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

New Working Paper on Anticorruption Reform in U.S. History

Endemic public corruption in developing and transition countries often seems intractable. Yet most countries that are currently perceived as having relatively high levels of public integrity–places like Sweden, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and the United States–were, at an earlier point in their history, afflicted with pervasive corruption similar to what one finds throughout the developing world today. Considering the history these countries may therefore make a valuable contribution to modern debates about anticorruption reform—not so much by providing simple lessons about what policies to adopt, but by offering a broader sense of how the complex process of anticorruption reform unfolds over time, and by calling into question certain widely-held beliefs about this process.

A couple years back, after attending a fascinating presentation by Mariano-Florentino Cuellar (a Justice of the California Supreme Court who somehow manages to continue to hold down his former day job as a professor at Stanford Law School), I became particularly interested in the history of my own country, the United States, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The challenges facing anticorruption reformers in the United States during this period bear a striking resemblance to the challenges facing reformers in modern-day democracies in the developing world. Indeed, the United States is a particularly interesting case study because, in contrast to most of the other Western democracies that are currently perceived as having low corruption, the United States established political democracy well before it embarked on significant “good government” reforms.

Justice Cuellar graciously agreed to collaborate with me, and we finally have a draft paper entitled “Taming Systemic Corruption: The American Experience and its Implications for Contemporary Debates.” The draft now available on SSRN here, and is also available as part of the University of Gothenburg Quality of Government (QoG) Institute’s working paper series. Our article, which focuses principally on the period between 1865 and 1941, does not purport to reach firm conclusions about the reasons that the U.S. struggle against systemic corruption ultimately succeeded—let alone to draw facile “lessons” about “what works.” But we do find that the U.S. experience calls into question a number of commonly-held views about the struggle against corruption in modern developing countries: Continue reading

Working Paper on “Corruption as a Self-Reinforcing ‘Trap’: Implications for Reform Strategy”

Last month the Quality of Government (QoG) Institute at the University of Gothenburg published a working paper of mine, entitled Corruption as a Self-Reinforcing “Trap”: Implications for Reform Strategy, as part of their QoG working paper series. Here’s the abstract:

Corruption is widely believed to be a self-reinforcing phenomenon, in the sense that the incentive to engage in corrupt acts increases as corruption becomes more widespread in the relevant community. Leading scholars have argued that corruption’s self-reinforcing property implies that incremental anticorruption reforms cannot be effective, and that the only way to escape a high-corruption equilibrium “trap” is through a so-called “big bang” or “big push.” This widespread view is mistaken. After surveying the reasons corruption might be self-reinforcing (or in some cases self-limiting), this paper demonstrates that corruption’s self-reinforcing property does not imply the necessity of a “big bang” approach to reform, and indeed may strengthen the case for pursuing sustained, cumulative incremental anticorruption reforms.

I hope that some readers might find the paper to be of interest. Constructive criticism and other feedback are of course most welcome!