Dr. Robin Lauermann, professor of politics, edits this series

This post is the tenth of our new season, For Times Such as This.  If you have not yet done so, please read this season-opening post for some brief context. 

According to current research, countries around the world have experienced a wave of autocratization – whether turning from democratic systems to authoritarian ones, or remaining democratic broadly, but experiencing backsliding that sees leaders acting in ways that undermine the system.  (See this summary report from the respected organization IDEA – International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Accountability.)  One such “contraction” of democracy has been the rise of populism in recent decades, a development that has occurred in many countries across the globe.  Scholars such as Guillermo O’Donnell and Nadia Urbinati have characterized populism as a dysfunctional or disfigured democracy, as it tends to rely on popular support, but as a means to gain power to undercut one of the central elements of democratic systems — that of pluralism intended to spark competing views to evaluate decisions.

Our third text of the fall capstone course Things Are Never So Bad That They Can’t Get Worse by Wiliam Neuman, offered a deeper dive into these themes from our comparative and international relations subfields.  Neuman, a journalist with long-term coverage of Latin America, examines the rise of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and the country’s eventual economic collapse within the larger international context in which these events occurred.   With almost 8 million of its citizens displaced around the world — more than a quarter of the 30 million who had lived there in 2016 — readers gain a sense of the struggle that has prompted mass migration from the country.  Its dependency on oil as a revenue source has subjected the nation to a very fickle source of income, one that the state did not manage well.  Neuman also provides a small window into how U.S. foreign policy shaped events in Latin America through recent sanctions, which are part of a larger pattern of economic and military influence and intervention that stretches back almost two centuries.  In all, the book launched rich conversations, provoking critical thinking about these issues.

Read on for the first analysis of the book – “A Failed State, Not a Failed People”


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