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

Date01 September 2018
Published date01 September 2018
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18yb914zoaZWlZ/input 749752PRQXXX10.1177/1065912917749752Political Research QuarterlyLove and Windsor
Political Research Quarterly
2018, Vol. 71(3) 532 –545
Populism and Popular Support: Vertical
© 2018 University of Utah
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Accountability, Exogenous Events, and
DOI: 10.1177/1065912917749752
Leader Discourse in Venezuela
Gregory J. Love1 and Leah C. Windsor2
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.
populism, Latin America, executive approval, public opinion
The ability for the electorate to hold elites accountable
games (Achen and Bartels 2016; Campello and Zucco
via vertical accountability is at the heart of normative and
2016; Healy, Malhotra, and Mo 2010; Hellwig 2014). The
positive democratic theory.1 A popular formulation of
link between elite performance and approval may be tenu-
democratic theory argues that elites respond to public
ous at best. This weak linkage is possibly even weaker in
attitudes and opinions while the public’s opinion is
the context of populist leadership where charisma and
shaped by elite performance. This view has been chal-
leader discourse is at the heart of electoral success, such as
lenged many times, mostly along two key dimensions.
Hugo Chavez’s tenure in Venezuela.
The first is the argument that elites have significant influ-
In democracies, these two views of vertical account-
ence over opinion formation among key sectors of the
ability (or lack of it) are in tension with each other. If
public. As Zaller (1992) argues, elites often control issue
leaders can control messaging and strongly shape public
messaging, providing a powerful tool for influencing
opinion, we should not see much of an impact from exog-
opinion formation. This line of argument has further been
enous events. For semi-democratic regimes where com-
substantiated in differing periods in the United States,
peting messages are constrained, elite-driven narratives
Europe, and in some developing contexts (e.g., Druckman
should exert more influence on public opinion as avenues
2001a, 2001b, 2001c; Geddes and Zaller 1989; Druckman
of media access are, in part, controlled by the state.
and Lupia 2000; Stockmann and Gallagher 2011). Geddes and Zaller’s (1989) work illustrates the efficacy
Although much of Zaller’s model is focused on the indi-
of an elite-cueing model in authoritarian Brazil’s
vidual level, its implication in the aggregate is of a cen-
restricted media environment. If one of these approaches
tral, if restricted, role for elites in shaping public opinion
across a range of issues.
1The University of Mississippi, MS, USA
A second challenge to the classical model focuses on
2The University of Memphis, TN, USA
events out of the control of leaders. This literature argues
that the public rewards and punishes leaders for events
Corresponding Author:
Gregory J. Love, Political Science Department, University of
over which they have no control—from global economic
Mississippi, 133 Deupree, University, MS 38677, USA.
markets, to natural disasters, to shark attacks, or basketball
Email: gjlove@olemiss.edu

Love and Windsor
to accountability effectively works in populist regimes,
Research on Latin America has also produced mixed
its effect could be substantial during this period where
results regarding the role of the economy on vote choice.
populists appear to be ascendant.
Although Cuzan and Bundrick (1997) find some links
The paper proceeds as follows. First, we highlight the
between economic conditions and presidential approval
claims of leader and mass-based theories of leader sup-
in Central America, Johnson and Schwindt-Bayer (2009)
port along with a review of the extant literature on execu-
studying the same countries (but with a longer time
tive accountability and leader discourse, noting its limits
series) find a consistent negative effect of inflation on
regarding theoretical development and empirical evi-
presidential approval and no effect for growth. This mix-
dence, particularly for populist regimes such as Chavez’s
ture of results points to case heterogeneity and the role of
Venezuela. Second, we introduce the case of Venezuela in
leadership style; limits of the classical model of vertical
detail. Then we introduce two unique datasets, a quantita-
accountability may be reached within the contexts of
tive analysis of Chavez’s language from his weekly tele-
Latin American countries.
vision broadcast, and the Venezuelan component of the
Understanding the factors shaping executive-citizen
Executive Approval Dataset, a quarterly measure of
linkages between elections (i.e., approval) in new
Chavez’s public approval. The next section empirically
democracies is a relatively new endeavor as compara-
examines relationships between Chavez’s discourse and
tive public opinion data sources have developed over
his approval. The paper closes with a discussion of the
the past two decades. Taking advantage of the increas-
normative implications for executive accountability in
ingly rich data, a small yet growing literature looks to
democracies led by populist presidents.
understand factors that condition approval (Carlin,
Love, and Martínez-Gallardo 2015a, 2015b; Powell and
Who Leads? Accountability in
Whitten 1993). However, within this literature, there is
Electoral Democracies
a dearth of work on the impact of leader language,
behavior, and discourse on approval ratings. In particu-
In electoral democracies, elections are the chief mecha-
lar, we have a sparse understanding of how leader dis-
nisms of vertical accountability. Through the ballot
course can systematically shape approval directly or by
box, citizens can compel leaders to take voters’ prefer-
mediating the effects of policy performance. In cases
ences seriously by allowing citizens to punish or reward
like populist Venezuela, where government controls
leaders for their promises and performances. But
much or all of the public media, leaders have an advan-
accountability does not vanish between executive elec-
tage in crafting and disseminating their messages to a
tions. Instead presidents use the public’s evaluations of
captive audience. Chavez’s prolific televised oratories
their performance as windows into citizens’ evolving
provide ample empirical data.
views and, thus, as a guide to adjusting their public dis-
Although there is less written about leader discourse
course, rhetoric, and policy program. Although the
and executive approval, the literature on elite messaging
effectiveness of public opinion as an instrument of ver-
and individual political attitudes and leader actions is
tical accountability is limited because negative evalua-
more fully developed. This body of knowledge provides
tions do not automatically lead to the ouster of the
a foundation for a theoretical framework to understand
incumbent, changes in presidents’ polling numbers are
the role leader language can have in popular control. This
consequential enough to give presidents strong incen-
literature, as exemplified by Zaller (1992), Moe (1981),
tives to pay attention—and they do.2 High polling num-
and Erikson, Mackuen, and Stimson (2002), among oth-
bers may facilitate the passage of legislation and
ers, centers on how information flows from elites to the
increase party cohesion while low polling numbers can
masses (and vice versa) in response to political and social
embolden opposition legislators and frustrate the presi-
events and conditions.
dent’s policy agenda. This is likely to be even more
A large segment of the extant literature on elite mes-
important in populist systems with weak parties, as for
saging and popular control builds on Zaller’s elite-based
a populist leader holding office is likely less a function
receive-accept-sample (RAS) model. In it, elites, and
of structural party support than personal appeal. The
elite discourse, play a key role in reinforcing partisanship
populist leader who loses the ability to rally mass sup-
and support for specific actors because politically
port invites rivals from across the political...

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