Charismatic leaders—those individuals with special gifts who attract a passionate following—have marked Latin American history from the time of the conquest. While we know a great deal about many leaders, we have paid relatively little attention to the nature of their following, the bond created between leader and follower, and the particular circumstances that produce this connection.
The authors of this book, political scientists at the University of Iowa, address these questions. They begin with a general discussion of charisma, with special reference to the theory of self-efficacy, or “the subjective assessment of one’s own capacity to deal with environmentally posed challenges” (p. 10). This capacity, they suggest, is severely weakened at a time of serious socioeconomic crisis, making important groups in society particularly susceptible to the appeals of a strong authority figure—the charismatic leader.
To test their general propositions, they focus specifically on Juan Perón and Peronism in Argentina. After tracing the history of the man and his movement, they analyze in some detail the elections of 1946, which brought Perón to the presidency—elections that followed significant, disruptive changes in Argentina’s social and economic structure. The authors argue that crucial to Perón’s success in 1946 were those voters most affected by the stressful changes of the period, those whose sense of self-efficacy was most undermined: recent migrants and industrial workers in and near the nation’s large cities. Other chapters examine survey data on Peronist followers in the mid-1960s and on the national elections of the 1980s. In 1983 Peronism was defeated in a presidential contest for the first time, only to regain ascendancy six years later under Carlos Menem. The authors conclude that from the 1960s to the 1980s the charismatic bond between Perón and his followers weakened substantially, due in large measure to changed circumstances and Peronism’s own successes.
Historians will observe that this study provides relatively little new evidence, although it reworks old material in imaginative ways. The methodological discussions, too, are often rather heavy going. Nonetheless, this book offers some stimulating ideas and intriguing methods for examining phenomena that are sometimes easier to describe than to explain, that are well rooted in Latin America’s political tradition, and that seem certain to reappear in the future.