Nation & World

Looking at the world through a comparative lens

6 min read

Steven Levitsky analyzes a mercurial political movement — Peronism

When Steven Levitsky talks politics, a boyish enthusiasm takes over. It’s hardly surprising. He fell in love with the topic at the age of 5.

The New York native’s passion for the workings of governments derived from an uncle, a social worker with a keen political eye who liked to discuss the Middle East with his young nephew.

“It’s a passion that I grew up with … and I certainly give my uncle the credit, or the blame,” Levitsky, professor of government at Harvard, said with a laugh.

The intensity is palpable when he discusses his 2003 work, “Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America: Argentine Peronism in Comparative Perspective,” the book that developed out of his Ph.D. dissertation. The work examines Peronism — the political movement created by Juan Peron in the 1940s that incorporates social democracy and nationalism — and the radical shifts in its ideology during the past 30 years.

Traditionally the voice of the poor and of labor and trade unions in Argentina — and largely hated by the middle classes and wealthier sectors of society — the movement switched from a fairly statist populist party in the 1980s to one responsible for carrying out radical free market reforms in the 1990s, said Levitsky. Recently, it has shifted dramatically again, moving back toward the left.

“It’s a party that did a programmatic 180 and I wanted to explain how it did that. Political parties aren’t supposed to go from Reaganism to Ted Kennedy liberalism overnight, and that is basically what the Peronists did.”

To understand the shifts, Levitsky spent a year and a half in Argentina meeting and interviewing party members. He found that both the movement’s massive membership (deeply entrenched in the working class) and its loosely structured organization help explain the recent changes.

“The rules and procedures that structure party life: how to choose candidates, how to make decisions, how to choose a platform — all of that stuff is constantly up in the air,” he said.

But such turbulence, while chaotic, he noted, can be beneficial.

“It makes for quite a bit of flexibility. It allows the party, at least under certain circumstances, to adapt much more quickly than more bureaucratic parties.”

The young professor, who never took an introductory course on comparative politics (the examination of the similarities and differences of governments) as an undergraduate at Stanford because of its “deadly boring” reputation, is dedicated to teaching the subject in a compelling way.

To engage his class, Levitsky examines four topics: revolution, economic development, democracy, and ethnic conflict, all in a contemporary context. Students compare and evaluate different theories in an effort to understand the reasons behind ethnic violence in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, social revolutions in Russia and Iran, and democratic reform in South Africa. His course’s steadily rising enrollment numbers is an indication of the effectiveness of his approach.

“Comparative politics,” he said on a recent afternoon in his cluttered office, “is inherently sexy; it’s really exciting.”

It was global political turmoil occurring in Levitsky’s formative years that drew him toward Central and Latin America.

In high school and early on in college, the drama of the Nicaraguan civil war and events in El Salvador inspired him to get personally involved. His opposition to the United States’ efforts to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and U.S. support for the military-backed government in El Salvador led him to take part in protests, join letter-writing campaigns, and participate in what he calls his greatest contribution: “guerilla theater.” Levitsky and his friends would dress in fatigues, storm the college cafeteria, kidnap a diner who was in on the plan, and hand out leaflets that stated such abductions were a regular occurrence in El Salvador.

His interest in the conflict led to a trip to the country in 1989, where he conducted research for his undergraduate thesis; it was a trip that sealed his academic fate.

“Just jumping in the middle of things and talking to people was absolutely decisive in my choice to go on and become a scholar. I had no real training in research, but the experience of being there and sticking my nose in the middle of politics was a very powerful one for me.”

Levitsky entered graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1992, about a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The “momentous time,” he recalled, pulled him again toward Latin America as the demise of the socialist model of the USSR forced the region’s labor-based and leftist parties to re-evaluate their approach.

“The world was really being thrown up in the air. I knew from early on that I wanted to study this question of how labor-based parties, particularly in Latin America, were responding to globalization.”

The avid Mets fan who proudly displays a baseball signed by Willie Mays on his desk, met his wife during his graduate school years. After attending one of his talks where he described Peru’s government as an “authoritarian democracy,” Liz, a Peruvian journalist studying at Berkeley for a year, challenged him a week later.

“She started ripping into my talk,” he said, “and I immediately fell in love.”

Today the couple has a daughter, Alejandra, who seems to be following in her father’s passionate political footsteps. During the primary season, when Levitsky and his wife were split about supporting Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, their then 4-year-old adamantly weighed in one morning at breakfast.

“She jumped into the discussion,” said Levitsky, “pounded her fist on the table and said, ‘No! We’re all voting for Obama!’”

Back in class, Levitsky said he hopes to impart his own passion for politics, along with a lesson about critical thinking. Surprised by how many first-year undergraduates enter his class wanting to “know the answer,” he tries to teach them “how to think critically, how to compare and evaluate different arguments.

“The vast majority of the students that I teach are not going to be political scientists,” he said. “They are going to be citizens, and here at Harvard in many cases, fairly influential and powerful citizens, so it means a lot to me to have a small amount of influence into how these guys think, and hopefully get them a little bit more engaged in politics.”