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Populist Politics | Munk Debates

SEASON TWO - EPISODE #1

Populist Politics

Be it resolved, we should embrace, not fear, populist politics.

Guests
Donald Critchlow
Timothy Garton Ash

About this episode

Some proponents of liberal democracy are interpreting the US election results - and Donald Trump’s near win - as a warning sign that the pulse of populist politics still beats strong in the American body politic, an ill tiding for other liberal democracies currently trying to fend off populist insurgencies.

Critics of populism say it is not inconceivable, if action isn’t taken to strengthen liberal democratic institutions and values, that the politics of Spain, France, the UK, and the US could end up looking a lot like those in Hungary, Turkey, Russia, and Brazil today.

Defenders of populist politics say the recent US election is proof that the rough and tumble spirit of democracy is alive and well. They credit populism with turning out historic numbers of voters on both sides of the ballot. Thanks to populist politics, citizens have the power to articulate their interests and anxieties during a period of massive demographic and social upheaval. They argue that populist politics - both right-wing and left-wing - is key to renewing democracy and giving its values and institutions a new lease on life in the 21st century.

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Guests

Donald Critchlow

"For all the flaws of populist movements, they force political and economic elites to undertake reform. Elites cannot reform themselves."

Donald Critchlow

"For all the flaws of populist movements, they force political and economic elites to undertake reform. Elites cannot reform themselves."

Donald Critchlow, Katzin Family Professor, Faculty of History, at Arizona State University, including most recently, In Defense of Populism: Protest and Democracy (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020); Republican Character: From Nixon to Reagan (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), and Future Right: The Forging of a New Republican Majority to be released by St. Martin’s Press in May 2016. Other books include American Political History: A Very Short Introduction; When Hollywood Was Right: How Movie Moguls, Film Stars, and Big Business Remade American Politics; and The Conservative Ascendancy: How the GOP Made Political History; Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism. He is currently completing a book, Revolutionary Monsters. He is the founding editor of the Journal of Policy History. He has appeared on C-SPAN, NPR's Talk of the Nation, and BBC World News.  

Timothy Garton Ash

"Populists are political entrepreneurs who identify a large set of discontents, unite people around simplistic, nationalist slogans and once they’ve got 50 plus one percent of the vote, try to change the rules of the game to remain in power."

Timothy Garton Ash

"Populists are political entrepreneurs who identify a large set of discontents, unite people around simplistic, nationalist slogans and once they’ve got 50 plus one percent of the vote, try to change the rules of the game to remain in power."

Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies, University of Oxford, Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is the author of ten books of contemporary history and political writing which have explored many facets of the history of Europe over the last half-century. They include The Polish Revolution: Solidarity, The File: A Personal History, In Europe’s Name: Germany and the Divided Continent, and Facts are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade without a Name. He also writes a column on international affairs in the Guardian, which is widely syndicated, and is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, amongst other journals.

From 2001 to 2006, he was Director of the European Studies Centre at St Antony's College, Oxford, where he now directs the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom. Its Free Speech Debate research project, built around the 13 language website freespeechdebate.com, contributed to the writing of his book Free Speech: Ten Principles For a Connected World. The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, & Prague was recently reissued with a new chapter exploring the 30 years since 1989 in post-communist Europe. Prizes he has received for his writing include the Somerset Maugham Award, the Prix Européen de l'Essai and the George Orwell Prize. In 2017, he was awarded the International Charlemagne Prize of the city of Aachen, for services to European unity. 

Show Notes

Donald Critchlow has recently published In Defence of Populism: Protest and American Democracy. He has written extensively about the history of American conservatism including Republican Character: From Nixon to Reagan and Future Right: The Forging of a New Republican Majority. 

Timothy Garton Ash has written numerous books about democracy and popular social movements including The Magic LanternThe Revolution of '89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague, and  History of the Present: Essays, Sketches and Despatches from Europe in the 1990s. He writes frequently about populism including here and here. 

During the debate Timothy identifies five characteristics of populist politics, including a “majoritarian, winner-take-all” approach to democracy. He refers to  Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of “the tyranny of the majority” and the dangers majority rule can entail, including the oppression of minority groups. You can read the French political philosopher’s classic analysis of the U.S., in Democracy in America  (Volume 1, Part 2, Chapter 7 for his discussion of majority rule). 

During the debate Donald and Timothy discuss whether the digital revolution and social media have changed the democratic landscape so deeply that it is not possible to make comparisons with the past. Donald argues that the polarization we see today in the U.S. is very similar to the level of polarization leading up the American Civil War and for some similar reasons. You can read more about American polarization in the 1850s and the similarities and differences compared to today here. 

During the debate Timothy argues that disinformation and conspiracy theories are an inherent part of the populist politics package. He refers to research and studies that show that fake news is more likely to come from the conservative right than the left.  

In his closing argument, Donald argues that nationalism, which is key to understanding Trump’s populism, is strengthening American democracy rather than weakening it. You can learn more about this positive perspective of nationalism here and here.

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