On Saturday, September 23rd, Harvard Law School, in collaboration with the University of Chicago’s Stigler Center, will host a one-day conference entitled “Populist Plutocrats: Lessons from Around the World.” The conference will focus on an important and dangerous phenomenon: political leaders who successfully exploit anti-elite sentiment in order to achieve power, but who, once in office, seem primarily interested in enriching themselves, along with a relatively small circle of family members and cronies. Many Americans might find that this description accurately captures President Trump, who campaigned as a populist, but who is governing as more as a “crony capitalist” plutocrat—or, some would allege, as a quasi-kleptocrat.
Americans seeking to understand the challenges our country is now facing might do well to look abroad. After all, while Trump’s leveraging of the power of the presidency for personal enrichment—enabled by anti-elite sentiment among his supporters—may well be unprecedented in modern U.S. history, it is not, alas, unprecedented in the modern world. Indeed, while every country’s experience is different, and we must always be careful not to overstate the parallels, many other democracies have had leaders who could be described as populist plutocrats, or even populist kleptocrats, in something like the Trump mold. While such resemblances have occasionally been noted (see, for example, here, here, here, and here), but there has not yet been much of a sustained attempt to understand populist plutocracy/kleptocracy and closely related phenomena in comparative perspective. The September 23 conference will seek to initiate more sustained exploration of these issues, and will also provide an opportunity for experts from other parts of the world–who have more experience with political leaders who combine populist rhetoric with self-interested profiteering and cronyism–to offer a distinct perspective on the challenges the United States is currently facing.
The conference will feature the following panels:
- On Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire media tycoon who served as Italy’s Prime Minister for a total of roughly nine years (over three separate stints) between 1994 and 2011:
- Giovanni Orsina, Professor of History and Deputy Director of the School of Government, Luiss Guido Carli University, and author of Berlusconism and Italy: A Historical Interpretation (Palgrave 2014)
- Beppe Severgnini, journalist and columnist, Correiere della Sera
- Luigi Zingales, Robert C. McCormack Distinguished Service Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance and Director of the Stigler Center, University of Chicago Booth School of Business
- On Thaksin Shinawatra, the Thai telecommunications mogul who served as Prime Minister from 2001-2006:
- On Joseph Estrada, the former action movie star who was President of the Philippines from 1988-2001, and in particular on the role of investigative journalists, and the challenges they face, in resisting populist plutocrats:
- Sheila Coronel, Toni Stabile Professor of Professional Practice in Investigative Journalism, Director of the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, and Dean of Academic Affairs, Columbia Journalism School, and co-founder of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism
- Interviewed by David Sanger, national security correspondent, New York Times
- On the role of legal and judicial checks in Peru under Alberto Fujimori (President from 1990-2000) and in South Africa under Jacob Zuma (president since 2009):
- Paul Holden, Director of Investigations, Corruption Watch UK, and co-author of Who Rules South Africa (Jonathan Ball 2012)
- Jose Ugaz, Chair of the Board, Transparency International, and former Ad Hoc State Attorney of Peru (responsible for prosecuting Alberto Fujimori and other members of his administration)
- Moderated by yours truly
The conference is free and open to the public. More information, as well as a registration page, is available here. For more background on the motivation of the conference, Professor Zingales and I also have a short piece on the Stigler Center blog.) I hope to see many of you in a couple weeks here in Cambridge. For those who are interested but cannot make it, the conference will be live-streamed and video-recorded; more information on the live-stream will be available soon.