Challenging perceptions on democracy

Harvard professor to speak about Latin America

By Ilana Goldstein ‘19

Contributing Writer

“Is Global Democracy in Crisis?” headlines posters for Steven Levitsky’s Nov. 4 lecture, part of the Class of 1961 International Speaker Series.

Levitsky plans to give his first speech on campus on global democratization and the misinterpretation of the democratizing process in Colton Chapel at 7:30 p.m.

Although he has worked in the Department of Government at Harvard University since 2000, Levitsky has spent the past 40 years in politics.

“Two things I’ve always loved probably dating back to first grade would be baseball and politics. It became pretty clear pretty early that baseball would not lead to professional success,” he said. “I never, in 40 years, have stopped being interested in politics of all kinds. I decided pretty early on that I didn’t want to do politics but I wanted to be near politics. So, studying it is the next best thing. The only question was what region of the world I would study.”

Levitsky specializes in comparative politics, particularly in Latin America. He said his choice of specialization was “a large product of what was in headlines at the time.”

“When I was at the end of high school and beginning of college in the mid-1980s, Central America was kind of like the Middle East is today: front page, big issues that was a very polarizing debate in the United States,” he said. “I happened to study Spanish in high school and was able to travel to Central America to do my senior thesis on Nicaragua. I basically fell in love with the region and never looked back.”

He considers the research for his first book, “Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America: Argentine Peronism in Comparative Perspective” (2003) the most formative part of his political scholarly career. He spent 18 months in Argentina studying formal and informal labor and political parties.

“I was still pretty young, in my 20s, living, breathing, sometimes bleeding, sweating, crying—it was a truly formative experience,” he said.

“I was really getting a much, much stronger sense of how politics works on the ground,” he added. “That, more than any other book or article I’ve ever written, was a project that…will always have a special place in not only in my heart, but in my brain. It really shaped the way that I look at politics to this day, 20 years later.”

Assistant Professor of Government and Law Brandon Van Dyck completed his thesis under Levitsky’s guidance and followed a similar path on his quest for his right political science niche.

“In 2007, I went to [Levitsky’s] office and told him I wanted to do Latin American politics,” Van Dyck said. After turning towards comparative politics from political theory, Van Dyck began to work closely with Levitsky, noting that he was key to his academic development.

“He is a truly remarkable person and I say that because he is one of the most important scholars of comparative politics in the world today. He’s just an incredible scholar who’s done very influential work on political parties, political regimes,” Van Dyck said.

Levitsky has a passion for teaching.

“There’s nothing better than getting to teach what you love. If I cannot only teach but inspire people to care about how the world works or get people who care about something, if I can help them see how the world works in a different way so they can achieve their own goals a little easier, that’s great,” he said.

Next week’s discussion focuses on misperceptions of the democratizing process.

“I’m going to offer a different view from the dominant voice that they will hear [from] nearly everybody in the foreign policy establishment today, talking about democracy in the world,” Levitsky said. “They will tell you the sky is falling and I’m going tell you why it’s not and make a case for why they’re all getting it wrong.”

“He’s a great speaker; it’s going to be fascinating,” said Professor of Economics and International Affairs David Stifel, who also organized of the speaker series. “For many, many people in the world, their form of government and the future of their governments and their countries [matter]. I’m sure [members of the community] will get a great glimpse of that from what he has to say.”

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