Guest Post: What Can Reformers Learn from the Populists?

Today’s guest post is from Michael Johnston, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, at Colgate University.

Few recent political trends have attracted as much concern as the rise of populism and illiberal democracy. Figures like Orbán (in Hungary), Duterte (in the Philippines), Bolsonaro (in Brazil), and Trump (in the U.S.), along with their enablers and sycophants, have disrupted democratic norms and processes in their home countries and encouraged similar movements elsewhere. They have emboldened corrupt and self-dealing actors while weakening and intimidating countervailing political forces. While populists frequently rail against a corrupt and decadent old order, promising to restore citizens to a position of power and sovereignty that in most instances they never actually enjoyed, these leaders seem to have little concern for those citizens after winning their votes. Indeed, perhaps we shouldn’t call these figures “populist” at all, given their tendency to abuse and mislead the very citizens they claim to represent. “Authoritarian nationalist” might be a more accurate label. But whatever we call them, they seem determined to undermine checks and balances and meaningful accountability, as well as the political trust and informal norms on which well-functioning governments depend.

This is bad news for those working to check corruption, as these populist/authoritarian nationalists’ undermining of accountability and institutional checks fosters a pervasive atmosphere of impunity. But might there also be important lessons that the anticorruption community can learn from these movements? I suggest that there are. Indeed, populist followings are telling us something important, something directly relevant to reform, if we listen closely.

Some years ago, Mark Warren astutely observed that the essence of corruption in a democracy is the “duplicitous exclusion” of people from processes and decisions that affect their lives. Be it by preempting those decisions and processes, manipulating them in more gradual ways, or simply crowding out citizen influence, powerful, well-funded, and well-connected interests deprive citizens of a voice, and of the sense that they and their values matter. In practical terms, the perception of such exclusion is just as corrosive as the reality. Ironically, transparency by itself may only intensify those perceptions as citizens see the dynamics of influence put on display.

Therein lies the lesson for reformers: our challenge is not only to improve administrative processes, legal compliance, and technocratic “good governance”—important and difficult as achieving those goals may be. We must also recognize and remedy that popular sense of powerlessness. In effect, we must reclaim the populists’ favorite issue and make it our own. Reform must confront and redress the imbalances of power that allow the few to exploit the many, and make it clear that citizens have an important place at the table.

That is obviously a tall order. It is the political work of at least a generation. It cannot be accomplished only with technocratic reform “toolkits,” nor can it be accomplished on the timeframe of a typical two- or three-year “anticorruption project.” Because exclusion happens in many ways, we must address a range of processes and grievances encompassing much more than do our legal and conceptual definitions of corruption. And the crucial focus needs to be at the grassroots—not via externally-funded anticorruption organizations (particularly, not with those that typically spring up around national capitals in response to flows of external funding), but with existing, deeply-rooted social networks and their own leaders. Their immediate concerns may well have little to do with politics and governance. Indeed, in the early stages those supporting anticorruption reform might do better not to emphasize corruption specifically, but rather help enhance citizen autonomy regarding their day-to-day issues and problems. Addressing those problems through demonstrated improvements in services and facilities, and by redressing unfair treatment, is critical if we are to persuade people they have a stake in reform and avoid the collective action problems that plague so many grassroots efforts. As the process proceeds it will need to evolve, as I have analyzed in detail elsewhere, for the realities of corruption will change too. It must be a sustained gradual effort (not least because populist regimes will not welcome inroads on their base of support), possibly punctuated by rapid changes, but built on lasting social and political foundations, and guided by the principle of helping citizens speak for themselves in the governing process.

If reclaiming those issues of exclusion sounds more like political realignment than an anticorruption project, that is because it is. In no way does it supplant efforts to improve administration and compliance. Rather, it helps build foundations those strategies require for the long term. The populists have shown us that it’s possible to mobilize the discontents of millions. Reformers can and should respond by showing the way to real improvements in people’s lives, rather than just another symbolic backlash against the status quo.

5 thoughts on “Guest Post: What Can Reformers Learn from the Populists?

  1. Professor Johnston, thanks very much for your post. It seems that the short-termism problem precipitating the rise of populist leaders is often the same difficulty underpinning reform efforts. Your suggestion of focusing on citizen empowerment—rather than sweeping legislation or structural change—would be a very powerful tool to lasting, effective anticorruption reform. Improving systemic inequities and access to government may take time but rising tides can lift all boats.

    • Those are both very insightful comments — As long as we see corruption just as a matter of individual or small-group rule-breaking, we will miss those structural dimensions. And, on short-termism, how often have we seen externally-funded projects with an eighteen-month or two year timeline come to naught, producing nothing any longer-lasting than a nice glossy Final Report?

      Many thanks —


  2. Thanks for this very interesting post professor. It seems your focus on the grassroots are actually very similar to the efforts of the populists or authoritarian nationalists you discuss. Given their incredible pull on the grassroots (a big reason for their success), how would you imagine reformers can better compete with the populists in terms of the narratives in the hearts and minds of ordinary folks? Often reformers are precisely known to be out of touch and policy wonks so this makes it even harder to implement at times. Also how might the gradual approach at the grassroots you suggest be sustained over time as movements often do wax and wane? Finally, how might long-term building at the foundational and social level be measured in terms of their effects on anticorruption? Precisely because they are not technocratic in nature, they would seem harder to track how the resources are contributing to anticorruption. Would love to hear your thoughts on these questions.

    • Thanks for your comment — You’re exactly right that we reformers are in many ways competing for the support of many of the same constituencies now backing the populists, or vulnerable to them and their appeals. My basic thought is that we need to offer those citizens something more immediately beneficial — that is, focus on improving services, facilities, and official treatment (elsewhere I’ve argued that such an approach, based on gathering and benchmarking data on government performance, offers a way to identify corruption vulnerabilities and assess the effects of reform). That is a difficult, long-term, and indirect strategy — and it’s one that, if and when it gains traction, might well attract unwanted attention from the populists themselves. But it is a way to get around the collective action problems reformers so often encounter and to take advantage of the fact that the populist leaders make grandiose promises but don’t deliver much of anything, other than symbolic/emotional benefits, to their citizen followers. In early phases of that effort I might not even talk about corruption at all — instead, better treatment and services. But the interesting thing is that if we can help produce sustained and noticeable improvement in government performance, we are probably reducing corruption and its risks as well, along with strengthening day-to-day accountability to citizens. How much of any such improvement is due to reduced corruption? As an analyst I take that question seriously, but as a reformer I don’t necessarily care — it’s the sustained improvement that counts as a way to deliver something of real value to citizens. That’s how they will come to see reform efforts as real, rather than as just another very general promise — of the sorts they’ve heard many times before — of “less corruption for everyone”. To work toward these purposes I would not put much if any reliance upon externally-funded civil society anti-corruption organizations — they all too often have only shallow social roots, and sometimes are just shell organizations run by grants entrepreneurs in and around national capitals. Instead, I’d envision a long and detailed effort to work with existing social networks of all sorts, whether they’ve got any political or reform goals or not (in some ways it’s better if they don’t), that can build social trust, diffuse organizational skills, and strengthen grassroots leadership, based on local needs and issues that may only be tangential to corruption but can empower people to demand better treatment. In some settings — deeply divided and conflicted societies, starkly authoritarian regimes, extreme poverty — several things might have to happen before we could do any of that. But in those settings, headlong attacks on corruption and its beneficiaries are also unlikely to succeed.

      In the end I’m echoing Dani Kaufmann: “You don’t fight corruption by fighting corruption”, I think he said —

      Thanks and best wishes —


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