Enacting Accountability Under Populist Pressures: Theorizing the Relationship Between Anti-Elite Rhetoric and Public Accountability

AuthorSjors Overman,Felicity Matthews,Matthew Wood,Thomas Schillemans
Published date01 February 2022
Date01 February 2022
Subject MatterPerspectives
Administration & Society
2022, Vol. 54(2) 311 –334
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00953997211019387
Enacting Accountability
Under Populist
Pressures: Theorizing
the Relationship Between
Anti-Elite Rhetoric and
Public Accountability
Matthew Wood1, Felicity Matthews1,
Sjors Overman2, and Thomas Schillemans2
While populism challenges the pluralism and technocratic expertise on which
public bureaucracies are based, extant scholarship has overlooked its effects
on accountability processes. In particular, it neglects the impact of anti-elite
rhetoric, characterized by what can be regarded as “emotionalized blame
attribution,” on the thinking and behavior of accountability actors. Responding
to this gap, this article examines the impact of this distinctive form of populist
rhetoric on accountability relationships within the bureaucratic state. It identifies
three “stages” whereby these populist pressures challenge accountability
relationships, threaten the reputation of accountability actors, and result in
alternative accountability practices. In doing so, the article provides a roadmap
for assessing the impact of anti-elite rhetoric on accountability actions.
populism, populist pressures, anti-elite rhetoric, public accountability,
reputation, public bureaucracy, public service bargain
1The University of Sheffield, UK
2Utrecht University, The Netherlands
Corresponding Author:
Matthew Wood, Department of Politics, The University of Sheffield, Elmfield,
Northumberland Road, Sheffield S10 2TU, UK.
Email: m.wood@sheffield.ac.uk
1019387AAS0010.1177/00953997211019387Administration & SocietyWood et al.
312 Administration & Society 54(2)
In countries worldwide, populist leaders have launched scathing attacks the
institutions of liberal democracy by publicly challenging the pluralism and
technical expertise on which public agencies, central banks, and supreme
courts are based. In the United States, President Trump frequently attacked
experts at the Environmental Protection Agency, disbanding several of its
independent advisory boards (Executive Order No. 13875, 2019), and during
the COVID-19 crisis, denounced advice on social distancing offered by his
own advisory taskforce. In Brazil too, President Bolsonaro “has coupled defi-
ant rhetoric with active sabotage of public health” (Reid, 2020) by encourag-
ing his citizens to defy lockdown measures set by the country’s health ministry,
and implemented by state governors. Recent years have also witnessed public
attacks by populist politicians on central banks in countries such as the United
States and Turkey; and in the United States, President Trump mooted packing
the Federal Reserve with “unqualified cronies” (“The Independence of Central
Banks Is Under Threat From Politics,” 2019). Populists frame their rhetorical
attacks as increasing the “accountability” of expert bureaucrats, who they
often frame as a morally suspect “elite” (Mudde, 2010, p. 1175); and it is clear
that populism challenges the expertise offered by those public institutions that
are essential to the functioning of any liberal democracy. Yet, in contrast to the
wealth of research that has examined the electoral success of populist parties
(e.g., Albertazzi & Mueller, 2013; Mudde & Rovira Kaltwasser, 2012) and the
impact of populism on specific policy areas (e.g., Albertazzi & McDonnell,
2015), extant scholarship has largely overlooked the effects of populist pres-
sures on public bureaucracies, and in particular on those public servants
whose expert authority is publicly attacked in a climate of populist hostility.
Indeed, despite the profound implications of populist attacks on public bureau-
cracies, and the resultant challenge for established accountability relation-
ships, there has been limited cross-fertilization between research on populism
and research on public accountability. This gap matters because the way that
populism creates an “antagonistic relationship between the corrupt elite and
the virtuous people” (Rooduijn, 2018, p. 363) is likely to challenge the unwrit-
ten rules and informal practices that structure crucial accountability relation-
ships between elected politicians and their bureaucratic agents in democratic
states; and in doing so destabilize the “public service bargain” upon which
effective public governance depends (Hood & Lodge, 2006; Perry, 1996).
In response, this article shifts the focus from what makes populism suc-
cessful to the impact of populism on public bureaucracies and the reactions
of bureaucrats to its effects. Specifically, it examines the impact of the anti-
elite rhetoric associated with populism on the thinking and behavior of
accountability actors. Drawing on state-of-the-art research that has demon-
strated the significance of informal or internal dimensions of “felt account-
ability” (e.g.; Hall et al., 2017; Overman et al., 2021; Romzek et al., 2012),

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