Historian to explore populism

Chrissy Miller, News Editor

The 12th annual Barry D. Riccio lecture, “The History of Our Populist Presidency: Traditions of Anti-Elitism in American Politics,” will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Doudna Lecture Hall.

History professor Ed Wehrle said the lecture will attempt to offer the public a better understanding of why some Americans are angry or dissatisfied with their politics.

“Nothing is all that new about what we’re seeing today,” Wehrle said. “There are antecedents, none of this happened all of a sudden. None of this political turmoil we see today is totally new.”

The lectures started as a way to honor Riccio, a history professor who died of cancer.

“We’re very indebted to the support of Barry’s family and his wife always comes to the talks,” Wehrle said. “He was a great teacher, really, a terrific teacher so this is kind of a way to keep that teaching going.”

Wehrle said Michelle Nickerson, a history professor at Loyola University at Chicago, was chosen as the speaker for the lecture because she is able to put current political events in context in an interesting way.

“Nickerson is a particularly exciting speaker, in that she’s done some really wonderful scholarship and I think it will be a very accessible talk,” Wehrle said.

Nickerson said populism is an important tradition in American politics.

“It has been part of both politics on the American right and on the American left if you look at it over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries,” Nickerson said. “We typically associate populism, that is movements against anti-elitists, we associate that with right wing movements.”

Nickerson said in her lecture she will show the parts both sides of the political spectrum have played in the populist movement and what it could mean for the future. She plans to show the change in value and meaning of ideas such as “elite” over the course of history.

“We should not take at face value what we hear either politicians or the news media assign to those words when they tell us that certain members of the American elite are controlling us in particular ways,” Nickerson said. “It’s important to really think about what that means for us in our lives and who is really controlling things at the very top.”

Relying on loaded words is not the best way become educated on what is going on in politics and government, Nickerson said.

“It actually takes work to figure out who is really pulling the strings,” she said.

Nickerson said when planning her lecture, she was excited to be able to give context to the current political climate by drawing on America’s political inheritance with 19th century history including Shay’s Rebellion and the populist movement.

“The thing that was hard but also very exciting is that with stuff that is happening right now, even just last week, with the resignation of (former Secretary of Health and Human Services) Tom Price, I had to keep changing the lecture because that had an impact on what I was saying and what I was thinking,” Nickerson said.

She said current political events bring up questions about what populists do when they are the political establishment.

“As the election results were coming in it was literally changing the shape of my lecture, which as a historian I am not used to,” Nickerson said. “I’m not a journalist. I’m a historian, I write about the past. So for these present day events to be interfering with the process of my writing was complicating matters but also very exciting for me.”

Chrissy Miller can be reached at 581-2812 and [email protected]