Category Archives: Speeches

Populism and the Future of American Politics

On November 10, 2016, Jonathan Fanton introduced a panel discussion focused on the “Populism and the Future of American Politics.”

The panelists were: Charles Stewart III, Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Lawrence D. Bobo, W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences, Harvard University; and Jennifer Hochschild, Henry LaBarre Jayne Professor of Government and Professor of African and African American Studies, Harvard University.

The discussion served as the 2045th Stated Meeting of the American Academy. 

Good evening.  I am Jonathan Fanton, President of the American Academy. It is my pleasure to welcome you, and to call to order the 2045th Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

This evening’s program, on “Populism and the Future of American Politics,” could hardly be more timely—indeed, it has been a subject that has likely been on the mind of everyone in this room for the past several months. And when we chose it we did not anticipate the outcome of Tuesday’s election. I think this is a topic that some—maybe many—of us feel the need to talk about this week.

“Populism” is a term that did not exist when the Academy was founded in 1780. When the authors of the Academy’s charter wrote that the “end and design of the institution of the said Academy is to … cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people,” they meant something very different by the term “people” than did those who coined the “populist” label in the late 19th century.

It is clear that the founders of the Academy would not have described themselves as populists in the current sense of the term. Their view of classical populism would have been informed by the warnings of classical philosophers, such as Aristotle, who in Politics defined a “demagogic democracy” as a society where a popular faction “takes the superior share in the government as a prize of victory,” incited by the misleading rhetoric of a charismatic leader. Plato laid out the results in his Republic, predicting that the people—an “obedient mob”—would “set up one man as their special leader … and make him grow great.” These observations have more meaning to me today than when I prepared this Introduction two weeks ago.

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