On October 26-27, 2017 Harvard Law School celebrated the 200th anniversary of its founding with an academic summit of sessions exploring questions and issues related to law and the legal profession today.
This one-day conference, co-sponsored by Harvard Law School and the Stigler Center for the Study of the Economy and the State at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, focused on an important and dangerous political phenomenon: the “populist plutocrat.” The populist plutocrat is a leader who exploits the cultural and economic grievances of poorer, less-educated voters against traditional elites in order to achieve and retain power, but who, once in office, seem substantially or primarily interested in enriching him- or herself, along with a relatively small circle of family members, cronies, and allies.
Many Americans worry that this description accurately captures President Trump, and are working to both understand and respond to the distinctive challenges posed by the Trump Administration. Yet while populist plutocracy may be a new experience for Americans, it is a sadly familiar style of leadership elsewhere in the world. Populist plutocrats have taken power in many democracies, often with devastating results. Although every country is different, Americans have much to learn about populist plutocracy—both about how it functions, and how to fight it—from those who have confronted this phenomenon elsewhere.
This conference contributed to that more general understanding by bringing together a group of distinguished experts—academics, journalists, politicians, and civil society activists—to analyze populist plutocrats (or leaders who exhibit some similar characteristics, even if they don’t perfectly correspond to the archetype) from several different countries, including Italy, Thailand, Russia, the Philippines, Peru, Argentina, and South Africa. These participants addressed four key questions: First, how can we understand the political and social conditions that contribute to the electoral success of populist plutocrats? Second, once in power, how do populist plutocrats govern, and how does their governance style differ from other types of leaders? Third, what strategies and approaches are most effective in resisting and combating populist plutocracy? Fourth, what are the long term economic and political consequences of a period of populist plutocracy?
For the "Last Lecture" Series at HLS, 3L and LL.M. students asked some of Harvard Law’s notable professors to give a lecture as if it were the last one they would ever give–or, for those less morbid, the last lecture they would give to students about to graduate from law school. Since 2015, Professors John Coates, Gabriella Blum, Noah Feldman, John Manning, Jeannie Suk Gersen, Bob Bordone, Robert Sitkoff, Annette Gordon-Reed and Dean Martha Minow have all offered parting words to graduating students.