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Situation normal: Populism from antiquity to the age of trump

Paul Kenny, Australian National University

Tue 12 February 2019

11:00am - 12:00pm

The Dryzek Room, Building 22, University of Canberra


Although populism has become a subject of intense interest since Donald Trump’s election victory in late 2016, populism itself – the charismatic mobilization of the masses in pursuit of power – is nothing new. Contrary to the oft-stated view that populism is a novel perversion of democracy, this project shows that it has in fact been democracy’s constant shadow. The liberal democratic era of the latter twentieth century – to which contemporary populism is typically compared – was the historical exception. Populists thrive both where modern bureaucratic parties have yet to exist and where they have begun to decay. Populism has been historically most successful in competitive patrimonial political systems, the kinds that prevailed in most democratic experiences outside of the twentieth century West, from Ancient Greece and Rome to the “third wave” democracies of Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Only where patrimonialism is combined with authoritarian centralism has it proven relatively stable. In the West, in contrast, populism has only resurfaced as the modern bureaucratic political party has gone into decline. As organizations with deep roots in communities, unions, and churches, bureaucratic parties provided a stable link between people and the government. Populists in the West are thriving today because the exceptional socioeconomic foundations on which those parties were built have decomposed. Trump’s election signals a return to normal; a normal of weak, personalistic parties; a normal ruled by democratic volatility.

About the speaker

Paul Kenny is a Fellow and Head of the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University. He joined the ANU in 2013, having completed his PhD in political science at Yale University. His research focuses on some of the major challenges to contemporary democracy, including populism, identity politics, and corruption. His first book, Populism and Patronage: Why Populists Win Elections in India, Asia, and Beyond(Oxford University Press, 2017) demonstrates a causal link between the disruption of political patronage networks and the electoral success of populist candidates. The book received the American Political Science Association's 2018 Robert A. Dahl Award for research of the highest quality on the subject of democracy. His second book, Populism in Southeast Asia (Cambridge University Press, 2019), examines the political economy of populism in the region. His research on populism, ethnic politics, and corruption has been published in The Journal of Politics, the British Journal of Political Science, and Political Research Quarterly among other outlets. He is currently working on a new book on populism across democratic history.

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