Dr. Fatih Demiroz, Director, Nonresident Research Fellow, European Center for Populism Studies | USA

Fatih Demiroz is an Assistant Professor at Sam Houston State University and a nonresident research fellow at the European Center for Populism Studies. He received his Ph.D. in public affairs from the University of Central Florida. Prior to his assignment at SHSU, Dr. Demiroz worked at the Florida International University as a visiting faculty and Rhode Island Department of Health as a researcher. His research interests are social and organizational networks, disaster management, governance, and behavioral public administration.


Event Title: SDGs Conference 2023 Date: Sept 20, 2023


Populism’s Impact on Democracies: Populist Leaders and Bureaucracy
Democracy has been declining in the last two decades, even in countries that have been promoters of democracy, such as the United States and European Union members. Although there are many factors contributing to this process, the rise of populism and populism leaders are among the most noticeable ones. There are extensive discussions on why voters turn to populist leaders and why populism is increasing globally, but very little attention was paid to the relationship between populist leaders and bureaucracy. This is an important issue because bureaucracies are often targeted by populist leaders for being part of the corrupt elite and against the pure people that populists represent.

In this paper, I will focus on this issue and discuss the relationship between populist leaders and bureaucrats. Specifically, I will address three questions: What do populists do with the bureaucracy, and how does the bureaucracy react? Should elected leaders have no control over the bureaucracy? Does too much bureaucratic autonomy lead to a rouge bureaucracy, also widely referred to as the “deep state”?

What is Populism?
Populism is an ideological position built upon the idea that society is separated into two homogenous and antagonistic camps. These two camps are (i) the pure people and (ii) the corrupt elite. The corrupt elite includes the media, some parts of the bureaucracy (if not all of it), universities, intellectuals, some business circles, etc. In this equation, the populist leaders represent the people against the evil elites (Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser, 2017; Müller, 2016). The relationship between populism and democracy is complicated. Although populist leaders may set the ground for the development of democratic institutions in authoritarian regimes, they themselves do not always request democracy. There is certainly an element of truth in the conflict between the people and corrupt elites, but it does not always hold ground in every single country, especially in countries with democratic institutions. On the contrary, populist leaders in democratic countries are viewed as (i) anti-elitist, (ii) anti-pluralist, and (iii) illiberal (Bauer & Bekcer, 2020; Bauer, Peters, Pierre, Yesilkagit, and Becker, 2021).

Democratic Backsliding and Populism
Populism, claiming to speak for a single people, is one possible driver of democratic backsliding. Democratic backsliding refers to the reduction of political pluralism. Indicators of democratic backsliding are harassment of the opposition, censorship of the media, subversion of accountability, and executive aggrandizement (Bauer & Bekcer, 2020; Bauer et al., 2021). On the one hand, populist leaders are anti-establishment and anti-bureaucracy; on the other hand, they need bureaucratic apparatus (especially security forces) to accomplish their political goals. The tension between being against the bureaucracy and needing the bureaucracy at the same time creates three broadly defined behaviors by populist leaders (Bauer & Bekcer, 2020; Bauer et al., 2021).

What do Populists Do with the Bureaucracy?
First, populist leaders may choose to sideline or ignore the bureaucracy. Bureaucratic agencies routinely inform and advise politicians on many issues, from healthcare to national defense. Populist leaders often ignore the recommendations of agencies and their officials who are not aligned with the populist leaders’ agenda. For example, Donald Trump in the U.S. openly expressed his negative feelings for Dr. Antoni Fauci, who was one of the leading figures in handling the COVID-19 pandemic. An even more controversial and bizarre act of ignoring the bureaucracy happened in 2019. Hurricane Dorian approached the U.S. mainland in September of that year. Trump falsely claimed that the Hurricane would impact Alabama (ABC News, 2019). None of the forecast models predicted that Dorian would impact Alabama, and federal agencies initially refuted Trump’s claims. However, after the Trump administration’s pressures on the NOAA, the agency made an unsigned statement confirming what Trump said. Later investigations found that the agency violated scientific integrity codes.

Second, populist leaders may try to dismantle the bureaucracy that they see as an obstacle to their goals. Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, promised to dismantle the administrative state during the election campaign (Michaels, 2017). Indeed, the Trump administration followed many strategies to make federal employees quit their jobs or limit their actions (NPR, 2021). A similar example at a massive scale happened in Turkey. In 2013, then-Prime Minister Erdogan’s cabinet was shocked by a graft probe. Four ministers, their sons, and many other important officials were charged with taking bribes and involving in shady dealings. The Erdogan administration immediately reshuffled, suspended, or fired hundreds of police, prosecutors, and judges (Al Jazeera America, 2013). In 2016, after a suspiciously clumsy military coup attempt that Erdogan called a ‘gift from God’ (Bloomberg, 2016), Mr. Erdogan purged hundreds of thousands of officers in the public sector, especially in police, judiciary, education, and academia (The New York Times, 2016; Tharoor, 2017). This example brings us to the third point in the populist leaders’ treatment of the bureaucracy.

The third type of action that populist leaders take in their relationship with the bureaucracy is capturing it. Turkey’s President Erdogan aimed to accomplish this right after firing hundreds of thousands of bureaucrats. They nearly eliminated merit-based hiring procedures in the bureaucracy and handed all the government positions to party loyalists (Reuters, 2020). With that, Erdogan was able to use the bureaucracy to silence the opposition. For example, Canan Caftancioglu, one of the leading figures in the opposition party, was banned from politics because of one of her posts on Twitter (The Guardian, 2022). Similar practices, although at a smaller scale, were visible in the Trump Administration. In his rallies, Donald Trump often boasted how many judges he appointed to the federal courts (The Washington Post, 2020). Some of Trump’s nominees for federal courts did not have even the most basic qualifications to sit in a federal court (The New York Times, 2017).

So far, I have discussed that populist leaders try to sideline/ignore, dismantle, or use the bureaucracy when they come to power. They accomplish these goals through multiple political actions. The first thing they do is change the administrative structure of the bureaucracy through centralization of authority and redistribution of budgets and personnel. Second, they politicize the personnel by purging the top-level officials and replacing them with loyal ideological supporters. They also replace administrative norms with new ones and transform the institutional culture. Third, they rely heavily on executive decrees to avoid checks and balances and accountability (Bauer and Becker, 2020; Bauer et al., 2021).

How Does the Bureaucracy React?
The next question I will address is how the bureaucracy reacts to populist leaders. Bureaucrats’ reactions to populist leaders can be classified under three categories. First, they can work with populist leaders. Especially, national security bureaucracy especially tends to work with populist leaders more easily than other agencies. For example, The Border Patrol Union in the U.S. openly endorsed Donald Trump in the 2016 elections (Texas Tribune, 2016). Second, bureaucrats may shirk their duties, especially in policies that do not align with their agency missions. For example, bureaucrats in the Department of Education produced legally unusable drafts that would never withstand judicial review on politically sensitive issues, such as Title IX due process regulations (Sherk, 2023). Finally, bureaucrats may try to sabotage the policies of populist leaders. Some common ways to derail populist policies are to leak information to the public and to inform political opposition in the legislature and encourage them to act. Trump’s policies were marred by such actions both from career bureaucrats and people in his own team (Woodward, 2018). Arguably, the most famous example of a saboteur in the Trump Administration was Miles Taylor. Taylor, who was the chief of staff in the Department of Homeland Security, wrote an anonymous op-ed to the New York Times in 2018 titled “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration” (Taylor, 2018). He wrote, “I work for the president, but like-minded colleagues and I have vowed to thwart parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.” (Taylor, 2018).

Balancing Political Control over Bureaucracy and Bureaucratic Autonomy
The actions of Miles Taylor and many other people in the Trump administration and the federal bureaucracy bring up a legitimate question: Should elected leaders not have control over the bureaucracy? The answer to this question is not easy to find. In democracies, it is the people’s and the politicians’ right to have control over the bureaucracy. However, the level of political control over the bureaucracy varies depending on the political culture and agency capacity. In the United States, presidents have greater control over the bureaucracy through thousands of political appointments to federal agencies. Many European countries, on the other hand, allow elected leaders to appoint only a few dozen people to manage the bureaucracy (Fukuyama, 2023). Also, how much control to exert on an agency depends on the capacity of an agency (Fukuyama, 2013). Highly technical agencies (e.g., NASA, the National Institute of Health, the National Weather Service) or agencies with greater administrative capacity can enjoy greater levels of autonomy compared to agencies carrying out simpler tasks (e.g., Departments of Motor Vehicles). Balancing political control and bureaucratic autonomy is not an easy task, and many factors, including the political culture and regime values in a country, contribute to this balancing act. On the one hand, too much political control can lead to micromanagement, reduction of administrative capacity, clientelism, patronage, and corruption. On the other hand, too much bureaucratic autonomy can lead to a rogue bureaucracy that is often labeled as the “deep state.”

The issue of the deep state has become one of the discussion points in political campaigns, especially in the United States. Donald Trump promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington and eliminate the deep state. The concept of deep state is believed to be first used in Turkey in the 1990s to describe rouge members of the national security bureaucracy that did extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, extortions, and other illegal acts. The term has been mostly used in the national security context around the world, except for the United States. In the U.S., the deep state mostly refers to the federal bureaucracy, and discussions on the deep state are bundled together with many conspiracy theories. Some of these conspiracy theories are common household names, such as George Soros, the Bilderberg meetings, and Rothschilds. Some conspiracy theories cross national borders and impact other countries. QAnon is a bundle of several deep-state conspiracy theories that originated in the United States, claiming that the world is run by a deep state and a secret group in the American military is fighting it. In 2022, a group of men inspired by QAnon were arrested in Germany under the charges of plotting to overthrow the German government.

Indeed, the issue of rouge bureaucracy needs to be taken seriously. Bureaucrats going rogue and committing crimes is detrimental to democracy. However, promoting conspiracy theories is a tactic from the populist playbook, and discussions on deep state and bureaucratic accountability should be discussed independently of conspiracy theories.

In this paper, I addressed three questions. What do populists do with the bureaucracy, and how does the bureaucracy react? Should elected leaders have no control over the bureaucracy? Does too much bureaucratic autonomy lead to a rouge bureaucracy, also widely referred to as the “deep state”? Populist leaders use a combination of sidelining/ignoring, dismantling, and using/weaponizing the bureaucracy. Populist leaders deal with the bureaucracy by changing the bureaucratic structure through reorganizations and resource reallocations, changing the bureaucratic culture by altering organizational norms, purging top-level bureaucrats, and circumventing political checks and balances and accountability by relying heavily on executive decrees. When populist leaders come to power, bureaucratic agencies choose to work with them, shirk or sabotage populist policies.

Bureaucratic reactions to populist leaders lead to questions regarding how much political control we should have over the bureaucracy and how much autonomy we should grant to bureaucratic agencies. The answer to this question depends on the political context of every country. However, it is possible to argue that bureaucratic agencies with higher administrative capacity can enjoy greater levels of autonomy. Concerns regarding too much bureaucratic autonomy leading to rogue bureaucracy, also known as the deep state, are legitimate and need to be taken seriously. However, it is important that such discussions are made independent of conspiracy theories that come directly from the populist playbook.

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