Dr. Christian Jensen ‘92 talks populism

Dr. Christian Jensen ‘92 presented his research on populism in Europe in his lecture, “Shedding Light More Light on Post Cold War Populism, its Consequences, and Institutional Context.” This lecture was a part of the Povolny Lecture Series “Cold War Alliances – Obsolete or Evolving,” and was held in the Wriston Auditorium on Monday, April 9 at 7:30 p.m.

The lecture was introduced by Professor Claudena Skran, the coordinator of the Povolny Lecture Series. The Povolny Lectureship is sponsored by friends and students of former Professor Mojmir Povolny, and is intended to promote discussion of significant moral and ethical issues. “Few issues [are more prominent] than the rise of populism across Europe,” stated Professor Skran about the importance of this lecture.

Dr. Jensen ‘92 started his lecture by centering it around three famous Lawrentians, President Nathan Pusey, Dr. William Riker and former Professor Povolny. President Pusey was known for clashing with Senator Joseph McCarthy, as he disagreed with McCarthy’s extreme anti-communist views. Dr. William Riker, who was also a former Lawrence Professor, was a political scientist who created many theories on why populist ideals are never achievable. Finally, Dr. Jensen ‘92 connected the lecture to former Professor Povolny who had experienced the effects of populism, having to suspend his education because his country was invaded by Nazis.

Many theorists have defined what populism is, and Dr. Jensen ‘92 listed a number of these definitions, but summed up them up as when politicians promise what is not possible for political gain. In populism, according to Dr. Jensen ‘92, there is one part of the population that is the pure people, and the other part of the population that is the immoral elite, and the only difference between populist groups is who the people are, and who the evil elite are.

According to Dr. Jensen ‘92, if there are debates as to who the groups are, then no one can claim to know what the will of the people is, like many populists try to claim. Usually one can expect that there will be opposition to populist beliefs, and so those beliefs are not universally held in the population.

Dr. Jensen ‘92 then went on to explain why there has been the apparent increase in populism in Europe recently. Through his research, Dr. Jensen ‘92 has come to the conclusion that the increase in populism in Europe is largely due to malfunctioning electoral systems that can give parties a disproportionate amount of power in their country’s government.

A key example of this was Poland’s 2015 election, in which the Law and Justice Party received 37.6% of the vote, but was given 51.1% of the seats in the legislature. This was largely due to certain electoral laws in Poland which benefit the party with the largest percentage of the vote. An example of a European election that functions correctly, and was able to prevent a populist party from gaining a significant amount of power was the 2017 election in the Netherlands, in which a populist party received 13.1% of the vote, but received little legislative power. “The 2017 election in the Netherlands showed how strict proportionality in elections can prevent the rise of populist parties,” said Dr. Jensen ‘92.

Dr. Jensen ‘92 also went on to talk about the increase in populism in eastern Germany, due to poor economic conditions in the region. At the end of the lecture, Dr. Jensen ‘92 took questions from the audience. The next lecture in the Povolny Lecture Series will be “Window Seat on the World: A View of U.S. Leadership and Diplomacy” given by Glen Johnson ‘85 on Monday April 23 at 7:30 p.m. in the Wriston Auditorium.