It may be the political story of the new millennium: the populist revolt sweeping across the United States and much of Europe—Donald Trump’s election, Brexit, and strongman-types elected from Hungary to Poland to Italy. Vivien Schmidt is researching a book on the phenomenon—specifically, the “rhetoric of discontent,” parsing populist leaders’ words for clues as to “why now, in this way, in these places,” as she puts it.
Her effort to understand our epochal times has won her a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship.
Schmidt, a Boston University Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies and College of Arts & Sciences professor of international relations and of political science, is one of 175 people this year to receive a Guggenheim, among the most notable honors in academia. With about 3,000 applicants annually, the fellowships are given to those who have “demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.”
In Schmidt, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation found not just a scholar of the world, but also its photographer; her fine art landscapes of the United States and Europe have been exhibited on both continents. She was born in New York, raised in Italy between the ages of 8 and 16, and has held visiting professorships and fellowships in Rome, Brussels, Copenhagen, Berlin, Florence, and Oxford.
An expert on Europe’s political economy, integration, and politics, Schmidt, BU’s Jean Monnet Professor of European Integration, says the nine-month grant will cover her BU salary, as the University “generously offered to top up the grant to the amount of my regular salary.” (Guggenheim grant amounts vary among recipients.)
“The grant will provide the time to do the research, interview populist leaders and party stalwarts in the United States and Europe, as well as complete a first draft of the book,” she says.
Among the questions she hopes to answer: “What are the broad sources of discontent that explain the upsurge of populism—economics, politics, or sociocultural issues? What makes for the resonance of the populists’ rhetoric, beyond the ideas—the language, the psychology, or some other factor?”
She’ll also study mainstream politicians’ hapless efforts to “harness or diffuse” populist anger, and perhaps most important, the potential consequences of transatlantic populism on the assumptions that have governed the United States and Europe since the end of World War II.
Comparing both sides of the ocean, Schmidt hopes to learn “which may better resist the siren calls of populism in the near term.” Her book won’t be a scholars-only tome, she says, but one “accessible to the general, informed public,” looking for “possible progressive pathways beyond” today’s populism.
Adil Najam, dean of the Pardee School, says Schmidt brings “academic rigor coupled with policy relevance” to her research. “There are very few who understand or can explain the intricacies of European political economy with as much clarity as Vivien does,” he says. “These dynamics are at the core of what will define our global future. The research she intends to do during this fellowship will help us understand these dynamics.”
The author or editor of more than a dozen books, Schmidt was educated at Bryn Mawr College and the University of Chicago. She was the founding director of Pardee’s Center for the Study of Europe, a position she held until 2017. Last month, she received France’s highest honor, one rarely accorded to a non-French citizen: she was appointed a Chevalier in the French Legion of Honour.