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Populist Plutocrats: Lessons From Around the World

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Wasserstein Hall, Milstein West AB (2019)

Harvard Law School

1585 Massachusetts Ave

Cambridge, MA 02138

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This one-day conference, co-sponsored by Harvard Law School and the Stigler Center, will focus on an important and dangerous political phenomenon: the “populist plutocrat.” The populist plutocrat is a leader who exploits the cultural and economic grievances of poorer, less-educated voters against traditional elites in order to achieve and retain power, but who, once in office, seem substantially or primarily interested in enriching him- or herself, along with a relatively small circle of family members, cronies, and allies.

Many Americans worry that this description accurately captures President Trump, and are working to both understand and respond to the distinctive challenges posed by the Trump Administration. Yet while populist plutocracy may be a new experience for Americans, it is a sadly familiar style of leadership elsewhere in the world. Populist plutocrats have taken power in many democracies, often with devastating results. Although every country is different, Americans have much to learn about populist plutocracy—both about how it functions, and how to fight it—from those who have confronted this phenomenon elsewhere.

This conference will contribute to that more general understanding by bringing together a group of distinguished experts—academics, journalists, politicians, and civil society activists—to analyze populist plutocrats (or leaders who exhibit some similar characteristics, even if they don’t perfectly correspond to the archetype) from several different countries, including Italy, Thailand, Russia, the Philippines, Peru, Argentina, and South Africa. These participants will address four key questions: First, how can we understand the political and social conditions that contribute to the electoral success of populist plutocrats? Second, once in power, how do populist plutocrats govern, and how does their governance style differ from other types of leaders? Third, what strategies and approaches are most effective in resisting and combating populist plutocracy? Fourth, what are the long term economic and political consequences of a period of populist plutocracy?

Speaker List

  • 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
    Founder of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism
  • Paul Holden, Director of Investigations at Corruption Watch UK
    Co-author of Who Rules South Africa (Jonathan Ball, 2012)
  • Duncan McCargo, Professor of Political Science, School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds
    Author of The Thaksinization of Thailand (NIAS, 2004)
  • Giovanni Orsina, Professor of History, Deputy Director of the School of Government, Director of the Master in European Studies, Luiss-Guido Carli University
    Author of Berlusconism and Italy (Palgrave, 2014)
  • Jose Ugaz, Chair of the Board, Transparency International
    Former Ad Hoc State Attorney of Peru, prosecuted Alberto Fujimori and Vladimiro Montesinos
  • Luigi Zingales, Robert C. McCormack Distinguished Service Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance, University of Chicago Booth School of Business

The conference is free and open to the public.

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Wasserstein Hall, Milstein West AB (2019)

Harvard Law School

1585 Massachusetts Ave

Cambridge, MA 02138

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