Confidence in Merit-Based Public Administration in the Context of Right-Wing Authoritarian Populism

Published date01 July 2022
Date01 July 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Administration & Society
2022, Vol. 54(6) 995 –1018
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00953997211045609
Confidence in
Merit-Based Public
Administration in the
Context of Right-Wing
Authoritarian Populism
Christopher A. Simon1
and Michael C. Moltz2
The rise of right-wing authoritarian populism (RWAP) challenges modern
democratic governance and the legitimacy of a career-service, nonpartisan,
merit-based public administration—hallmarks of modern democratic
institutions. Using citizen survey data collected for the first 2 years of the
Trump presidency, this study finds that some core features of RWAP are
negatively related to confidence in public administration. Generally speaking,
the populist tendency appears to be a significant source of negative affect
toward public administration.
civil service, confidence, populism, authoritarianism
Modern democratic governance and administration feature a central role for
career civil servants upholding the rule of law through the exercise of formal
authority, ever-constrained by political executives and held accountable by
1The University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, USA
2Shippensburg University, Shippensburg, PA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Christopher A. Simon, Professor, Political Science, The University of Utah, 260 S Central
Campus Drive, Salt Lake City, UT 84112, USA.
1045609AAS0010.1177/00953997211045609Administration & SocietySimon and Moltz
996 Administration & Society 54(6)
legislative oversight and judicial review (see Lynn, 2009, p. 803; Rosenbloom,
1983, 2000). However, within the coercive formal structure of bureaucracy,
there is likely room for an enabling element that would allow public sector
employees to produce a better fit between the organization and the clientele
groups served in a diverse society (see Adler & Borys, 1996). In the U.S.
context, and likely now more than ever, the career public service necessarily
plays a crucial role in active representative governance committed to promot-
ing equity, equal protection, and social justice for the governed in a racially,
socially, and economically diverse nation (see Hindera, 1993; Kennedy et al.,
2020; Meier & Nicholson-Crotty, 2006; Thielemann & Stewart, 1996;
Wilkins & Keiser, 2006, p. 426), necessitating a critical discourse on the
meaning of diversity (Elias, 2013).
Scholars have typically viewed the advent of the discipline in the United
States as a reflection of the so-called Founding Fathers’ implicit intent. They
are regarded as having envisioned a republican form of government wherein
the potential excesses of direct-democratic rule would be tamed through
institutional checks and balances, and in due course, the creation of reason-
based, ethical, legally-minded, and politically neutral administrative prac-
tices and law-based procedures (see Green, 2019; Rohr, 1986). Within that
framework, public administration is generally seen as cultivating and incor-
porating Storing’s conception of the “public interest” into administrative
processes and outcomes (see Schachter et al., 2010, p. 629). Other streams
of thought within the academic literature view U.S. public administration as
a check on the federal political branches in a manner previously performed
by the U.S. Senate pre-dating the 17th Amendment (see Spicer & Terry,
1993; also see, Lowi, 1993). Minnowbrook (I, II, and III) scholars tend to
view American public administration as more than a simple extension or
bulwark within the constitutional framework. They actively call for the dis-
cipline and its professional practitioners to serve as an essential and empow-
ered force within government, proactively addressing societal inequities
ranging from the systematic underrepresentation of women and minorities to
persisting poverty—all too often occurring within a system of institutional-
ized injustices (O’Leary et al., 2010), and highly visible forms of institu-
tional racism and gender discrimination (see Rivera & Ward, 2008;
Skowronek, 2006; Stivers, 2000). Beyond the scholarly debates regarding
American public administration’s origins and philosophical foundations,
there are also poignant, timely, and well-reasoned challenges of critical race
and gender theory, a salient and much-needed dialogue (see Starke et al.,
2018). These powerful critiques call for an awakening from hubristic
somnambulism within an academic and practitioner-oriented field coopted
by neoliberal principles (see Fredrickson, 1996). The spectacle of being

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