Although populism has its origins in the United States and Russia in the 19th century, arguably in the middle of the 20th century it was Argentina’s General Juan Domingo Perón who became its quintessential embodiment. A military man with deep disdain for politicians and ignorant of the meaning of an independent judiciary who demanded that public employees should be card-carrying members of his Justicialist Party, he was convinced he represented ‘the people’.
Fifty years later, an Argentine political scientist came up with an explanation for the Peronist phenomenon. In times of crisis, when ‘politics as usual’ is no longer viable, a leader emerges with a strong narrative around the concept of ‘the people’.
‘The people’ mobilize around a word (such as ‘democracy’) that Ernesto Laclau defined as ‘an empty signifier’, meaning different things to different people. The populist leader embraces the word, and claims to embody the people’s aspirations.