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Op-Ed: Overcoming the Rise of Populism through Inclusive Forms of Knowledge

By Claudia A. Fernández Calleros

Jaider Urrego: Ju'gwesx uus Jhatxn (Tejiendo en nuestras memorias/Knitting in our memories)


Despite the challenges to its results, the latest U.S. elections brought optimism on the prevailing support of democratic institutions. But Donald Trump is only one case of a global trend. Peoples’ lack of trust in political elites is causing the election of “outsiders” who appeal through populist narratives and have led the rise of a third wave of autocratization—both in developing and consolidated liberal democracies.

Policy experts have found multiple evidence-based alternatives to revert this “global crisis of democracy,” including equality in education and access to voting, reducing polarization, and fighting misinformation. But an equally important consideration is that, if people act on their distrust against the “establishment,” it is likely because they have not perceived enough benefits from the implemented policies often endorsed by policy experts.


So, shouldn’t we be more critical of our traditional methods and seriously consider the available alternatives beyond them?


In their book The Misinformation Age, Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall argue that the misinformation driving today’s populism can be explained by understanding the creation of knowledge as a social phenomenon, often affected by bad decisions based on false beliefs. By analyzing examples in the natural and social sciences, they underline a central but usually ignored aspect of our traditional evidence-based methods: that the “past failures of science should make us very cautious in accepting current scientific theories as true.”


Acknowledging these flaws in policy analysis is crucial when we consider that hegemonic forms of knowledge constantly result in discriminating distributions of resources—central to the grievances expressed by disadvantaged minorities and the supporters of populism, and evidenced by the increasing politicization of science. Hegemonic forms of knowledge from western/liberal democracies start by the main language that is given space in global academia; continue through the uncritical and often exclusive teaching and research of theories produced by those in/with power; permeate our daily interactions through media and our exclusive networks; and they affect policy.


Since discrimination in education, hiring, and politics has been statistically shown ‘even’ in consolidated democracies, how can we pretend that we—the epistemic communities leading policymaking—are not privileged and prone to bias? Quoting Sanjay Seth, “Are we […] right to assume that modern Western knowledge transcends the circumstances of its historical and geographical emergence and thus that the social sciences are “true” for everyone? […] social sciences are only ever a partial guide, necessary but never sufficient to understanding that which they have helped to fabricate [i.e., unequal social structures].”


Fortunately, there is concrete action we can take as policy analysts towards inclusive forms of knowledge and, hopefully, more accurate and equal policy recommendations. Some proposals are applying interdisciplinarity beyond political science and economics, consulting community leadership and affected populations as our fellow experts, and considering global critical theories beyond the false dichotomy of liberalism/realism in our analytical frameworks. A fundamental step is to acknowledge when our personal experience—which tends to guide our logic—is not representative of the average person in target populations. In this case, I suggest applying John Rawl’s ‘veil of ignorance’ if we intend inclusive policymaking.


The usual counterargument to inclusive forms of knowledge is that this ‘politicization’ of academia may be detrimental to society by giving up methodological rigor or leading to intangible, unachievable practices. This is not necessarily true, as suggested by the v|a|s|t a|v|a|i|l|a|b|l|e s|c|h|o|l|a|r|s|h|i|p that is rarely given attention. We should further question whether this argument is enough for us to condone discrimination by concealing its pervasiveness with our work—or whether we should aspire to perfect our methods by making them more inclusive instead. As concluded by the World Inequality Database, “tackling inequality is a matter of political choice.” Since politics and policy are undeniably interrelated, being ‘apolitical’ in policy analysis is indeed a political choice—one of indifference to inequality.


If our aim is accurate policy decisions, it is our job to adapt our theories to the realities of the world. Let’s remain critical and self-aware. Let’s cede the space and resources needed to impact policy to the experts dedicated to understanding the experiences of marginalized populations, as well as acknowledge that they are not necessarily academics. Let’s be inclusive in the forms of knowledge we consider relevant to policy making. And let’s stop pretending that liberal democratization is enough to become an equal society, so we at least do not perpetuate the stigmatization—and oftentimes, understandable anger—of those pointing/voting it out.

Claudia A. Fernández Calleros is a 2021 Master of Public Policy candidate at GPS specializing on Program Design and Evaluation, and Peace and Security. She is also Director of Content for the Journal of International Policy Solutions and holds a B.A. in International Relations from Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM). Prior to GPS, she worked in the Directions for Health and Financial Literacy at the Institute for Mexicans Abroad.