Robert Pape, a political science professor from the University of Chicago, speaks to international relations students March 20 in Maginnes Hall. He lectured about the rise of violent populism in America and the danger it poses to democracy. (Kali Fernandez/B&W Staff)

Professor’s lecture on rise of violent populism in America


Robert Pape, a political science professor from the University of Chicago, spoke to Lehigh students about the rise of violent populism and the dangers it brings to American democracy through the Efron Speaker Series. 

The International Relations Department presented the event where Pape spoke on his studies of civil wars and conflicts to understand current issues in the United States.

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, populism consists of a variety of political stances that emphasize the idea of the “the people.” The term originally rose in the U.S. during the late 19th century to reduce the power of large corporations. 

Pape spoke on today’s violent populism where millions of people are willing to overturn elections, rather than accept the results they don’t like. 

He argued this is the biggest threat to American democracy today and shared his findings on the growing support for violence among both left and right-wing individuals.  

Arman Grigoryan, an international relations professor, invited Pape to Lehigh to speak on the evolution of polarization in American politics.

“I have known Professor Pape for a long time,” Grigoryan said. “I’ve been a fan of his work ever since I was a graduate student and when he was a young academic. He’s one of the most prominent scholars in our field, one of the most prominent scholars of his generation.” 

Grigoryan said it is important to invite speakers who can provide genuine academic perspectives. He said one of the goals of these speaker events is to combine policy-relevant issues with fundamental research. 

During his talk, Pape discussed his recent research on the demographics of the insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Pape shared that the vast majority of the insurrectionists were employed, coming from a wide range of professions. Some of those arrested come from high-level occupations, such as a gynecologists, healthcare executives and corporate executives. 

He said the insurrectionist movement has become mainstream, not one full of fringe militant groups. 

Based on the findings of his recent research, Pape’s main argument is that the violence of Jan. 6 is a symptom of a problem that has slowly developed since 1965. 

“​​The bigger problem is that we’re going through a demographic transition from a white-majority democracy to what will be the world’s most important multiracial democracy,” Pape said. 

This demographic transition, Pape said, is a major driving force of insurrectionist movements. 

Pape used his expertise in political violence and his recent surveys to describe why the perception of corruption is important to study. 

“When you see the politics as corrupt, you are more likely to support violent alternatives to those political outcomes,” Pape said. 

Despite the discussion of heightened political violence, Pape’s survey reveals 75% of the American public abhors political violence. 

Sarah Gao, ‘26, an attendee said this statistic stuck with her. 

“That to me was eye-opening to kind of see how our actions don’t line up with our words,” Gao said. “Despite so many people agreeing, we’re seeing more and more political violence.”  

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