The University of Wisconsin-Madison Jean Monnet European Union Center of Excellence for Comparative Populism will provide a new focal point in research and teaching for faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates. The Center’s goal is to illuminate the widespread phenomenon of populism—as one of the primary political, economic, and social challenges of our time. It will offer comparison across space, time, and disciplinary boundaries, using a broad range of methodological approaches.
Comparison across space involves explicit and careful attention being paid to similarities and differences in populism in different countries and different world regions. How do populists in various European countries resemble one another and compare to populists elsewhere? What similarities might we detect between populists on the political right and the political left? What structural and institutional factors facilitate or stymie the rise of populism?
Comparison across time allows for lessons from the past to be applied to the present and future. Do populist movements in the past differ from those we observe today? Does today’s right-wing populists’ marriage of populist and nativist messages resemble their messaging in previous eras? Did the same factors contribute to the rise of populists in the past that are associated with their current success?
Comparison across disciplines helps us understand the many different facets of populism. For example, sociologists will contribute by examining populism through the lenses of social movements, identity, or race; political scientists by investigating populist parties, their electoral success, and the mediating impact of political institutions; scholars in mass communication by analyzing populist messaging and the use of social media; public health researchers by considering debates on gender and reproductive rights; cultural linguists by investigating populist rhetoric and discourse; and public policy scholars by linking populist political programs to questions of social policy and the future of the welfare state.
The Jean Monnet European Union Center of Excellence for Comparative Populism is uniquely suited to addressing questions such as these because of the excellence of its faculty and existing structures for collaboration. For example, members of its European Studies community have already teamed up with leading scholars of American politics to investigate the local roots of populist politics in the state of Wisconsin. Building on Professor Kathy Cramer’s seminal book on “The Politics of Resentment,” they have developed an ambitious project to investigate growing political polarization and fragmentation and the extent to which they have been driven by talk radio, local news, social media, and political campaigns. The project has received substantial funding from UW-Madison, indicative of a significant institutional commitment to the topic (see research.wisc.edu/funding/uw2020/round-4-projects/communication-political-democratic-crisis). The Center will also partner extensively with Wisconsin’s Elections Research Center (see elections.wisc.edu).
There is, in other words, fertile ground at the University of Wisconsin to expand the focus of populism to the EU and its member states, as well as additional comparison points in EU Partnership Instrument countries.