This past week, Rogers Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and Pulitzer Prize–winning historian, lectured on political identity, historical narratives and the choices that countries make at the Ethics, Politics and Economics program’s annual Castle Lecture Series.
This year’s series, entitled “That Is Not Who We Are! Populism and Stories of Peoplehood,” took place at Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies building on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. During the 3.5-hour lectures, which drew roughly 40 attendees from Yale and the broader New Haven community, Smith argued that a country’s self-selected narratives give rise to dangerous populist movements across the globe.
“Political communities are always organized by both coercive force and stories,” Smith said in his lecture.
He added that without either component, it is impossible to build a “political peoplehood,” which he describes as a shared political identity.
Professor Frances Rosenbluth, director of the program on EP&E, said that Smith’s research fit exactly with Castle lecture series’ purpose — to provide the Yale community with an interdisciplinary analysis of ethical, political and economic issues facing modern societies.
“We look for people who can speak to all three elements of EP&E and who offer a broad transdisciplinary way of seeing the world,” Rosenbluth told the News. “All of [Smith’s] work is concerned with these [three elements].”
Rosenbluth explained that Yale students “are hungry” to understand and solve problems, and Smith’s lectures offer a way to do that by giving them a model to combat radical and dangerous forms of populism.
Smith started his first lecture “A Cacophony of Stories” by trying to define populism, which he described as an elusive term applied to both the most far-left and far-right political movements around the world.
Smith found the definition of populism in the Oxford Handbook of Populism the most compelling one. The handbook describes populism as an ideology that poses the will of the common people against a conspiring elite. He added onto that definition by saying that populist ideologies always focus on creating a common political identity through telling “stories of peoplehood.” Smith coined the term to concisely define narratives that give a group of people a shared identity.
The postcolonial, post-Cold War, globalized world, Smith said, has given rise to a “cacophony of stories of peoplehood.” As the world continues to urbanize and people meet more people with different backgrounds, there is an “inevitable exposure to multiple stories.” The result is an impulse toward modern nationalist populism, what Smith calls “pathological populism,” that provides an escape from this cacophony.
The second lecture, “What Makes a Good Story?” tracked how stories of peoplehood manifested themselves under modern political regimes. Smith brought examples from the nativist Danish People’s Party in Denmark, the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in India and Israel’s political and ethnic identity crisis.
Setting the stage for his third lecture, “Who Are We Americans Now?” Smith emphasized how in today’s globalized world, there needs to be alternative egalitarian and inclusive narratives that find common ground within already established stories.
“You can’t write off other people’s stories in building a new one,” he said, trying to offer a roadmap for replacing “pathological populism” with a more open-minded pluralistic story of political peoplehood.
In the third lecture, ‘“Who Are We Americans Now?” Smith pointed out that U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies exclude people and their stories. He added that Trump’s vision for America leaves little room for recognizing and accommodating the diverse communities, cultures and ways of life that comprise the United States.
During the talk, Smith arrived at his own solution to combat this problem: an adaptation of John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle” to what he called the “modified Millian maxim.”
“Instead of live and let live,” said Smith, “we need an ethos of live and help live.”
Students interviewed by the News responded to the lecture series positively and said they enjoyed how it broadened the discussion of populism from the United States to the international stage.
Andrew Sorota ’22 said that he appreciated the lecture and said that as Americans today see “calls of populism” from both sides of the aisle in the United States, it is important to analyze how populist movements play out on a global scale.
“It’s easy to see Trump’s populism as a one-time phenomenon particular to the U.S., but we can also identify a common thread in populisms throughout the world,” said Mackenzie Hawkins ’22.
The Castle Lecture Series was endowed by John K. Castle in 1988 in honor of his ancestor James Pierpont, a Congregationalist minister and one of Yale’s founders.
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