Rogers M. Smith

Oct 1, 2020

That Is Not Who We Are!

Populism and Peoplehood

Yale University Press 2020

Rogers M. Smith, the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, has written a new book on the connection between our understanding of peoplehood and community, and the contemporary growth of populism around the world. This book and the meditation on these issues of populism and nationalism come out of the presentations Smith gave as the 2018 Castle Lecture Series on Ethics, Politics, and Economics at Yale University. Thus, That Is Not Who We Are!: Populism and Peoplehood (Yale UP, 2020) comes out of Smith’s long engagement with this concept of peoplehood and how that idea—which also helps us to understand the modern structure and engagement of community— encounters populism, which also connects people to community and to the nation-state as a defined entity. Smith notes that he has been quite concerned with the rise of authoritarianism, particularly as it has been connected to populism in a number of different countries. The tension between those groups that are culturally traditionalists and those groups that are more cosmopolitan in perspective is at the heart of what That Is Not Who We Are! explores and seeks to understand, particularly in this period of economic globalization and technological innovation.

Smith approaches these research questions from a comparative perspective, bringing together an analysis of a host of different nation states and regions to examine populism’s appeal and how these concepts have been connected to questions of national identity and this umbrella understanding of peoplehood. In order to understand peoplehood, we must think in terms of narratives, and Smith explains that it is these narratives that help us see ourselves as particular communities and as members of a state or nation. These narratives are also used by political leaders to define what it is that we all share as a “people”—and these narratives may also define who is not a member of, or is excluded from the nation, the state, the people. Smith notes that, as humans, we understand the world in which we live through this narrative lens, they give meaning to our experiences. We are fundamentally social creatures who fulfill our needs, as humans, in societies and communities. Populist leaders make extensive use of these narratives of peoplehood and this is one of the animating issues in That is Not Who We Are!: Populism and Peoplehood. Because of the need for narratives to help us understand ourselves as humans, it becomes problematic to shift away from this aspect of populism that can also lead to authoritarianism. But Smith urges the reader to turn towards these narratives of peoplehood, in part because they are important in understanding the demos within democracies. But also because stories or narratives are not sufficient in politics. Citizens expect that politics produces some kind of results, some kinds of policies. And while stories can be engaging, citizens also generally want to see the policies enacted.

Smith also outlines out a kind of asymmetry with regard to the narratives that are being told, that have recently captured the imagination. Thus, the stories used by nationalist populists have proven to be engaging and have drawn in citizens who are supporting the populists and those pursuing populist policies in many different countries. Smith makes the case that there are competing narratives that argue for much more inclusive ideas and policies, and these stories, essentially liberal in character, can be made to counter the nationalist populist narratives. That is Not Who We Are! focuses on three individuals who expressed these more inclusive values: Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama, and John Dewey; and particular attention is paid to Abraham Lincoln’s narrative, connected, as it is, to the founding ideas sketched out in the Declaration of Independence.

Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).

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Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.

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