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Kennedy School Lecturer Studies Trump and Rise of Populism

By Charles Levene, Contributing Writer

Donald Trump won the presidential election in an upset victory fueled by populist rhetoric, but it may have been less of a surprise for Kennedy School lecturer Pippa Norris.

This summer Norris authored a paper arguing that the recent rise of populism across the Western world can be attributed to a cultural backlash against progressive values. In her paper, Norris examines the popularity of Trump and the United Kingdom’s "Brexit"—the referendum decision to leave the European Union in June—in the context of rising populism in world politics.

"Trump’s angry nativist rhetoric and nationalistic appeal fits the wave of populist leaders whose support has been swelling in many Western democracies," the paper argues.

Norris said that, after the recent presidential election, “there is tremendous uncertainty” in how President-elect Trump will shape the United States' foreign policy.

Co-written by University of Michigan professor Ronald F. Inglehart, the paper focuses “public opinion and whether or not populist leaders and their rhetoric actually appeal to the public,” Norris said in an interview.

“The U.S. has come kind of late to the table,” Norris said. “There are many other countries where mainstream parties have really pushed [populism] forward in Austria, in France, in the Netherlands, and even in Sweden.”

Populism in the U.S. is notably “unexpected partly because the American political system is one with high hurdles for minor parties,” which include “electoral hurdles, campaign-finance hurdles, [and] media hurdles,” Norris said.

According to Norris, the general sentiments that propelled populism beyond those obstacles are, for the most part, dissatisfaction with the establishment alongside the “rising tide of progressive ideals.”

Norris emphasized the continued role of the U.S. as an important leader in promoting democracy and influencing other nations.

“Other authoritarian regimes are going to take advantage if America no longer tries to protect human rights and presses forward democracy promotion,” she said.

The paper has received generally positive feedback in the past few weeks.

Norris and Inglehart “are surely correct that these movements are in some respects a cultural revolt against post-materialist values,” Peter A. Hall, a government professor who specializes in European studies, wrote in an email. “I think this is also a revolt against the neoliberal policies and rising levels of inequality that have accompanied globalization.”

Others have claimed that recent world events have the potential to significantly alter how academia approaches the study of populism.

“I think the challenge posed by populism is that the current variants include sustained critiques of the academy,” government professor and incoming University professor Danielle S. Allen wrote in an email. “College and universities will find themselves not only needing to continue the business of studying the world but also of rebuilding understanding about why and how we do that.”

Norris and Inglehart, who have already written three books together, will further develop this research in an upcoming book, Norris said.

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