Transparency Versus Populism

AuthorGregory Michener
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1177/00953997221147227
Published date01 April 2023
Date01 April 2023
Subject MatterArticles
https://doi.org/10.1177/00953997221147227
Administration & Society
2023, Vol. 55(4) 671 –695
© The Author(s) 2023
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DOI: 10.1177/00953997221147227
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Article
Transparency Versus
Populism
Gregory Michener1
Abstract
This article theorizes and analyzes the relationship between populist
leaders and government transparency. Employing a paired comparison of
leaders in Brazil and the United States before and during the pandemic,
it illuminates three interlocking tactics: (a) the weakening of transparency
institutions, (b) erasure and suppression of transparency, and (c) corruption
of transparency via misuse and misinformation. Populist efforts to subvert
pandemic transparency elicited a striking response in both countries: the
emergence of “compensatory transparency initiatives” (CTIs). By collating
and disclosing subnational pandemic data to fill transparency gaps at the
federal level, CTIs drew attention to populist failings.
Keywords
transparency, freedom of information, populism, Brazilian politics, American
politics
Information control is central to democratic backsliding. And while much
attention has been paid to how populist leaders electioneer and communicate
(Peters & Pierre, 2019, p. 1524; Wood et al., 2022, p. 312), much less has been
directed at how populist leaders approach administrative information control
and transparency. This article theorizes and analyzes the relationship between
1Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV-EBAPE), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Corresponding Author:
Gregory Michener, Brazilian School of Public and Business Administration, Getulio Vargas
Foundation (FGV-EBAPE), Rua Jornalista Orlando Dantas, 30—Botafogo, Rio de Janeiro CEP
22231-010, Brazil.
Email: Gregory.michener@fgv.br
1147227AAS0010.1177/00953997221147227Administration & SocietyMichener
research-article2023
672 Administration & Society 55(4)
populist leaders and government transparency, focusing on perhaps the most
common type of populists, those who adopt an adversarial approach, “sidelin-
ing” the bureaucracy, as opposed to those who “use” or “empower” it (Peters
& Pierre, 2019, pp. 1529–1531). Hostility toward transparency is not unique
to populists (e.g., Roberts, 2006). However, the first part of this article argues
that populist approaches to transparency are distinctive in meaningful ways.
More specifically, populist approaches to transparency are more overtly
politicized than administrative (Fenster, 2021; Peters & Pierre, 2019, p.
1527), frequently occur in plain sight rather than behind closed doors
(Rockman, 2019, p. 1559), and are more systemic than episodic. At the
extreme, my research suggests that populists deploy three encompassing
and interlocking tactics that conjointly subvert the production and dis-
semination of transparency. In the second part of this paper, I employ a
paired comparison (Tarrow, 2010) of Brazil and the United States before
and during the Covid-19 Pandemic to illustrate and dissect these three
tactics (a) Attempts to weaken transparency institutions via noncompli-
ance and regulation, (b) The erasure and suppression of transparency,
and (c) the corruption of transparency via misuse and misinformation.
The essential difference between autocratic and populist tactics is that
populists perpetuate efforts to weaken transparency institutions (the first
tactic), precisely because democratic institutions resist cooptation and
neutralization. Once institutions cease to resist, populists and their tactics
become, virtually by definition, autocratic. The weakening, erasure, sup-
pression, and corruption of transparency starves democracy of its oxy-
gen—the free flow of information.
The Pandemic provides a valuable setting for evaluating populist
approaches to transparency. Crises heighten demands for reliable informa-
tion, throwing government commitments to transparency into stark relief and
inviting praise or shame. The Covid-19 Pandemic therefore furnishes a
“tough test” to evaluate whether populists will respect or subvert transpar-
ency when accurate government information may make the difference
between life or death. Strikingly, this research reveals relative before-and-
after invariance in populist approaches toward transparency. If anything,
efforts to subvert transparency appeared to increase during the Pandemic.
That transparency can elicit such self-defeating behavior suggests that sup-
port for transparency may be critical in undermining the popular appeal of
populist leaders.
Based on interviews and archival research, the third part of this article
examines the efforts of civic initiatives to compensate for deficient govern-
ment transparency. Via the collation, analysis, and disclosure of subnational
data on the pandemic, these “compensatory transparency initiatives” (CTIs)

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