A Costly Commitment: Populism, Economic Performance, and the Quality of Bureaucracy

The forthcoming article “A Costly Commitment: Populism, Economic Performance, and the Quality of Bureaucracy” by Luca Bellodi, Massimo Morelli, and Matia Vannoni is summarized by the authors below.

Much has been written on the causes of populism, and much on its most frequent features, but little has been documented about its consequences. The literature on the causes of populism emphasizes the role of globalization and immigration in triggering voters’ demands for economic and identity protection and support for populist parties. As a result of these economic and cultural shocks, voters’ trust in traditional tools of representative democracy plummeted. The political response to this erosion of trust has been the systematic use of simple protection commitments that could give voters tighter control over policy. “I will build a wall”, “deliver Brexit”, “citizenship income”, and “economic protectionism” became key messages of candidates’ electoral campaigns, as well as a strong anti-elite and pro-people sentiment. When politicians resort to simple commitments to win the support of disillusioned voters, they also fuel distrust towards the corrupt politicians protecting the corrupt elites who are profiting from the economic and cultural order to the detriment of “the people”. Simple commitments and anti-elite rhetoric hence become the electoral tool kit of populist politicians. When in power, populists try to implement their policy commitments regardless of financial constraints and expert assessment, worsening government economic performance and dismantling the bureaucracy. 

We bring these predictions to the data in the context of local government in Italy. With novel data on more than 8,000 municipalities over more than 20 years, we estimate the effect of electing a populist mayor with a close-election regression discontinuity design. We find that the election of a populist mayor leads to smaller repayments of debts, a larger share of procurement contracts with cost overruns, higher turnover among top bureaucrats – driven by forced rather than voluntary departures – and a sharp decrease in the percentage of highly skilled bureaucrats. The long-term consequences of these dynamics are hard to predict, although they are likely to be persistent and significant. 

About the Authors: Luca Bellodi is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Bocconi University, Massimo Morelli is a Professor of Political Science and Economics at Bocconi Universityand Matia Vannoni is an Associate Professor of Political Economy at King’s College LondonTheir research “A Costly Commitment: Populism, Economic Performance, and the Quality of Bureaucracy” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.