Dr. Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser is an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow and associate professor at the School of Political Science at Diego Portales University in Chile. His book Populism. A Very Short Introduction, co-written with Cas Mudde, was published by Oxford University Press in February 2017.
Cristóbal, what’s your interest in populism?
I started to do research on populism because Latin America has a long history of different populist actors who have undertaken major reforms with contentious legacies. However, I realised that there has also been a growing amount of literature on populism in Europe. Whereas Western Europe is much more associated with populist radical-right parties, Latin America is associated with left-wing populist forces. I found that there was no dialogue between these two strands of literature. So I started to make cross-regional comparisons between Europe and the Americas in order to examine whether we talk about the same phenomenon, whether populist forces have the same sort of impact on democratic regimes, be it negative or positive.
Given the popularity of Donald Trump in the United States, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, is populism in general on the rise?
We should be careful when using the concept of “populism.” Whatever we don’t like and we think is dangerous we tend to label as populism. For example, someone who is making xenophobic statements is quickly called populist. But xenophobia and populism are two different things. So I would say many of the leaders and parties that are causing trouble are populist, but surely not all of them. Going back to your question, whether populism has risen, I would say yes and no. Yes, there is more populism in the last few years, but we haven’t had an explosion of populism all over the world. When you look at the evolution across time, you have very different patterns in the various countries. In some countries populist parties have been growing (e.g. Austria), in some countries they have lost power (e.g. Argentina), and in others they are even non-existent (e.g. Portugal).
What is the value-added of your visiting fellowship at the GIGA?
I decided to visit the GIGA because I wanted to go to a place where people actually do research on Latin America in order to see how people in Europe perceive what is going on in Latin America – whether populism is relevant or not. While at the GIGA you don’t have people working on populism per se, it is helpful to be challenged on your topic’s relevance, concepts, modes of comparison, and other academic questions by fellow scholars. Besides, the main thing that I have been doing here is to finish an edited book that I am developing in cooperation with two colleagues, one in the UK and one in the US: the Oxford Handbook on Populism.
What is the book’s focus, and how does GIGA research come into play?
It has chapters on different world regions but also broader topics. In this sense, it is nice to be at an institute where people have, on the one hand, an interest in Latin America and other world regions, but are, on the other hand, doing research on different subjects: authoritarianism, elections, violence, etc. You can actually learn from their fields of expertise and the perspectives they advance. Since the handbook includes a broad set of topics, the diversity of expertise has been valuable also for this edited volume.
Thank you for this interview.