Populism and Popular Support: Vertical Accountability, Exogenous Events, and Leader Discourse in Venezuela


As a populist leader, Hugo Chavez famously used emotionally charged populist rhetoric to appeal to a broad base of poor and working-class Venezuelans. Was his choice of linguistic discourse a tool of popular control, response to public opinion, or both? Answering this question sheds light on the effectiveness of classical democratic conceptions of vertical accountability for populist leaders. Using a theoretical framework incorporating macro implications of Zaller’s receive-accept-sample (RAS) model, the concept of Erikson, Mackuen, and Stimson’s mood, and latent public opinion, we develop several competing expectations regarding rhetoric and presidential approval in Venezuela. Using computational sentiment analysis on a unique dataset of transcripts from Chavez’s Aló Presidente broadcasts, we evaluate Chavez’s quarterly public approval ratings with vector autoregression (VAR) and Koyck models. Results indicate presidential approval levels are causally linked to not only exogenous economic factors but also leader discourse. Results also indicate that leader language is not shaped by approval levels, illustrating the power of messaging and media control for populist leaders and the potential limits of democratic accountability.

Publication Title

Political Research Quarterly