NPR has a recent story on “America’s love affair with nationalism” that made me instantly think about my course on populism in Latin America. As someone who teaches comparative politics at an American public university, I frequently have to convince my audience (students) that understanding other countries is not just interesting in its own right, but because we can honestly learn something about our own country by understanding broader political, social, and economic phenomena beyond our borders.
My own interest in understanding populism—which stems primarily from a political sociology perspective coupled with my interest in modern democratic theory—makes me look at contemporary American politics through a very different perspective.
For example: Did you know that studies of Latin American politics suggest that presidential democracy has significant structural flaws that contribute to frequent cycles of democratic “breakdowns” (see, for example, Juan Linz’s seminal The Failure of Presidential Democracy)? I often wonder what a better appreciation of those lessons would do to political discourse in the United States.
If you want an eye-opening understanding of what populism is—and how it can be both a positive and negative force for democratic stability—you may want to check out some of the readings on my populism course syllabus. In particular, I recommend the edited volume Populism and the Mirror of Democracy. There’s a reason why both Hugo Chávez & Sarah Palin are huge social media users. (Also, did you know Hugo Chávez has his own television show—Aló Presidente—from which he does most of his governing?)