Revolutionizing Repertoires: The Rise of Populist Mobilization in Peru

Revolutionizing Repertoires: The Rise of Populist Mobilization in Peru

by Robert S. Jansen


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Politicians and political parties are for the most part limited by habit—they recycle tried-and-true strategies, draw on models from the past, and mimic others in the present. But in rare moments politicians break with routine and try something new.

Drawing on pragmatist theories of social action, Revolutionizing Repertoires sets out to examine what happens when the repertoire of practices available to political actors is dramatically reconfigured. Taking as his case study the development of a distinctively Latin American style of populist mobilization, Robert S. Jansen analyzes the Peruvian presidential election of 1931. He finds that, ultimately, populist mobilization emerged in the country at this time because newly empowered outsiders recognized the limitations of routine political practice and understood how to modify, transpose, invent, and recombine practices in a whole new way. Suggesting striking parallels to the recent populist turn in global politics, Revolutionizing Repertoires offers new insights not only to historians of Peru but also to scholars of historical sociology and comparative politics, and to anyone interested in the social and political origins of populism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226487441
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/17/2017
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Robert S. Jansen is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan.

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Who Did What?

Establishing Outcomes

Peru's 1931 presidential election was a watershed moment in that country's political history. As a result of complex struggles that played out over a relatively short period of time, a new mode of political practice — populist mobilization — was introduced, fundamentally revolutionizing the repertoire of practices available to Peruvian politicians. In the process, structures of social solidarities and antagonisms were reconfigured, new modes of claims making were introduced, and conceptions of social and political reality were altered. Future political action would confront a new landscape of political possibility. It truly was a structure-transforming event, in the sense articulated by William H. Sewell Jr. (1996). In light of this fact, it is remarkable that the case has received so little scholarly attention.

The event is not very well known, even amongst Latin Americanist academics. Indeed, its significance has gone underappreciated in Peruvian historiography. Jorge Basadre, the foremost Peruvian historian of the republican era, did recognize the importance of the election and devoted considerable attention to it (Basadre 1999, 12:3167–69, 13:3177–208). But apart from his work, there has been only one monograph-length study, in English or Spanish, that focuses squarely on the election and treats both contenders — Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre and Luis M. Sánchez Cerro — equally (Stein 1980). The one scholarly book on Sánchez Cerro and his political party devotes a mere thirty-one pages to the 1930–1931 period (Molinari Morales 2006). The literature on Haya de la Torre tends to focus overwhelmingly on the figure's changing ideology and to skip quickly over the 1931 election, as it represented just one moment — and, as will be discussed below, ultimately a defeat — in a dramatic political career that lasted over sixty years. The best book on the early years of Haya's party focuses on its social origins and devotes just one chapter to the election proper (Klarén 1973). None of these works focus on explaining change in political practice per se. Recognition of the significance of the event among Peruvianists has thus been partial at best.

Because of this lack of attention, it is not enough merely to stipulate the importance of the 1931 election for Peruvian history — this fact must be substantiated. In particular, it is necessary to demonstrate that there was indeed an important shift in the political repertoire at this time. This must be done before any attempt can be made to explain the shift — which is the primary goal of the subsequent chapters. The present chapter thus provides a brief tour through Peruvian history that focuses in particular on what political practices looked like before, during, and after the eventful moment that is the focus of the rest of the book. This tour will make it clear that the 1931 election was indeed a fulcrum in Peruvian history — at least in terms of the political repertoire. Prior to embarking on this journey, however, it is useful to start by providing a working definition of populist mobilization — so that we may know it when we see it, and recognize its absence prior to 1931.

Defining Populist Mobilization

Because this book treats populist mobilization as a subtype within the more general domain of political mobilization practices, it is necessary to begin with what is meant by both "political" and "mobilization" — two terms that have a range of possible meanings. Understandings of what counts as political action can range from narrow to broad. For the purposes of this study, I am concerned with a relatively narrow band of the political. I consider a practice to be political when it is oriented toward influencing, changing, or reinforcing the authority relations that are crystalized in the organizational apparatus of the state. As for mobilization, I rely on a fairly straightforward understanding based on the idea that, at its core, the term points to a transition from passivity to activity. I define it as the process by which a number of individuals are moved to coordinated action in pursuit of shared aims; and I include under this broader umbrella those activities by which the material and organizational capacity for — and cultural bases of — such coordinated action are generated. It is important in outlining this definition to note that — because the construction of a sense of shared purpose is always an interpretive accomplishment, and because the coordination of activity relies in part on a cultural infrastructure of shared symbols and meanings — the process of mobilization always has an ideational dimension to it. That said, there is nothing intrinsically political about it. What makes mobilization political is when this movement from passivity to meaningful collective activity is oriented toward the accomplishment of political ends. This is the conceptual space within which populist mobilization exists. Now, what makes political mobilization populist?

I define populist mobilization as the mobilization of marginalized social sectors into publicly visible political action, while articulating an anti-elite, nationalist rhetoric that valorizes ordinary people. Put more schematically, what makes populist mobilization distinctive is the way in which it infuses what I call popular mobilization with populist rhetoric. The first of these definitional elements points to the mobilizing activities themselves, the second, to the ideas animating those activities. "Populist mobilization" might thus be thought of as a compound concept that requires definitional elaboration across two domains: the practical and the discursive. This distinction is analytically useful, so long as it is remembered that it is also somewhat artificial — as what is done is inseparable from the meaningfulness of what is done in any real world situation. With this caveat, let us consider each element of the definition in turn.

Specifying the first half of the equation is relatively straightforward. As suggested above, I understand popular mobilization to be the mobilization of marginalized social sectors into publicly visible political action. This means that it involves mobilizing people who are either socially stigmatized or usually excluded from the sphere of political power and influence. This could include the poor, the unpropertied, members of ethnically marginalized groups, or people who — for these reasons or others — have not been previously mobilized into political action. It also means that popular mobilization involves animating such people into coordinated political activity in a way that is noticeable to others in the public sphere. This can be done by staging political events — like marches, rallies, speeches, and demonstrations — in public space. But such mobilization can also involve the orchestration of more private gatherings or other organizing activities, insofar as these are publicized or otherwise made widely visible. In many settings, visible mobilization of the marginalized is by its very nature a politically contentious act — regardless of how orderly or well-reasoned it may be — because it poses a challenge to dominant sociopolitical conventions, structures, and actors. It is thus often read by its opponents as socially disruptive and destabilizing, or even as threatening and confrontational.

The second half of my definition of populist mobilization inhabits the discursive realm. I have suggested above that it involves the articulation of an anti-elite, nationalist rhetoric that valorizes ordinary people. When I use the term rhetoric here, I use it in its broadest sense: to imply sets of ideas and categories, understandings and depictions of reality, ways of elaborating ideas, modes of argumentation and persuasion, and styles of verbal and physical expression — instantiated in public speech, expression, display, or text — that both legitimate and animate action. Populist rhetoric proposes answers to questions like: Who are "the people"? What are their strengths and virtues? How united or divided are they (or should they be)? Who stands outside the boundaries of this category? In what ways do those beyond the boundary threaten the well-being of those within, or the integrity of the whole? And ultimately: With whom does (or should) sovereignty lie? Accordingly, it involves a sort of claims making — although it is important to note that the claims being made are as much about the nature of social and political relations as they are about particular issues or grievances. But all of this requires some elaboration.

The first thing that populist rhetoric does is to posit the natural social unity and inherent virtuousness of "the people" — of the majority of ordinary members of the national community. In characterizing such a broad swath of society, leaders downplay differences and emphasize similarities (or at least propose a vision of unity through functional interdependence). Insofar as it attempts to traverse at least some traditionally politicized social divides (like class, ethnicity, or region) — arguing that the national body and political authority should not be fragmented by party or group — populist rhetoric is holistic and inclusive. Populist leaders may develop arguments that "the people" includes workers, the urban poor, the landed and landless peasantry, and indigenous populations, as well as professionals, the middle class, or even certain segments of the elite (if they can avoid identifying them as such). Along the way, they adopt nationalist ways of speaking and framing situations. At the most fundamental level, populist rhetoric represents an attempt to forge a solidary "people" through its rhetorical invocation.

But at the same time as it works to construct an inclusive and solidary national people, populist rhetoric also constructs the image of an equally solidary — and threatening — opposition to that people. To do this, it paints the picture of an antagonistic vertical relationship, in which some kind of parasitic, antipopular elite (often identified as an economic or political oligarchy) lords over the ordinary people below. This elite is portrayed as having disproportionate and unjustified control over the conditions affecting the rights, well-being, and progress of the virtuous national people. Precisely which social groups get tarred with the elite brush can vary significantly from one case to another. Indeed, this can be a tricky issue for populist leaders, who sometimes themselves hail from the higher social echelons and who often require the support (even if it must be quiet support) of at least some well-placed elites to sustain their political projects. But regardless of how the popular enemy is constructed, this Manichean rhetoric (de la Torre 2000, 12–20) ultimately aims at forging a sense of vertical antagonism at the national level. True virtue and sovereignty rests with the people, below, while immoral elites exercise illegitimate authority from above.

The rhetorical construction of a solidary and immoral elite is, importantly, instrumental to the rhetorical project of elevating the moral worth of — and collapsing competing distinctions within the category of — "the people." The act of circumscribing a "people" necessarily requires the identification of some groups as antipopular; and the act of identifying the popular enemy among the elite facilitates a sense of shared purpose below. Further, if ordinary people are the heart of the nation, then antipopular elites are antinational as well. It is tempting, although overly simplistic, to conclude that populist rhetoric combines a logic of horizontal inclusion with one of vertical exclusion — since it typically maintains some measure of horizontal exclusion (against pariah ethnic groups, for example) and vertical inclusion (of particular elite segments seen as allied to the popular cause). But it is safe to say that the vertical, "people-elite" opposition is portrayed as the primary categorical opposition in a social field otherwise characterized by shared purpose and functional interdependence. In this respect, populist rhetoric is about the variable construction of social solidarities and antipathies at a national level. And, critically, it attempts to position the populist leadership (whether individual, movement organization, or party) at the fulcrum of the national struggle. As the people's natural protector and representative, the populist leadership will fight to right the nation's state of moral imbalance, if given the mandate.

It is important to maintain this distinction between popular mobilization and populist rhetoric, because each can be practiced independently of the other. Popular mobilization is not always accompanied by populist rhetoric. It may be motivated by other sorts of ideas (e.g., socialist, fascist, or anarchist), by a less well-articulated sense of injustice (as in food riots), or by clientelistic social obligations. Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Latin American history contains numerous examples of popular mobilization that was not motivated or justified by populist principles. Without such principles in play, however, these cases do not meet the definition of populist mobilization advanced here. Furthermore, just as popular mobilization is not always infused with populist rhetoric, neither is populist rhetoric always instantiated in a mobilization project. It is entirely possible, even common, for public figures to articulate populist rhetoric without actively practicing popular mobilization. Latin American history provides numerous examples of this as well. The term "populist mobilization" should be reserved only for those instances of political practice in which popular mobilization and populist rhetoric are co-present and mutually reinforcing. The populist rhetoric animates, specifies the significance of, and justifies the popular mobilization; and the popular mobilization instantiates the populist rhetoric in concrete political activities. While the two planes remain analytically distinct, there is a clear historical correlation. With a sort of elective affinity, each suggests itself to the other from the perspective of those undertaking political projects. Finally, for the purposes of this book, I am only concerned with populist mobilization that is large-scale, election-oriented, and sustained over a period of time.

The definitional work undertaken so far makes it possible to identify populist mobilization and to distinguish it from other modalities of political practice, but it has been pitched at a fairly abstract level. This has been intentional. Because while it is useful to identify commonalities across this general form of rhetorically charged mobilization practice, it is important to work from a definition that accommodates the fact that the specifics of the practice have varied historically across time and place. The precise content of populist rhetoric varies across time and place because different regions and localities have their own unique histories of political styles and symbolism, of group representations and narratives, of the boundaries of social identities and their variable salience, and of claims making and issue framing. And the specific sorts of tactics involved in popular mobilization likewise vary, because different places at different times have different economic realities, structures of social relations, political systems, communicative infrastructures, and patterns of public life. That is, even while sharing the formal characteristics outlined above, one instance of populist mobilization may look quite different from another in a different time and place, in terms of the content of the rhetoric and what the mobilization activities look like.


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Table of Contents

Abbreviations and Terms
Introduction1 Who Did What? Establishing Outcomes
2 The Social Context of Action: Economy, Infrastructure, and Social Organization
3 The Political Context of Action: Collective Actor Formation in a Dynamic Political Field
4 The Sources of Political Innovation: Habit, Experience, and Deliberation
5 Practicing Populist Mobilization: Experimentation, Imitation, and Excitation
6 The Routinization of Political Innovation: Resonance, Recognition, and Repetition
Appendix A: Chronology
Appendix B: Population, Suffrage, and Exclusion

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