Archive | Obituary

Elinor Ostrom: The Legacy and the Challenge

Continuing our collaboration with the APSA Political Economy newsletter, today we present the final of four obituaries of prominent political economists who recently passed away, with George Mason University political scientist Paul Dragos Aligica writing on Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom.


Elinor Ostrom, co-founder with Vincent Ostrom of the Bloomington School of Political Economy, has left behind a fascinating intellectual legacy, currently a source of inspiration in fields as diverse as political philosophy and the environmental sciences. Yet, the core of her work has always been in the field of political economy. The Ostroms’ distinctive approach was considered from the very beginning an evolving part of the “Public Choice Revolution” that exploded in the 1960s.  As William C. Mitchell put it in his 1988 Public Choice article, “Virginia, Rochester, and Bloomington: Twenty-Five Years of Public Choice and Political Science,” three distinct schools of thought, each associated with particular scholars, have shaped the basic public choice assumptions. In each case “one or two dominant figures led … the effort to construct theories of collective choice: Riker at Rochester, Buchanan and Tullock at various Virginia universities, and the Ostroms at Indiana.”

The Ostroms began in the 1960s with a theory of collective action based on a theory of goods, a theory that was emerging at that time from the mantle of neoclassical economics as a major building block of the new, modern political economy. In time, their work on governance created one of the main channels of the transition from public choice to the new institutionalism. The fact that Elinor Ostrom was a recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics was a telling recognition of Bloomington School’s important contributions. Yet, in the celebratory and retrospective mood created by such honors and public recognition, it is important to note that the Bloomington agenda is far from making its closing arguments. In fact, Elinor Ostrom’s work remains an enterprise of unassuming radicalism that persistently invites us to reconsider the very foundations and significance of our scientific efforts. Following the logic of institutional diversity, social heterogeneity, and value pluralism to their epistemic and normative implications, Ostrom’s work both closes a cycle of research on collective action, institutions, and governance and frames the next stage or the next cycle of research.

The depth and boldness of the Ostrom project are revealed when we single out the specific assumptions and perspectives it challenged. We should also take full measure of the way in which those challenges constitute a radical departure from powerful ideas that tacitly framed a vast part of modern political economy. The list of these tacit assumptions is long, but a cluster of related candidates rises to the top in any account: agent and institutional homogenization as a theoretical and methodological default position, centralization and monocentrism as key principles of governance, and “seeing like a state” as an acquired forma mentis in thinking about political and economic affairs. Let’s take these core assumptions that the Ostrom project challenged one by one.

The typical strategy of dealing with the challenge of heterogeneity is easily one of the main assumptions that the Ostrom project challenged. The homogenization by assumption of social agents, the rhetorical trick by which homogeneity is nominally recognized as a fact and a problem but then, in the next move, reduced to a modal profile, a homogenous “representative agent,” with minimalist formal features, is both popular and influential. Versions of this strategy, operating at different levels and on different aspects of heterogeneity, are prevalent, from economics and public choice to political science and social philosophy. The logic of Ostrom’s perspective challenges that approach. Furthermore, it explicitly links the problem of heterogeneity to that of institutional diversity: Because institutional arrangements in any society emerge largely as a response to heterogeneity, and in their turn are conditions of heterogeneity, institutional diversity should be a central (if not the central) theme of institutional theory.  Yet, that doesn’t seem to be the case in much of the literature. Models of “markets and hierarchies” remain pivotal, although the theoretical lenses of the theory of the market or the theory of the state are obviously incapable of capturing and illuminating the wide diversity of existing and possible institutional arrangements. A replacement of the classical dichotomous typology (markets and states) with a new trinity (markets, states, and networks) is not an adequate solution. By refusing to accept such solutions, the Ostromian approach looks commonsensical. Yet, when compared to the prevalent views, it is radical. Bloomington institutionalism is ready to take institutional diversity seriously – “beyond the Market and the State,” “beyond Hobbes and Smith” – and to follow to the end its analytical and normative logic.

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The Synergy of Practice and Theory: Niskanen’s Contribution to the Study of Bureaucracy

Continuing our collaboration with the APSA Political Economy newsletter, today we present the third of four obituaries of prominent political economists who recently passed away, with University of Wisconsin political scientist David L. Weimer writing on William A. Niskanen, Jr.


My first encounter with William A. Niskanen, Jr. was in 1973 at my graduate school orientation at the University of California, Berkeley.  Although I cannot remember a word spoken that day by any of the other faculty members, I remember what Niskanen said verbatim: “My name is William Niskanen.  I hold a B.A. from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago.  Chicago won.”  Indeed it did.

Niskanen’s doctoral study in economics was followed by work as a policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, the Department of Defense, the Institute for Defense Analyses, and the Office of Management and Budget.  He joined the faculty of the Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of California in 1972 and became the Chief Economist for Ford Motor Company in 1975 and briefly joined the UCLA faculty in 1980.  He served on President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisors until leaving to become chairman of the board of the Cato Institute.

His training in economics and exposure to the deficiencies of bureaucracy during his early career as a policy analyst prepared and prompted Niskanen to write one of the classics of public choice, Bureaucracy and Representative Government.  He first set out his thoughts on the topic in “The Peculiar Economics of Bureaucracy,” which was published in the American Economic Review in 1968, and later modified them in important ways in “Bureaucrats and Politicians,” which appeared in the Journal of Law and Economics in 1975.

The standard approach of welfare economics at the time was to assume that government and its officers selflessly intervened to correct market failures.  In Bureaucracy and Representative Government, Niskanen joined the emerging public choice movement in assuming that public officials acted upon self-interest.  Throughout the book, the head bureaucrat seeks to maximize the budget allocated to the bureau by the “collective organization,” or budgetary sponsor, as a lump-sum payment for the output it produces.  He began by assuming passive budgetary sponsors, but later allowed “officers” of the collective organization to act according to self-interest.  Although the assumption of the budget-maximizing bureaucrat is today its primary intellectual trace in the political economy literature, the book is much richer in its treatment of bureau behavior, factor suppliers, and oversight by the budgetary sponsor.  Analytically, it employs comparative statics to assess the relative efficiency of bureaus, competitive supply, monopoly (discriminating and non-discriminating), and nonprofits (discriminating and non-discriminating).  It thus provides a systematic comparison of institutional arrangements, an approach that is now one of the strengths of modern political economy.

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The Purest Political Economist of Them All: Albert Hirschman’s Legacy

Continuing our collaboration with the APSA Political Economy newsletter, today we present the second of four obituaries of prominent political economists who recently passed away, with Tufts University political scientist Daniel Drezner writing on Albert Hirschman.


When Albert Hirschman passed away late last year there was an outpouring of testimonials from economists and political scientists (Economist 2012; Farrell 2012; Fukuyama 2012; Sethi 2012; Tabarrok 2012).  At first glance, such a reaction might seem out of proportion to Hirschman’s record.  There is no “Hirschman” school of thought in political economy.  Indeed, he was not a paradigm-builder in any sense of the word, being somewhat dubious of paradigmatic approaches altogether (Hirschman 1970a).  Hirschman did not turn out many Ph.D. disciples; according to first-hand accounts he was an abysmal teacher (Adelman 2013, p. 419).  By the standards of economics, Hirschman was not particularly sophisticated in his methods or modelling.  Krugman (1994) characterizes Hirschman’s Strategy of Economic Development (1958) as an “understandable but wrong” response to the failures of the economic development literature precisely because of the “discursive, non-mathematical style” of Hirschman’s effort.

Nevertheless, Hirschman’s intellectual legacy is quite secure.  The Social Science Research Council’s highest award is the Albert O. Hirschman Prize – which recognizes “academic excellence in international, interdisciplinary social science research, theory, and public communication.”  A cursory glance at Hirschman’s citation count suggests that his influence on the social sciences is both wide and deep.  He is already the subject of at least three book-length treatments of his intellectual legacy (Rodwin and Schön 1994; Meldolesi 1995; Adelmen 2013).

How did Hirschman have such wide-ranging impact with such an idiosyncratic approach?  Precisely because he was so idiosyncratic.  Hirschman was unconcerned with paradigmatic or disciplinary boundaries, which enabled him to develop some of the key building blocks of how to think about political economy.  Anyone working on issues of economic power, economic development or economic ideas cannot do so without either building on or tangling with Hirschman’s legacy.  An exhaustive survey of his contributions would go far beyond these pages, but even a brief glance at Hirschman’s principal ideas advanced in his major works in political economy reveal the extent of his influence.

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Political Economy Obituaries: James Buchanan

For the past two years, we have featured a collaboration with the newsletter of the APSA Organized Section on Political Economy. This week we will feature the last contribution from the current editorial team of Scott Gehlbach and Lisa L. Martin. Their words are below, followed by the first contribution from John Nye of George Mason University.


In this last issue of the Political Economist under our editorship, we pay tribute to four recently deceased giants of political economy: James Buchanan, Albert Hirschman, William Niskanen, and Elinor Ostrom. The Monkey Cage has generously offered to publish each of our four tributes. In the first of four posts, John Nye at George Mason investigates the contributions of James Buchanan to positive and normative political theory.

Bill Clark at Michigan takes over as editor of the Political Economist with the next issue. APSA members should consider joining the Political Economy Section so that they have full access to future issues of the PE. Current members can download the Summer 2013 issue at this link, where in addition to the four tributes they will find an important essay by John Huber on the importance of not forgetting about theory as the “identification revolution” changes the way that political economists do empirical work.

Scott Gehlbach
Lisa L. Martin


James Buchanan: Worldly Philosopher and Constitutional Idealist

By the time James Buchanan passed away on January 9, 2013, the economic analysis of politics had attained a prominent, even central place, in both economics and political science. That these approaches have gone from being mostly neglected half a century ago, to becoming a major preoccupation of leading scholars throughout the world today, was in no small part due to the pioneering work of Buchanan himself, both alone and in joint work with various collaborators, most notably Gordon Tullock.

Buchanan, who received the 1986 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, spent most of his career at three institutions: first at the University of Virginia, where he founded the Thomas Jefferson Center for Studies in Political Economy; then at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, where he founded the Center for Study of Public Choice; and finally at George Mason University, to which he moved the Center in 1983.

Buchanan made fundamental contributions to both positive and normative political economy.

His most influential work came from attacking the view of the state as a benevolent despot and substituting instead the principle that political actors should be modeled as favoring their private interests in much the same way that we model private economic agents. This idea was most influential in the research now known as public choice, but also in his work on the theory of clubs, and in his challenges to the neoclassical/Pigouvian approach to externalities.

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Frank Lautenberg and the National Science Foundation

This is a guest post by Jeanne Zaino, who is Professor of Political Science & International Studies at Iona College.


Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) will likely be remembered for the work he did on a wide range of policy issues from transportation and public health to affordable housing, the environment, and refugees. What is sometimes not recognized is that as a long-standing member of the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Sen. Lautenberg also fought to retain the National Science Foundations (NSF’s) support for all the sciences.
At a time when public funding for the social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) sciences are under attack, just a few months after the Senate voted to restrict funding for political science research and weeks after a House Subcommittee Chair requested the NSF turn over information about reviewers comments, it is important that we remember Sen. Lautenberg for his work in this area.

One notable example occurred in May 2006. At that time the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee was considering the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act of 2006 (S.2802). The bill included a provision directing the NSF to prioritize grants that “make contributions in physical and natural sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics, and other research that underpins these areas.” Another member of the Committee, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), was upset by the last phrase because she felt it left too much room for the agency to support projects that don’t enhance America’s competitiveness, most notably the SBE sciences. As a result she offered an amendment designed to close this loophole and in doing so attempted to exclude funding for both the natural and social sciences.

This wasn’t the first time Hutchison had expressed dismay regarding the NSF’s funding of the SBE sciences. During an address at the Lasker Medical Research Awards Luncheon a few months earlier she questioned the wisdom of the NSF’s spending on social science research. She later cited specific grants she found questionable and asked whether this type of research could be funded elsewhere? She also made it clear that while she supported doubling the NSF’s budget, she did not believe any of those funds should go towards the social sciences.

Unlike Hutchison, Sen. Lautenberg not only implicitly understood, but spoke out in favor of the need to support the NSF’s commitment to all sciences. Consequently, when Hutchison offered an amendment excluding funding for the social and natural sciences he took it upon himself to reach across the aisle and work with her to fashion a bipartisan solution. The compromise they came up with included language which would allow the NSF to continue to fund all scientific research. This is reflected in the language included in sub-section (d) of SEC. 307 ‘Meeting Critical National Science Needs’ which reads in part: “[n]othing in this section shall be construed to restrict or bias the grant selection process against funding other areas of research deemed by the Foundation to be consistent with its mandate, nor to change the core mission of the Foundation.”

As she later made clear, Hutchison was not particularly happy with the compromise and continued to believe that the NSF shouldn’t support most SBE projects. Nevertheless, as a result of Lautenberg’s efforts, she joined with the rest of the committee in voting the bill out unanimously.

Hutchison’s arguments against SBE funding are eerily reminiscent of those being made today by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), and others. The difference is, unlike Hutchison, when Coburn proposed an amendment in March limiting funding for political research he was successful. And while NSF Acting Director Marrett rebuffed Smith’s recent request for reviewer comments and other information, we still don’t know what the ultimate outcome of that situation will be.

So even though Sen. Lautenberg is not usually remembered for his efforts to protect NSF funding for all sciences, now is a particularly good time to recall this important part of his legacy.

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Margaret Thatcher, Her Personality and Politics

We welcome this guest post from Stephen Benedict Dyson.  He has done research on Thatcher and, incidentally, grew up in Great Britain.


The death of Margaret Thatcher has prompted much reflection on her policies and her personality. One way to think about Thatcher is to consider her in light of the recurrent debate about structural forces and individual agency as shapers of political outcomes. Thatcher was certainly a distinctive presence, but did she make the political weather, or would anyone in her position have done as she did? If Thatcher as prime minister was just responding to the incentives in her political environment from 1979-1990, she was less interesting as an individual than many of the tributes suggest. If she shaped her environment in ways determined by her personality and individual beliefs, she becomes a more important focus of our attention.

Circumstances were certainly ripe for change when Thatcher came to power. The UK economy was rotten with stagnant growth and high unemployment. James Callaghan’s Labour government had been unable to reach wage settlements with its union allies, leading to widespread industrial action. Thatcher’s own Conservative Party was middle-of-the-road ideologically, accepting the broad outlines of the British postwar consensus: nationalized industries, full employment policies, strong unions, and a big welfare state. Her party was dominated by patrician proponents of One Nation conservatism. Any prime minister in Thatcher’s place would have had strong incentives to change the political direction of the country, to revivify the economy and revisit the center-left consensus.

Yet would anyone have gone so far as she did, so quickly? We forget that Thatcher was an embattled prime minister during much of her first term, leading a small group of believers in free market, monetarist policies, isolated even within her cabinet. Much of her own side, let alone the opposition, believed that her economic policies, developed outside of civil service and party structures by her personal advisor Alan Walters, were responsible for the deep recession of 1980-81. Would another prime minister have loosened the money supply and sought to reflate the economy? Thatcher would entertain no such thoughts. Opposition to her economic policies would come to a violent head with the Miners’ strikes of 1984-85, stemming from the controversial closure or privatization of the state-run industries she had inherited. To structuralists, these were the necessary birth pangs of a post-industrial Britain; to students of agency, the speed and scope of Thatcher’s reforms – and the attendant social dislocation – were redolent of her aggressive personality and rejection of the status quo.

The trajectory of her prime ministership was transformed by the conflict over the Falklands / Malvinas islands. Thatcher, consumed with her economic battles and heading for a projected defeat in the 1983 election, had given the Falklands / Malvinas relatively little attention. She hoped, as had several previous governments, that a quiet diplomatic settlement over the contested islands could be reached with Argentina. Yet, when Argentina invaded the islands, the combative, black-and-white side of Thatcher took over. She despaired of the immediate advice she was given – the islands could not be taken back by force, were not strategically significant, and diplomacy was the best way forward – stating that “we have got to get them back.” Taking huge political and military risks, she dispatched a naval task force to recapture the islands, and rejected pleas, as a clash of arms approached, to negotiate a resolution. She found that the advice of her Foreign Office evidenced “the flexibility of principle characteristic of that department” and resolved to show an “iron will.” “What was the alternative?” she wrote in her memoirs: “That a common or garden dictator should rule over the Queen’s subjects and prevail by fraud or violence? Not while I was Prime Minister.”

Striking these Churchillian tones seemed, in 1982, discordant with a post-imperial Britain in decline, yet they were consonant with Thatcher’s personality. Her rhetoric on British greatness became so hawkish that the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was seriously concerned that she was contemplating the forcible retention of Hong Kong. Her cabinet colleagues later told biographer John Campbell that, in their opinion, no one else in the prime minister’s chair at that point in time would have launched a military expedition to recapture the islands.

Thatcher’s relationship with President Ronald Reagan gives us another angle from which to consider her impact. British prime ministers have strong incentives to maintain the alliance with the American superpower, and all have attempted to do so. Yet the closeness of the alliance does vary. Harold Wilson refused Lyndon Johnson’s desperate entreaties for UK troops to fight in Vietnam. Edward Heath, Thatcher’s predecessor as Conservative party leader, was cool toward the U.S. and sought to integrate Britain more closely with the European Community. Thatcher, though, was resolutely Atlanticist and found much to admire in the similarly black-and-white temperament of President Reagan. As Thatcher’s biographer Hugo Young wrote, there was “almost nothing that divided the Thatcher from the Reagan view of the world. What typified and infused it was, above all else, a wonderful measure of certainty.”

Thatcher and Reagan made a shared journey in moving from the hardest of anti-communist lines to an embrace of new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Here is surely definitive evidence of structure trumping agency: the incentive to peaceably end the cold war overwhelming the idiosyncratic anti-Soviet beliefs of the U.S. and UK leaders. Yet, there was a good dose of personality in Thatcher and Reagan’s shared change of mind. Those who categorize the world into definitive, clear-cut boxes such as “friend” and “enemy” respond in a distinctive way to radical changes of circumstance. Having achieved cognitive closure on an issue, they are capable of ignoring lots of information for a long period of time in favor of persisting with their settled images. Yet, once they pay attention to a change, they can rapidly reverse their views. According to her advisor George Urban, Thatcher had an instant intuition about Gorbachev: “I immediately hit it off with him.” She passed on her judgment to Reagan: “We can do business with him.” Both Thatcher and Reagan rebranded Gorbachev from “enemy” to “friend” with greater cognitive ease than the more complex thinker George H.W. Bush, who initiated a pause in cold war reconciliation after succeeding Reagan as president.

Yet it was a foreign affairs issue upon which Thatcher did not change her beliefs that brought about her political demise. Her view on European integration was always clear: “Europe” was foreign, a bloated bureaucracy pushing side-payments to special interests such as uncompetitive continental farmers. As the European Community moved toward full monetary union and ever increasing political integration, Thatcher become more resolute in her determination to retain, as she saw it, British independence and sovereignty. Her political problem was that a huge part of her own party, including many of the most senior members of the cabinet, did not share her views. Her powerful Finance Minister, Nigel Lawson, and Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe, threatened to resign unless she took Britain into the “Exchange Rate Mechanism” – a precursor to the single European currency. Her extraordinarily belligerent performances at European summits and in parliament during this period, bellowing “No! No! No!” when responding to questioning on the issue, exposed fatal splits in her government. The Europe controversies were followed by the introduction of a deeply unpopular new taxation scheme, her characteristic refusal to change course in the face of public and political opposition, and the eruption of street riots in London. She was removed by cabinet coup in November 1990. “Treachery with a smile on its face,” she called it.

Thatcher’s political legacy was profound. Her successor, John Major, proved unable to seal the Conservative Party fissure over Europe, nursing his battered and exhausted party through a weak single-term in office followed by thirteen years out of power. Tony Blair, a media-savvy reformer who entered parliament in one of the few victories by a Labour party candidate in the 1983 election, saw Thatcher in full pomp as the model of what an assertive prime minister could achieve. He shifted the Labour party to the center, consolidating a new post-Thatcher consensus well to the right of the pre-Thatcher mode. His foreign policy was characterized by a definitive, assertive worldview reminiscent of the Iron Lady.

Lacking the ability to re-run the years 1979-1990 with a different person as prime minister, a weighting of the impact on history of Thatcher’s personality versus the circumstances she faced can be a matter only of thoughtful speculation. As we reflect upon the Thatcher era, and larger questions of structure and agency in political life, we should continue to ask what would have been the same, and what would have been different, if someone else had been prime minister during that long decade.

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Hugo Chavez, the U.S., and Latin America in the United Nations

Hugo Chavez was, to put it mildly, no fan of U.S. foreign policy. One of his favored outlets to express those views was the United Nations General Assembly; most famously his 2006 speech in which he called George W. Bush the devil. Below is a graph that depicts the “dynamic ideal point estimates” of the United States, Venezuela, and some other Latin America states based on their vote choices in the UN General Assembly. It is based on a paper Michael Bailey, Anton Strezhnev and I will present at the upcoming MidWest political science conference (sorry not done yet). Here is a brief illustration that may help with the methodology (or see this article). Our goal is to provide historically comparable estimates of the positions of states on a dimension that captures conflict over acceptance of the Western U.S. led liberal order.

In the early days of the UN, Latin American states were reliable allies of the U.S. Most Latin America states gradually moved away from the U.S. with the exception of Cuba, which shifted abruptly after its revolution. Hugo Chavez moved very quickly towards Cuba’s ideal point after taking power in 1998. He was joined there by Nicaragua (after the Sandinista came to power) and also Bolivia (not shown). This has created a somewhat bi-polar situation within Latin America; with some countries (like Argentina and Chile) quite a bit closer to the U.S. than others. Historically, Latin American countries have often voted together (with the exception of Cuba). This is all fairly well-known but I thought this graph captures the dynamics well and puts Chavez in some historical and comparative context.

For those interested: I plot the same graph below the fold with the traditional way of computing voting similarities between countries (S-scores or simple percentages of agreement with the U.S.). You’ll see that those obscure some important differences among Latin American countries.

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Hugo Chávez and the Death of Populism

The following guest post is by Diego von Vacano, a political theorist at Texas A&M and a specialist in Latin American political thought.


One of the greatest failings of the Obama administration has been the absence of a concerted effort to better understand our neighbors to the South. Not only is US foreign policy towards Latin America now almost the same as that under President GW Bush, but there is no apparent interest in learning about the ideas and intellectual trends that lead to particular forms of governing in the rest of the Americas.

The death of Hugo Chávez should give us pause to think about this lacuna in American foreign policy and in mainstream culture in general. Why is there so much ignorance about the history of ideas in Latin America, at a time when the percentage of Hispanics in the overall US population has surpassed that of African Americans, and when globalization has made the Western Hemisphere more tight-kit? The answer is that ideas from the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking areas of the continent are simply not taught and disseminated in the US. The US does this at its own peril, for this creates a cultural gulf between the two Americas, and it generates misleading policy choices that are based on simplistic, caricaturist versions of reality.

The chief conceptual culprit here is the idea of “populism.” It is the term of choice for practically all academic and policy experts on Latin America. The problem is that it is an impoverished and fundamentally erroneous term. It is broadly used in scholarly, media, and public affairs circles despite the fact that it has no widely accepted theoretical meaning. In recent times, both academic and foreign policy elites have thrown the term about when discussing the governments of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Fidel and Raúl Castro in Cuba, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Lula da Silva in Brazil, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina, among others. But it has also been used for neo-liberal leaders and those with no discernible ideology, such as Carlos Menem, Abdalá Bucaram, Fernando Collor de Mello, and Carlos Andrés Pérez. Policy elites often conflate these leaders, despite deep historical differences between their countries and also varying degrees of democratic legitimacy. Moreover, the classical case of populism, that of Perón in Argentina, was a clientelist political movement with a congeries of ideas from the right and the left, whereas all of the so-called populist regimes of the present owe their existence to the legacies of various brands of Marxism, to which Peronismo was deeply opposed. To make matters worse, the term is generally used for right-wing ethno-racial and nationalist movements in Europe. In essence, while its intellectual heritage is bankrupt, it continues to be bandied about willy-nilly whenever the terms “Latin America” and “politics” are discussed.

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The House that Chavez Built

The following is a guest post from political scientist  Jennifer Cyr of the University of Arizona on the implications of the death of Hugo Chavez.  We join her in thanking the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) and its major supporters (the United States Agency for International Development, the United Nations Development Program, the Inter-American Development Bank, and Vanderbilt University) for making the survey data available.


It happened. After years of illness, months of speculation, and weeks without a clearly and constitutionally defined leader, Hugo Chávez died, rather suddenly, on a Tuesday afternoon in Caracas, Venezuela. Chávez would have served as president of the country for twenty years. As it stands he had fourteen years to revolutionize his country, changing Venezuela’s constitution, its institutions, and even its name. Given his importance for the country, it may be appealing to treat his death as a shock to the country’s system – a critical juncture after which seemingly minor decisions may impact the country’s trajectory for years to come. Rather than give in to this temptation, I believe that what awaits Venezuela is much of the same.

The changes instituted with the adoption of Chávez’s 1999 Constitution are, for the most part, well-known. He eliminated the upper house of Congress and changed the electoral rules to strongly favor his (currently predominant) party through the combined effects of malapportionment and a first-past-the-post system. He replaced most of the judiciary with “friendly” judges, and he endowed the national executive with the capacity to reduce the powers of subnational (i.e. state and municipal) authorities. The state bureaucracy has been filled with his supporters, and the country’s oil industry has been purged of any pre-Chávez technocrats. Chávez’s footprint is large and deep when it comes to the country’s institutional framework.

His social impact has been just as impressive. While in office, Chávez instituted a vast array of social programs – executive-led misiones bolivarianas – that have sought to promote, to various degrees, improvements in education, health, nutrition, and even culture and security. Incredibly popular but also incredibly costly, these programs will not easily be undone. Even Chávez’s main competitor in the 2012 presidential election, Henrique Capriles Radonski, promised to maintain the missions. (He also vowed to improve them by making them more democratic and transparent.)

Internationally, Chávez sought to change the balance of power in the region. He used revenues from the country’s vast oil reserves to provide billions of dollars in assistance and subsidies to his allies in the region, including in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Bolivia. He regularly spoke out on the international stage against the “empire” to the North, working to build an alliance of regional partners that could counterbalance the long shadow of the United States. Chávez’s foreign policy had both material and symbolic effects. Because of this, his departure will undoubtedly represent a major blow for the more radical left in Latin America. Many governments, especially in Cuba and in parts of the Caribbean, had come to rely heavily on his large investments in energy and infrastructure. Still, the symbolic importance of his promotion of an alternative vision for hemispheric relations cannot be overstated. His candor and decidedly undiplomatic stance vis-à-vis the United States resonated with many people, both within and outside of Venezuela.

Indeed, Chávez was successful at giving voice to many of those who felt excluded in Venezuela’s former (pre-1998) political system. He appealed directly to the poor, emphasizing a message of social justice. He combined his populism with social policies that actually retained (or at least did not reverse) positive trends in illiteracy and poverty reduction. Many Venezuelans today assert that they have easier and better access to health care and education. During the months I spent in Venezuela, I spoke with citizens who were passionately for but also passionately against Chávez. Many on both sides recognized his role in extending important social programs to the poor.

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