Skip to main content


Crises of Democracy at Columbia

Politics of the Present

dateApril 11, 2019 timeThursday, 10:15am–5:00pm EDT location The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room, Columbia University
  • Free and open to the public
  • No registration necessary
  • First come, first seated

This symposium is one of many discussions on the “Crises of Democracy” hosted by a number of institutions in a variety of locations, including Reid Hall in Paris and Trinity College Dublin. Panelists at Columbia will discuss issues affecting democracy across the globe, including "The Populist Appeal of Strongmen," "Weaponizing the Classics," and "Journalists at Risk." ​


Welcome and Introduction: Victoria Rosner (Columbia)

The Populist Appeal of Strongmen

The panel will address the role of “strongmen” in escalating or, indeed, provoking democratic crises. There will be an emphasis on the relationship between the representations of modern leaders and the political actions such figures advocate and implement. How can we interpret Putin’s umbrella scene during the world cup final or the praises during Trump’s first cabinet meeting in the context of rituals of power? What does Viktor Orbán’s stadium-building obsession in Hungary or Erdogan’s monumental presidential palace tell us about the nature of those regimes? How do academic disciplines—history, political science, art history, cultural anthropology, cultural studies or psychology—help us understand and explain the complex relationship between representations and the exercise of power? Curiously enough, the relationship between political action and the (self-) representations of leadership has generally escaped the attention of journalists and analysts thus far. The panel aims to bring that relationship to the limelight and to show that the myths and rituals supporting the imagery of the “strong leader” are often indicative of the emergence of authoritarian political practices in a democratic environment.


Balazs Apor (Trinity College Dublin), "The Return of the King? The Crisis of Democracy and the Rebirth of the Leader Cult"

Ruth Ben Ghiat (NYU), "Strongman Body Politics"

Ido de Haan (Utrecht University), “Bonapartist leaders and the imaginary people”

Valentina B. Izmirlieva (Columbia), “Militarizing the Saints: Putin and Russian Orthodoxy”

Chair: María González Pendás (Columbia)

Weaponizing the Classics

The ancient world has always been used as supporting evidence for modern arguments - pro and anti democracy, pro and anti slavery, pro and anti various stances on colour, gender, labour, government etc. What has changed recently is the extreme polarisation of opinion in many places in the world, particularly in the US, and the manifestly unacceptable assumption that if the Greeks or Romans did or said something, it is by definition fine for us. So, instead of supporting evidence for a point of view, the ancient world becomes a weapon. This panel will explore the misuse of the Classics as well as identifying models from the ancient world that really might be helpful in addressing modern problems.


Brian McGing (TCD), 'The Founding Fathers, Polybius and the Decline of Government'

Dan-el Padilla Peralta (Princeton), "Racial Equity and the Production of Knowledge in Classics"

Marcus Folch (Columbia), “On Not Weaponizing the Classics: Historicism and Cultural Politics of Ethos"

Chair: Joseph Howley (Columbia)

Journalists at Risk

This discussion comes in the wake of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and statements by the current administration characterizing the press as "the enemy of the people." This panel will address attacks on individual journalists, as well as the fourth estate in general, in order to better understand the contemporary context and also to put recent incidents in historical perspective


C.J. Chivers (New York Times Magazine), “Silencing Discussion and Dissent: Attacks on Journalists and Press Freedoms”

Kerry Paterson (Committee to Protect Journalists), “Press Freedom Under Fire”

Bruce Shapiro (Columbia), "Journalists, Authoritarians and Democratic Repair"

Chair: Rachel Nolan (Columbia)

Closing Remarks: Jane Ohlmeyer (Trinity College Dublin)

This event is co-organized with the Trinity College Long Room Hub Arts & Humanities Research Institute, the School of General Studies at Columbia, and the Harriman Institute.