Populism and the Threat to Democracy

Winter 2020 - Tuesday Series

No Upcoming Lectures

Past Lectures

Who Speaks for “the People”? Placing Canadian Populist Politics in Historical Context

Tuesday, Feb 25, 2020

In a liberal-democracy such as Canada, the “voice of the people” is of vital importance to effective and legitimate political representation. At the same time, mobilization on behalf of and by “the people” can unleash powerful forces that challenge central ideals of liberty and equality. In recent years, such populist forces seem to be increasing in Canada, producing fears for a more fractious and perhaps even violent politics. This talk provides an opportunity to step back from the headlines to explore past populist movements in Canada, and thereby place the populist politics of the present within a broader historical context.

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Brazilian Populism: Will Neoliberalism and Evangelicalism destroy Amazonia?

Tuesday, Feb 18, 2020

In 2018, Brazil elected the far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro as president. Unlike most successful populists around the world, he promised an extreme neoliberal economic policy and was disproportionately supported by the better-off. His main electoral base among the poor was in the burgeoning evangelical community, with which he has strong familial ties. How destructive is this combination of neoliberalism and evangelicalism going to be for the Amazon rainforest, its indigenous peoples, and the global future?

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Dupes and Deplorables??: How anthropology might help us to better understand populism"

Tuesday, Feb 11, 2020

It’s been several years since our eyes first trained on the Trump campaign which seemingly came out of nowhere and first took on the Republican and later the Democratic Party to win the White House. Soon thereafter, news of Brexit hit and in early 2019, Israeli populism outflanked left, right and centre parties to victory. What is puzzling if not entirely surprising, is that rather than seeking to understand on what grounds these political grounds had shifted, we were hit in media, scholarly conferences, and every day discussions with expressions of enormous disdain for the electorates — “dupes” “deplorables” — whose votes had surprised not only political leaders, but scholars and journalists alike. Anthropologists are curious beings, by and large, and in this presentation I will share stories and experiences from the field — both Israel and the United States — that I believe can help us not only to understand some of the “what’s happened” but also allow us to consider how political strategies and mediated politics easily shift our attention away from the meaningful to the superficial.

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Is Turkey Ready for Change?

Tuesday, Feb 04, 2020

Since 2002, Turkish politics have been dominated by one party and one man: The Justice and Development Party and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.  What began as the widely applauded exercise of democracy in a country that had long struggled with military authoritarianism, has now become a much criticized abuse of electoral office through populist manipulation.  In the midst of regional instability and internal challenges, Erdoğan has defied his critics and only increased his hold on power, combining an appeal to both nationalist and religious sensibilities.  Yet recent elections in Istanbul suggest that change is on the horizon and that gradually a new politics is emerging.

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The (Mostly Imagined) Empire Strikes Back: Myths, Memories, and Populism in Brexit Britain

Tuesday, Jan 28, 2020

In 2016 then Prime Minister David Cameron gambled and called for a referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union. Intended as a means of strengthening his negotiations with Europe, as well as improving the Conservative Party’s position in the UK, the results revealed deep divisions in British society, not only with respect to Europe, but also with regards to how Britain’s past was understood and what kind of future lay ahead. Most experts and commentators were caught by surprise, particularly following as it did on the heels of an era that had come to be labelled, or at least marketed, as ‘Cool Britannia’, the image of an outwardly confident, cosmopolitan, and creative United Kingdom epitomized by the 2012 London Olympics. Yet this was a vision from which many felt excluded, and the so-called Brexiteers voted to leave Europe for many reasons: anti-immigration, anti-austerity measures, suspicions of European intentions, anti-globalization, and anti-cosmopolitanism, to name just a few.

The referendum exacerbated fractures in British society and exposed new fault-lines. In particular, it pitted a nostalgia-laden vision of English exceptionalism against an unstable and arguably untenable sense of Britain-within-Europe nationalism. This resurgent English nationalism rested upon an implicit consensus that things were getting worse. Forty-three percent of those who responded in a 2012 UU survey felt that conditions had deteriorated over the course of the past sixty years. Only thirty percent thought things had gotten better. The popularity of Dunkirk and Downton Abbey speak to this longing for an age largely defined, if not dominated, by English distinctiveness.

An important theme threaded through much of the Brexit language draws upon a particular reading of Britain’s Imperial past which is not merely nostalgic but in its very selectivity strengthens English exceptionalism. Ironically, much of the nostalgia is for a nation that never was.

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Past Shadows: German Populism Today

Tuesday, Jan 21, 2020

Like so many other nations, Germany’s recent history has been marked by a rise in populist movements. Parties with strong populist ties, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD – Alternative for Germany) being the most recent example, threaten to disrupt the hard-won social consensus that sought to make sense of and atone for the crimes of Nazi Germany. The development of these mass political movements would seem to indicate that this consensus is fragile.
This lecture will revisit Germany’s past in order to see if pre-1945 German culture provides any clues about the current political situation. And while one must recognize, to use political scientist Sheri Berman’s words, that “populism is not fascism,” we do well to understand the relationship between the two ideas and how the one can lay the groundwork for the other. We will also look at Germany’s history of leftist populism and how it has affected modern-day politics.

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Populism and the Politics of Memory in Contemporary Poland

Tuesday, Jan 14, 2020

This lecture will explore the political climate in Poland since the 2015 electoral victory of the populist Law and Justice Party, particularly as it relates to Polish-Jewish relations and to the historical memory of World War Two and the Holocaust. We’ll consider the various ways that Poland’s far-right nationalists use and abuse history to shape public memory and collective national identity and, ultimately, to determine what it means to be Polish in post-Communist Poland.

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The Threat of Populism

Tuesday, Jan 07, 2020

In its most basic form, populism is about the people of a nation demanding a voice in their political and social affairs. So why is populism a threat to democracy? This lecture will identify and discuss some of the key features of populism: the “us versus them” mentality; populism’s conflict with elitism; how mass dissatisfaction can give rise to mass political movements; the differences between left-wing and right-wing populism; the role of leadership in populism; and the difficulties scholars have defining populism (and the reasons for that). This lecture, by taking a look at the different theories informing populism and the debates about what populism actually is, will equip learners with a framework for contextualizing subsequent lectures on particular instances of populism in different countries and societies.

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