Opposites But Similar? Technocracy and Populism in Contemporary European Democracies

Published date01 May 2023
AuthorFrancesco Maria Scanni
Date01 May 2023
Subject MatterPerspectives
Administration & Society
2023, Vol. 55(5) 1007 –1029
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00953997231158341
Opposites But
Similar? Technocracy
and Populism in
Contemporary European
Francesco Maria Scanni1
The purpose of this paper is to examine the characteristics of two political
phenomena: populism and technocracy. Often seen as opposites, the two
factors are linked by some elements: both are described by their proponents
as remedies to the legitimacy crisis that modern representative democracies
are going through; both tend to define certain practices and principles of
constitutional democracy that are insufficient to ensure effective governance
of society; both see as their main remedy a restriction of the classical
functions of representation and of the institutions of mediation (parties and
parliament among all). Nevertheless, the two phenomena seem to follow
the dynamics of opposite extremes: in the phases when the democratic
order is increasingly identified with technocracy, the populist democratic
eschatology gains confidence on the basis of the promise to return to
citizens the power stolen from them by non-elective institutions. We will
attempt to identify some key features that unite the two phenomena and we
will highlight the differences in principle, the possible relationships as part
of a more general democratic vulnus and the different types of impact they
have on democracy and its principles.
1Università della Calabria, Arcavacata di Rende, Italy
Corresponding Author:
Francesco Maria Scanni, Università degli Studi di Teramo Campus “Aurelio Saliceti” via R.
Balzarini 1 64100 Teramo.
Email: Francesco.scanni@unical.it
1158341AAS0010.1177/00953997231158341Administration & SocietyScanni
1008 Administration & Society 55(5)
technocracy, populism, liberal democracy, impact, characteristics
Introduction: Populism and the Origins of the
Concept of Technocracy
The problem of the ideal government of society has distant roots in philo-
sophical and theoretical considerations of politics. Since ancient Hellenistic
philosophy, the question has been what political system is best suited to
ensure the welfare and prosperity of citizens. This question has persisted
for centuries until it found partial (not final) stability in the modern Western
world with the identification of democracy as the ideal system for manag-
ing public affairs (Bobbio, 1980). Phenomena such as globalization, eco-
nomic, and legitimacy crises that have affected actors, rules and democratic
institutions (Kriesi, 2014) have reopened the debate on the capacity of
democracy to deal with new changes and provide broad opportunities for
the affirmation of two (apparent) extremes located at the two poles of rep-
resentative democracy, understood as mediation between the government
of the few and the government of the many: technocracy and populism. On
the one hand, the complexity of the modern welfare state has fostered an
increasing reliance on policymaking by professional bureaucracies and
expert agencies (Scicluna & Auer, 2019); on the other, new challenging
parties have revived the promise of regenerating the democratic system by
challenging actors, rules and practices that are accused of leading to a deg-
radation of politics and citizen sovereignty. Technocrats and populist have
thus become the two main contemporary challenges to the democratic
order, so much so that Freeland (2010) argues that the contrast between
populism and technocracy represents the most important contemporary
political division.
There is a large and diverse literature on populism that has focused on a
number of very relevant aspects. It is not part of the objectives of this paper
to reproduce them; instead, we, will focus on the perspectives that have
explored the nature of the relationship that populism establishes with the
democratic system and the risks that populism in power poses to for constitu-
tional democracy (what we define as a consequentialist approach, see
Akkerman, 2003; Müller, 2017; Urbinati, 2019). To make the comparison
possible, we will use the definition of populism as a subtle ideology, referring
to Mudde’s (2004) “minimal definition,” according to which the characteris-
tic elements of populism are: (a) recourse to the people-pure/corrupt-elite
fracture; (b) a marked personalization; and (c) repeated appeals to the general

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