Populism has always thrived in times of great inequality. After all, as a political approach it aims to refocus policy to benefit the average person, rather than the elite. So in some ways it’s strange that, in the 21st century, populism is anathema to progressivism; it has become a way to woo a working class who liked things better the way they were. And populist appeals are often seen as manipulative: utilising rather than genuinely helping the working classes, exploiting the grievances of those who feel that their former privileges were being sapped by others — whether foreign markets, immigrants, minorities or women. Are these really features of populism, or bugs?
Like so many nations that have heard the siren call of populism, Argentina was a deeply unequal county when, 75 years ago today, an anti-establishment candidate decisively won a presidential election. Two decades before that, the nation had boasted the eighth-largest economy in the world; its capital, Buenos Aires, was seen as the “Paris of the Americas”, glittering with the wealth of an Anglo-Argentine upper class. But beyond this elite, poverty was rife, and when the Depression struck, the city, like so many around the world, had been flooded with struggling poor, from the rural “interior”. Urban poverty spiralled out of control.
Things improved, a little, during the Second World War. Having to manage without imports prompted a rise in manufacturing industry. A new military government, which took power in June 1943, needed the working class — the so-called descamisados, or “shirtless ones” — on their side. And so the administration created a new post: Secretary of Labour. It was filled by the man who came to be known as “Argentina’s First Worker”, Colonel Juan Domingo Perón.
Spearheading redistributive policies, Perón won the hearts and minds of the descamisados. He announced, early 1946, that he was running for president, in a speech that criticised oligarchy and foreign interference, which he claimed was abetted by the coalition of traditional parties he stood against. The 52-year-old won what was widely recognised as Argentina’s cleanest-ever election, held on 24 February 1946. The final results, announced in April, had Perón at nearly 1.5 million votes, versus the 1.2 million for the establishment candidate. The traditional coalition his opponent represented, arrayed against the popular colonel, were shocked by the defeat; they genuinely believed that a man disliked by the establishment could not enjoy widespread support. But the descamisados had made their opinion known.
Populist appeals these days are addressed primarily to those who feel downwardly mobile. But in 1940s Argentina, the working classes increasingly felt buoyed by greater possibilities and rising expectations. They were proud of their nation, but saw the traditional powers as exploitative investors to be curbed rather than as a threat. Perón assured would-be voters in his candidacy speech that he would collaborate with other nations, but on the basis of equality. His brand of populism, like modern-day versions, certainly mobilised the working class as a source of power; but it also genuinely boosted their position. Perón, rather than exploiting the working class, seemed to believe that his interests were identical to theirs: that he knew the solutions and was the best person to implement them.
Perón showed his genuine concern for the ordinary person while secretary of labour. He engineered a remarkable series of reforms: labour courts, minimum wages, paid holidays and sick pay. Labour rights were extended, for the first time, to rural workers. Child labour was regulated. Industrial workers gained substantial wage increases. Perón’s Secretariat also actively encouraged unionisation, promising that, unlike in the past, unions would negotiate benefits for their members. Of course, the advantages for Perón in the creation of this institutional support base were an equally important motivation. But the unions did make life better for his descamisados.
Perón also took very public charge of the relief efforts surrounding the January 1944 earthquake in San Juan — fundraising for it introduced him to his wife, the equally charismatic radio actress Eva Duarte. Both were unconventional — illegitimate children, she an actress of dubious reputation and he a man of mixed-race heritage — and both of them grated on polite society. This, of course, only increased their appeal in the eyes of their most devoted supporters. The Peróns, unlike some of today’s better-known populist leaders, could genuinely claim to understand and have shared the social and economic challenges the working classes faced.
In some ways, Perón did not let the descamisados down when he assumed the highest office. The flurry of pro-poor and anti-elite measures continued. With the economy unusually flush after the Second World War, he embarked on a round of nationalisations, taking utilities and railways out of foreign hands and bringing them under state control (albeit at excessive cost). The government also invested in health and public education, with a political programme often decried as demagogic, yet in fact based largely on that of the post-War Labour government in London. It put money into schools, hospitals, nursing training and tertiary education for workers, as well as holiday hotels for union members. Through the Eva Perón Foundation, low-cost homes were built. For Argentina’s hitherto ignored marginalised classes, they had truly never had it so good.
This was partly to do with Perón’s rhetoric. Despite his anti-oligarch and anti-imperialist stance, his was a more optimistic brand of populism than that espoused more recently in countries from the United States to Hungary. He of course shared some qualities with more recent populist figures, not least a talent for using mass media to get his message across — radio propaganda was the Twitter of its day. Yet his was generally a message of hope and prosperity for all, whereas today’s populists tend to be exclusionary.
Take Budapest’s propagandistic use of the term “cosmopolitanism” to deride “foreign” figures such as George Soros — compared with Perón’s attempts at inclusiveness (despite frequent claims of Nazi sympathies, he was the first Argentine president to denounce anti-Semitism and actively courted the large Jewish community). And faced with an imminent coup in 1955, Perón stepped down and left the country, rather than urging his supporters to fight and risk mounting casualties. His was an idealistic populism — naïve, even.
Perón was plagued with the same problem as all populist governments: his depended on personality, rather than a clear ideology. The government headed by Perón and Evita — a first lady with no elected post but who arguably came to wield at least as much power as her husband — used its power capriciously. It had little regard for legal forms, and, as time went on, dissent was increasingly repressed. Perón was also deliberately vague about any supposed ideological content in his Peronist Party (due to his frequently expressed belief that “if I define, I exclude”). Indeed, he defined his foreign policy, the so-called Third Position, as being on the Left, in the centre or on the Right according to the circumstances. Like any populist, he wanted to be all things to all people.
And despite a good stint in office, President Perón was never able to generate good economic management and sustained growth. The boom-bust cycles that had characterised the previous 50 years continued (and continue to this day). Perónism, like populist regimes throughout history, had reacted to immediate problems with short-term solutions, but stuttered when it came to the long-term.
Populism often grows out of a lack of institutions, but is ironically ill-suited to creating them; its focus is more on fighting fires than laying groundwork, on individual decision-making than strong policies. A country cannot be run by one man. It needs strong institutions. But for the charismatic, self-obsessed leaders who often head up populist governments, institutions are seen as a threat, because they create a framework that can make them redundant. So any benefits that populists bring a nation are invariably unsustainable. Perón’s achievements were ultimately and quite swiftly dismantled by the military government that overthrew him and sought to erase him and his supporters from history (a counterproductive approach that would only bolster his support in coming years.)
Now, Perón’s legacy is still a source of polarisation in Argentina. For many, he wrecked the nation permanently, while for others he dragged it into the modern age and gave the working classes an enduring political weight. Millions saw their wages increase and were able to buy a house or go on holiday for the first time. Thousands were beaten up for not shouting ‘Viva Perón’, or forced to join the president’s party to retain their jobs. As Perón liked to say, ‘the only truth is reality’.
The West today, like Argentina in 1946, is deeply unequal. As the middle classes have become more precarious, calls for a rebalance have mounted. It’s worth remembering that populists like Perón are skilled at channelling popular frustrations and shaping media narratives — and prone to demagogic outbursts and authoritarian tendencies when in power. Such leaders grow out of divisions that they skilfully exploit but rarely heal — no matter how immediately successful their policies — and sometimes generate backlash that only exacerbates those divisions. Yet they are also a symptom as well as a cause; they flourish in systems with deep pre-existing problems that last a lot longer than they do.
Jill Hedges’s Juan Perón: The Life of the People’s Colonel is published in May.