🔮 Populist governments as a threat from within the state

Populists have risen to executive office worldwide. In this context, Michael W. Bauer argues, we must pay more systematic attention to populist threats to the state and its institutions. The potential long-term impacts of the damage that populist governments can inflict 'from within' are potentially devastating

Populist governments pose a threat to liberal democracy by fostering a leadership cult, undermining minority rights, and disregarding norms of self-restraint. This behaviour can also lead defenders of liberalism to resort to illiberal means. Thus, it can lead to a vicious cycle that may cause the dissolution of even more informal guardrails of political competition.

This blog series has made significant contributions to the debate about populism in many respects. In it, authors debunk myths and demonstrate, for example, how the differential policy preferences of populists matter once they attain executive power.

Does the rise of populism constitute an alarm signal, indicating objective deficits within our representative systems themselves?

However, so far the pieces have avoided tackling the question of whether the rise of populism constitutes an alarm signal. Does it, in fact, indicate objective deficits within our representative systems themselves? And what can defenders of liberal democracy do about it? Personally, I have doubts about whether populism, as a force of political opposition, should be considered a healthy phenomenon or corrective force. But I am certain that populists in government do pose a serious threat to liberal democracy.

Populists in government

Perhaps the most worrisome scenario is that of populists engaging in state transformation from the top position as heads of state or government. Once liberal democratic structures, procedures, and core state institutions are undermined, it can be difficult for a state to simply bounce back to the previous status quo. In fact, the state fabric may remain seriously de-pluralised in a populist manner.

Jan-Werner Müller refers to this danger when he writes about the 'operational manual of the state'. He points out that populists will always seek to rewrite it in their own favour.

Rewriting the manual

There are many examples of how populists attempt this rewriting of the operational manual of the state. Donald Trump nominated federal judges and pushed candidates through to the Supreme Court. His actions will have long-lasting effects. Beyond that, if Trump had succeeded in implementing his Schedule F Executive Order, it would have transformed a significant portion of the US career public service. Public servants would have become political appointees, subject to removal if they did not align with the president's goals.

Meanwhile, Jair Bolsonaro brought hundreds of loyalists from the armed forces into strategic management positions within the Brazilian federal administration. Bolsonaro may be gone, but his loyalists remain in post to this day.

Once liberal democratic structures, procedures, and core state institutions are undermined, it can be difficult for a state to simply bounce back to the previous status quo

During each term as prime minister, Viktor Orbán further entrenched illiberalism into the Hungarian civil service through comprehensive administrative reforms. If a liberal government were to take over in Budapest tomorrow, generations of civil servants would remain influenced by Fidesz's populist ideology. Orbán's civil servants were self-selected as patronaged militants or socialised as opportunists.

Another aspect of this may be underway in Italy, as Giorgia Meloni and her Fratelli d'Italia party aim to establish a presidential system. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has already implemented such reforms in Turkey. As Turkey's recent unfree elections demonstrated, they have proved strikingly successful in prolonging Erdoğan's reign.

Where does populism in government lead?

One might argue that we should not equate populism with democratic backsliding or anti-system party politics. However, it would be short-sighted to exclude this aspect from the populist equation. Populism is not static, and its boundary with autocratisation is fluid. As with, arguably, Erdoğan or Orbán, starting off as a populist does not prevent ending up as an autocrat.

The key question is this: who is in charge at the critical juncture at which institutions can be reformed or even redesigned from scratch?

Understanding populist ideology remains important. So does explaining populist success in electoral battles, and the impact of populist policies regarding welfare, migration, and identity. However, the decisive battle will centre upon who presides over the ongoing evolution of the core institutions of the working state. Who is in charge at the critical juncture at which institutions can be reformed or even redesigned from scratch?

Populists' system deformation strategies

The main question, therefore, concerns the democratic polity and who will be able to initiate reforms and redesign its core institutions: the checks and balances, the legislative branch, the courts, the bureaucracy, the armed forces, and so forth. Even once populists are ousted from government, recalibrating institutions back to liberal democratic standards might be a daunting task.

If you let populists transform your state institutions and instruments, they will also transform the range of options you can work with later. Perhaps it is better to say, therefore, that your options will become populistically deformed. We need to take the threat posed by populists as system deformers more seriously. From there, we should focus our attention on populist strategies towards state structures and institutions, and how to stop, or at least hinder, their illiberal transformation.

29th in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 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 Michael Bauer
Michael Bauer
Chair of Public Administration, School of Transnational Governance, European University Institute

Michael’s research interests include democratic bureaucracy, populism, and international public administration.

He has published widely in international journals, among them Public Administration Review, Governance, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, Journal of European Public Policy, West European Politics, Public Administration, and International Studies Review.

He tweets @michaelwbauer

The European Commission of the Twenty-First Century
Oxford University Press, 2013

Dismantling Public Policies: Preferences, Strategies, and Effects
Oxford University Press, 2012

Democratic Backsliding and Public Administration How Populists in Government Transform State Bureaucracies

Democratic Backsliding and Public Administration: How Populists in Government Transform State Bureaucracies
Cambridge University Press, 2021

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