馃敭 How populists damage governments

Little by little, scholarship on populism and public policy and administration has shown that populists in government cause significant damage to government institutions and policy processes. Mauricio I. Dussauge-Laguna argues that Mexico鈥檚 experience under president L贸pez Obrador reinforces these findings, and adds fresh (if discouraging) evidence to the argument

Populists in government

Myths regarding the nature of populism(s) abound. Yet the literature says little about how populists affect governing patterns and institutions. In fact, it is only recently that scholars have started to think about the way populists鈥 actions and decisions impact on bureaucracies and policy processes. So far, the findings are not encouraging.

Some authors have detailed that populists capture or dismantle administrative structures, while others suggest they politicise bureaucracies. Scholars also show that populists put public sector innovation and collaborative networks under stress.

In Mexico, things have not been much different. President Andr茅s Manuel L贸pez Obrador鈥檚 populist style has significantly damaged the country鈥檚 administrative apparatus and policymaking patterns.

鈥楧oublespeak鈥 populism in Mexico

Like other populist movements, L贸pez Obrador鈥檚 style is chamaeleonic in nature. He is commonly seen as a leftist because of his support of cash transfers. But he was also perceived as a centrist during his 2000鈥2006 tenure as Mexico City鈥檚 mayor. In his time as President (2018鈥), L贸pez Obrador has pursued an agenda associated with the right, downsizing the state apparatus and introducing austerity measures.

Beyond this, L贸pez Obrador has adopted what I call a 鈥榙oublespeak populist鈥 approach. He uses terms and rhetorical phrases that supposedly put 鈥榯he people鈥 first to disguise his true intentions. This kind of populist rhetoric has had a powerful legitimising effect on his actions.

L贸pez Obrador uses 鈥榙oublespeak鈥 鈥 terms and rhetorical phrases that supposedly put 鈥榯he people鈥 first 鈥 to disguise his true intentions

For example, he has criticised what he calls a 鈥榞olden bureaucracy鈥 (burocracia dorada) to seek stronger personalistic control over administrative and political institutions. Meanwhile, the 鈥榓usterity鈥 mantra has served to justify his discretionary use of budget cuts and public funds.

More broadly, L贸pez Obrador鈥檚 鈥榙oublespeak populism鈥 has helped introduce changes and measures with grave effects for Mexico鈥檚 politico-administrative infrastructure.

Populists damage public administration

Michael Bauer recently argued that the arrival of populists in government can have a 鈥榙evastating鈥 effect on the state. The Mexican experience under L贸pez Obrador reaffirms this.

As part of his 鈥榯ransformation鈥 agenda, he has implemented several administrative measures which have dismantled administrative, policy, and state capacities.

Like other populists, L贸pez-Obrador has sought to extend political control over semi-autonomous regulators; attacked the reputation of independent agencies; used patronage appointments widely; terminated institutions for ideological reasons; and bypassed laws and administrative procedures.

Moreover, L贸pez-Obrador has substituted established bureaucratic channels to secure implementation of his pet projects. He has achieved this either through parallel structures, or via the 鈥militarisation鈥 of civil administration areas.

L贸pez-Obrador's 鈥榯ransformation鈥 agenda has resulted in a Mexican administrative apparatus more obedient to the president鈥檚 will, but less capable of performing government tasks effectively

The overall result has been a Mexican administrative apparatus which is more obedient to the president鈥檚 will, but less capable of performing government tasks effectively and in line with traditional public service standards (e.g. rule of law, efficiency, accountability).

Populists damage policymaking processes

Another impact of populists in government is that they seek to reframe broader policymaking patterns. Indeed, L贸pez Obrador鈥檚 government in Mexico has further illustrated how populists distort every step of the policy cycle.

Claiming a monopoly over 鈥榯he will of the people鈥, L贸pez Obrador has significantly influenced the public agenda. He decides which areas of debate are relevant (or not) and undermines the legitimacy of other policy actors. Clientelist ambitions and lack of technical considerations have been the norm in his policy initiatives' design.

Like other strong populist leaders, L贸pez Obrador鈥檚 implementation style has performative aspects. He builds narratives about how much his government does 鈥榝or the people鈥 (e.g. its pandemic response) and emphasises his actions' symbolic aspects. Yet when his programmes prove ineffective, he downplays their environmental and economic shortcomings.

Using the populist tactic of identifying himself with 鈥榯he people鈥, L贸pez Obrador discredits external experts and resorts to 鈥榓lternative facts鈥 (otros datos) to affirm his agenda. He reports directly to the people in political meetings, disregarding monitoring, evaluation, and audit mechanisms.

The needs of 鈥榯he people鈥 versus the populist governing reality

On the campaign trail, populists claim to know what 鈥榯he people鈥 want and need. Yet their rhetorical skills are never matched by good governing abilities. On the contrary, and no matter how capable they are at managing their own party movements, populists in government have shown they are not good at leading public sector organisations or making effective public policies.

Like Orb谩n, Trump, and Bolsonaro, L贸pez Obrador has politicised, captured, and diminished the policymaking ability of Mexico鈥檚 bureaucratic apparatus

The Mexican experience is yet another case of how populists damage governing institutions and policy processes. Like Viktor Orb谩n, Donald Trump, and Jair Bolsonaro, L贸pez Obrador has politicised, captured, and diminished the policymaking ability of Mexico鈥檚 bureaucratic apparatus.

In short, under populist rule, the needs of 鈥榯he people鈥 remain largely unmet, while their government鈥檚 capacity to provide good and effective public goods and services is significantly eroded.

No.64 in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the聽馃敭聽to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Mauricio I. Dussauge-Laguna
Mauricio I. Dussauge-Laguna
Professor-Researcher, Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO), Mexico

Mauricio researches public policy and administration from an international / comparative perspective.

His work covers a variety of topics, including administrative reforms, policy transfer processes, bureaucratic politics, regulation in developing countries, and the impacts of populism on government institutions.


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