'Populism: Historical and Normative Aspects'

A Workshop under the Auspices of the History of Political Thought Project,
University Center for Human Values, Princeton University

February 17-18, 2012 - 301 Marx Hall
Provisional Schedule and Papers

'Populism' has become a ubiquitous term among political commentators. Some see it as one of the gravest dangers to liberal democracy; others think it's a term applied to discredit any resistance to the projects of elites increasingly insulated from popular pressure; and others again want to give a positive connotation to the term, based on progressive movements in US history in particular. But do we have a real theory of populism that would allow us to make such clear-cut normative judgments? Can we even find criteria for identifying populism? Some scholars think a minimum for definitions of populism is available, others are skeptical; some think we can use the term populism to rethink fundamental questions of democratic theory; others are skeptical; and some think that, given profoundly different histories and inherited political languages, Europeans and Americans will never quite talk about the same thing when they talk about populism (somewhat comparable to the confusions surrounding the word 'liberalism'). Against the background of such observations (and perhaps confusions), we would like to engage the following questions in particular:

  • Do we have a satisfactory theory of populism?
  • What is the history of the word/concept populism? Can a comparative history of populism be written, and what might we learn from it?
  • Does populism have any normative potential? Does it open up wider questions in democratic theory, and perhaps point to unsolved problems in democratic theory, especially in regard to definitions of 'the people'?