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. Continue reading