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.