and referendums, while constructing the boundaries between the in-group vs. the out-group. Recognizing that it takes two to tango, Corrales also points out the opposition’s role in feeding into polarization and further reinforcing it, a topic that I extensively cover in Chapter 6. Unlike left-leaning scholars who tend to characterize the entire Venezuelan opposition as an upper-class white elite, Corrales maps out the ideological diversity of anti-chavistas, who had few things in common aside from their opposition of the president. Corrales’ other contribution to studying polarization in the Venezuelan context is to highlight its path dependency, especially for the president and his supporters. In other words, he argues that once polarization becomes the modus operandi, it is hard to reverse it (Corrales 2005; Corrales 2011).
Compared to Turkey, where the recent evidence for polarization is primarily quantitative and relies on public opinion data, Venezuelanists who study polarization tend to take a more qualitative approach. From an interdisciplinary perspective, political scientists, sociologists, and psychologists describe polarization’s effect on everyday encounters, narratives, and living spaces. In their co-authored book, Mallen and García-Guadilla define Venezuela as an extreme case of polarization, where “all forms of public social interactions were interpreted through antagonistic political narratives” (Mallen and García-Guadilla 2017, 5). The book details the appropriation of everyday words, colors, books, gallery exhibitions, movies, food, and urban spaces between the supporters and the opponents of Chávez. For instance, the authors refer to how wearing a red blouse or falling in love with someone from the opposite camp are interpreted from a polarized lens. Besides everyday practices and choices, Mallen and García-Guadilla contribute to the study of polarization in Venezuela by focusing on the role of the participatory democracy that politicized both camps and led to multiple violent confrontations in the public space. Another recurring theme in their work is recognizing the inclusionary as well as the exclusionary character of Chávez’s populism. Similar to what I aim to show in this book across three cases of populism and affective leader polarization, Mallen and García-Guadilla argue that chavistas felt included by Chávez and the model of participatory democracy, while anti-chavistas felt excluded by them (Mallen and García-Guadilla 2017; García-Guadilla and Mallen 2019).