Symposium at IU Kokomo co-sponsored by Soundings:An Interdisciplinary Journal

The New Populism and the Politics of Dissensus

On March 29-31, Indiana University Kokomo will be hosting a symposium entitled The New Populism and the Politics of Dissensus. The symposium will bring together 16 scholars to grapple with some of the most important questions about our politics and political theory. 

Consensus provides the foundation for most liberal democratic theories.  Such theories assume that a process of public deliberation that moves the polity toward consensus should both guide and legitimate the institutions of a democratic government.  Thus, consensus is a necessary good for society. Recently, however, these fundamental assumptions have been challenged by a politics of dissensus.  Political theorists like Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, and Jacques Ranciere have argued that antagonism and conflict are ineradicable parts of the democratic process which need to be acknowledged and even celebrated rather than somehow overcome. They claim that the kinds of consensus that are extolled by liberal democracies are themselves part of the machinery of oppression.  Indeed, Ranciere insists that any attempt to legitimate any exercise of power will inevitably support an oppressive status quo that institutionalizes problematic asymmetries of power.  

The populist movements that are currently gaining strength in both Europe and America seem to share these theorists’ distrust of liberal democratic institutions and the kinds of deliberation on which they depend for their legitimacy.  Despite their nostalgic longing for the politics of a bygone era, these populists assume that only those who break completely with political institutions as they are currently constituted can hope to restore legitimacy to the political system.  Rather than placing hope in deliberation, the populist political program is frequently expressed as support for charismatic leaders who show a minimal regard for institutions of any kind and present themselves as the necessary exceptions to the norms of democratic rule.

Both the theorists of dissensus and the populists are motivated by a strong resentment of the ways that liberal democracies have normalized and institutionalized inequities of power and wealth.  Is a politics of consensus still viable in the face of these theoretical and practical challenges?  Does our politics of consensus need to be amended, and, if so, what would such a revitalized politics of consensus look like?  If it cannot be revitalized, what can we expect of our future politics?

The symposium is made possible by the generous support of a New Frontiers/New Currents grant from Indiana University as well as support from Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, which is a publication of the Society for Values in Higher Education.

Symposium presentations will be open to the public.