Academics and commentators across the world have diagnosed what seems to them a global crisis of liberal-democracy. Many of them have focused in on populism, forming what some have called a ‘populism industry’. Feeding a confused and worried public’s desire for a prognosis, they have crafted definitions of populism that can explain and connect the seemingly new tide of right-wing politics in many very different contexts around the world.
Federico Finchelstein, Professor of History at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College, argues that to understand our contemporary political predicament, we should instead start by contextualizing it by studying the actual historical experiences of populism within the long-term patterns of challenges to democracy. This, he insists, is preferable to theorizing perfect definitions of populism. Starting in 1945 in Latin America, where fascistic sentiments were reformulated for a post-war era and then brought into power through democratically elected governments, Finchelstein takes us around the world to see both patterns and divergences as this specific form of anti-democratic sentiment, populism, is expressed in various political contexts.
His book, From Fascism to Populism in History (University of California Press, 2017) provides the reader with an understanding of many of the most important theories of populism and how these theories stack up in the face of the ‘messiness’ of the global historical record. This hybrid intellectual-political history demonstrates how fascism and populism are connected but not the same, and why this matters for understanding the world today. In doing so, Finchelstein shows why we cannot afford not to have historians engage in contemporary political conversations.