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About the Talk

What is populism? One type of answer to this question is rationalist but reductionist, attributing populism to objective economic problems such as deindustrialization and globalization. Another type of answer is irrationalist and non-reductionist, attributing populism to a subjective hostility to elites, including intellectual and scientific elites, that leads, in turn, to the “post-truth” rejection of facts and reason itself. I will sketch an alternative view that is rationalist, non-reductionist, and subjectivist. In this view, populism is a simplistic distillation of an assumption about the purpose of government that is endemic in modern culture:  the assumption that the purpose of government is to solve the people’s tangible social and economic problems. Non-populists tend to think that the best way to solve these problems is to turn to social scientists with the expertise to diagnose the problems and prescribe effective solutions. Populists tend to think that the diagnoses and solutions are self-evident, so there is no need to rely on the bogus advice of intellectual elites. This analysis suggests that populism has peaked—not because populists have become converts to scientific rationalism, but because a new form of politics is rising that has as its goal emancipation and justice, not the solution of tangible social and economic problems. This type of politics sets aside the question of who knows the truth about empirical matters—experts or the people?—by shifting toward non-empirical, philosophical goals.

About the Speaker:

Jeffrey Friedman is a visiting scholar in the Committee on Degrees in Social Studies at Harvard University and the Max Weber Fellow of the Institute for the Advancement of the Social Sciences at Boston University. He is the founder and editor of Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and Society.

He taught in the Government department at Dartmouth College in 1998, the Social Studies program at Harvard from 1998 to 2000, and the Political Science department at Barnard CollegeColumbia University from 2001 to 2006, after which he was a visiting scholar at the University of Texas, Austin from 2006 to 2016, and the University of California, Berkeley from 2016 to 2020.