Populism and Authoritarianism in Contemporary Governance

In June 2019, CHCI hosted a Global Humanities Institute (GHI) in Dubrovnik, Croatia, which focused on the question of why populist and authoritarian politics have gained influence in an increasing number of national governments throughout the world. The researchers involved approached this question through the theme of cultural traumas by asking how experiences of large-scale violence, oppression, and exclusion have influenced the waxing strength of authoritarian regimes to the detriment of democratic institutions.

The GHI itself is constituted of a three-year partnership led by the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute along with the University of São Paulo, Jawaharlal Nehru University, University of Zagreb, and the Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University. Established scholars from these institutions were joined by an even more globally diverse set of emerging academics in disciplines across the arts and humanities.

In this essay, Jane Ohlmeyer (Principal Investigator of the Crises of Democracy GHI project) reflects on the significance of the humanities in addressing the challenges faced by champions of democratic institutions, the experience of the institute in Dubrovnik, and the future of this particular research.


This is one of the core questions that the CHCI Crises of Democracy Global Humanities Institute (GHI) explores. Diverging from the well-worn path of using economic and scientific models to address the issue, the GHI uses the strength and diversity of the arts and humanities to provide new insights into democracy and cultural trauma.

The Arts and Humanities Matter

The arts and humanities allow us to find common ground rather than focusing on the differences that divide us. They teach us empathy and encourage us to approach challenges with global comparative perspectives. The arts are about emotion, empathy, imagination, and issues central to identity and belonging. The arts are also the early warning systems in any society.

The arts and humanities have played a key role through the centuries in challenging our understanding of what it means to be human. That role has never been more important in civil society than today, with pressing issues around technology, climate change, migration and the rise of nationalism. We believe that the world’s biggest challenges, such as the rise of populism, authoritarianism and various threats to democracy, can only be tackled through a collaborative point of view. Democracy is typically a subject examined from an economic and political lens. We propose using an arts and humanities approach to examine what is largely a human-centred issue. Countries that presently find their political systems in crisis can in most cases find causes by looking back to specific times, events and experiences in the collective lives of the culture. By turning to the past, they can determine conditions and patterns of responses and influences that have contributed to current crises.

Global Humanities Institute

In 2017, CHCI announced the Global Humanities Institute programme. Applications were invited under two main themes—“Challenges of Translation” and “Crises of Democracy”. The latter was in line with issues TLRH had been examining at the time and we were interested in expanding our network in the area of global democracy research. During our application development phase, we sought to leverage the knowledge and relationships forged during our European Commission-funded SPeCTReSS project, a four year programme of scholarly exchanges focussed on the concept of ‘cultural trauma’ and national identities. We also recognised the opportunity to form new partnerships and connect with global leaders in democracy and cultural trauma research. Accordingly, we at Trinity College Dublin teamed up with 4 other universities: University of Zagreb, Jawaharlal Nehru University, University of São Paulo, and Columbia University.

Our bid to CHCI was successful and we became one of two Global Humanities Institutes chosen for the pilot phase. In July 2019, the Crises of Democracy Global Humanities Institute commenced its second and most significant phase: a 9-day summer institute in Dubrovnik attended by a consortium of seasoned humanities scholars and international early career researchers. This group of 40 researchers in various career stages, representing over 30 disciplines and travelling from 5 continents, met in Croatia to examine threats to democracy through the prism of cultural trauma. The programme consisted of lectures, panels, practical skills workshops, film screenings, and early career researcher presentations.

The highlight of the Institute was a 2-day field trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here, we visited relevant sites of cultural trauma including Mostar, Sarajevo, and Srebrenica. The field trip acted as a common case study for our international group of researchers. While we were there, the GHI partners had an important realisation: in order to apply an arts and humanities perspective, we must visit relevant sites in person and see the impact of political uncertainty and trauma on the local community. We are now preparing for the third phase of our GHI which will be a series of workshops and meetings at the Columbia Global Center in Rio de Janeiro. We will deliver a condensed programme of lectures and workshops on crises of democracy and cultural trauma for early career researchers and senior academics in the area.

Next Steps

It is essential that our GHI has a life after the programme. We have created a network of researchers in the area of democracy and will make our findings and GHI resources free and open to all through an online Crises of Democracy syllabus. The GHI is building a website which will house the lectures and readings generated and covered by the Institute researchers. The website will be launched in November and will be announced on the Trinity Long Room Hub page.

We are now expanding the crises of democracy project substantially to address three core elements of major global societal challenges: culture and society, climate and environment, and media and technology. The GHI provided us with the opportunity to practice interdisciplinarity and explore the subject of democracy from the perspective of the arts and humanities. It encouraged us to consider the role of institutions, inequality, exclusion, and the use of violence in both oppression and resistance from a comparative global perspective. We are living through precarious times. Understanding languages, understanding cultures and complex ethical problems, is crucial to identifying effective solutions to global societal challenges and find common ground. This starts with the arts and humanities. If we want to understand human-centred issues and make the world a place we want to live in, the arts and humanities must be at the core.

Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, MRIA, is Principal Investigator of the CHCI Crises of Democracy Global Humanities Institute and Erasmus Smith’s Professor of Modern History at Trinity College Dublin. She is Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute and has been a pioneer in advocating for Trinity’s Arts and Humanities both nationally and internationally. Since 2015, Jane has been chair of the Irish Research Council, an agency that funds frontier research across all disciplines. Jane currently leads an EU-funded project, SHAPE-ID, which promotes Interdisciplinarity on a major scale. SHAPE-ID addresses the challenge of improving inter- and transdisciplinary research collaborations between AHSS and STEM disciplines (see https://www.shapeid.eufor more information).

*Videos, images and a selection of podcasts from the GHI are available here.