Expert civil servants devise ever more sophisticated policies to tackle emergencies such as climate change. But when voters lose faith in experts, they vote for anti-elite populist leaders who promise to drain the swamp in the civil service. Gabriele Gratton and Barton E. Lee write that understanding populist voters’ calculations and mistrust is key to designing democratic institutions that can address the most pressing challenges of our times.

Climate change’s devastating effects are here. Just this year, from the Mediterranean to Hawaii, from India to Italy, wildfires and floods have devastated communities, claimed lives, and caused havoc to agricultural and industrial activities. Experts and scientists agree that global warming poses an imminent and existential threat to humankind. Governments and bureaucracies around the globe have devised drastic “green policies” that reduce economic activity and curb human contributions to global warming. College-educated voters—who coincidentally make up the bulk of those working in government and the public service—are among the staunchest supporters of such policies.

But among those without a college education, many oppose green policies. While President Joe Biden presses for a more green agenda, often “Average Joe” argues that green policies are motivated by an “elitist hysteria,” economically too costly, and place a disproportionate burden on his shoulders. Some cheer for populist leaders who, in response to such policies, promise to “drain the swamp” of the experts in the government.

Average Joe has reason to be skeptical. “Experts” and political elites in Washington or in Brussels (and those, like us, in universities) have cozy jobs, mostly protected from the negative economic consequences of green policies. Some may even benefit from governments’ investments in green technology. Experts are often well-meaning, but their information on the consequences of green policies is inevitably biased and limited.  

The Right Choice or the Democratic Choice?

Average Joe likely represents a majority in many Western countries. In a democracy, policymakers should seek a broad consensus that includes Average Joe before acting. Yet, our best evidence suggests that an environmental revolution is urgent and necessary to save humanity. Our democracies seem to face an impossible conundrum. Should our expert technocrats rule us to salvation? Or should we save democracy at the cost of possibly catastrophic consequences?

This tension is not confined to green policies. For example, the pension reform passed by French President Emmanuel Macron’s government, devised to avert a fiscal crisis in the French public system, spurred similar anti-elite backlashes. Sympathizing with the “plight of non-college workers,” MIT economist Daron Acemoglu recently warned that “elites are making choices that are not good news for non-college workers. In fact, they are bad news for most workers.”

Scholars have long placed lack of trust in the political class—and traditional forms of democratic representation—at the core of the recent rise of populist leaders. However, too often scholars and commentators neglect that populism is fueled by a broader mistrust in elites, and especially in the bureaucratic elites who design policies and advise governments in Washington, Brussels, or Paris.

Anti-Elite Populism: Theory and Evidence

In a recent paper, we document that a lack of confidence in the civil service is a key robust predictor of voters’ support of anti-elite populist parties across the Western world. If anything, it appears that voters are rallying against an “elite” of politicians and bureaucrats, and are barely interested in the classic elites of the rich or the owners of land and capital. Populist voters’ mistrust for expert bureaucrats is also consistent with populist leaders’ rhetoric and behavior. Many, in fact, promise to “drain the swamp” of the established elites in Western capitals’ governments and bureaucracies, cutting agency budgets and replacing experienced and entrenched public servants with outsiders who have little or no bureaucratic experience or qualifications. And populist leaders sometimes keep their promises, too. As populist parties increasingly accessed government positions in Italy in the last two decades, experienced bureaucrats were systematically replaced with less experienced and less qualified personnel. In the United States, after his election in 2016, Donald Trump sidelined administrative expertise and appointed novices who—by their own admission—lacked the relevant qualifications to lead bureaucratic agencies.

This observation motivated us to develop a game-theoretic model to study how the emergence of new challenges, such as the climate emergency, may fuel mistrust between voters and public servants, to the point that voters may rationally demand to drain the swamp. Importantly, this happens despite the fact that, in our model, public servants are indeed well-meaning servants of the voters and draining the swamp is costly to voters. It is costly because reducing agency budgets weakens the ability of bureaucrats to effectively deliver public goods and services that voters value, and replacing experienced public servants disrupts the transfer of knowledge and competence from one cohort of bureaucrats to the next, jeopardizing their ability to detect new crises. So why would reasonable voters rationally demand to drain the swamp and damage their own state?  

Even if Experts Are Right, Voters May Rationally Mistrust Them

The key mechanism behind our theory is simple. Voters like Average Joe know that public servants are well-intentioned. They also know that public servants’ competence is useful for designing policies that appropriately respond to an uncertain and changing world. However, voters also know that public servants have different sensitivities, backgrounds, and incentives. Civil servants’ job opportunities, for example, may be less sensitive to the shocks induced by green policies; their background may have fewer traumatic memories of the Rust Belt deindustrialization; their office jobs are more suitable for a later pension age than many blue-collar occupations. Therefore, under some circumstances, public servants may desire to react to new challenges in ways that are sub-optimal for Average Joe—for example, by reducing economic activity to an extent that excessively harms blue-collar workers. Therefore, as we argue in our model, Average Joe may not trust public servants who propose policies that harm him more than they harm them, even when, in fact, those policies are also the right ones for him.

Whether voters are ultimately willing to support populist leaders who drain the swamp depends intuitively on the extent of their mistrust of public servants. Importantly, we show that this mistrust increases with the distance between voters’ and bureaucrats’ backgrounds and with the relative incompetence of bureaucrats—for example, because the science behind the specific crisis to be addressed is more recent or uncertain. But it also depends on the cost that draining the swamp imposes on the state bureaucracy’s ability to provide public goods and services. If the costs are sufficiently large, because the state bureaucracy is very effective, voters never choose to drain the swamp. However, rather than obtaining an idyllic well-functioning democracy, more bureaucratic effectiveness empowers public servants to dictate policy and to ignore the legitimate concerns of Average Joe—an equilibrium we call a technocracy.  

Democratic Institutions for a Green Consensus

A key implication of our model is that a well-functioning and responsive democracy, whereby voters can trust public servants to act in their interest, is possible but only under certain conditions. The state bureaucracy must be sufficiently competent in collecting and interpreting information relevant for addressing emergency crises. But the state bureaucracy must also not be too empowered by its own effectiveness such that it ignores the concerns of voters. When either of these conditions fail, voters can no longer trust public servants to act in their interest. This leads to only two possible outcomes: a more empowered bureaucracy establishes a technocracy; alternatively, a less empowered one falls into populism: voters will routinely elect populist leaders to drain the swamp.    

Our framework warns against many commonly discussed “cures” to voters’ populist demands. For example, it may be possible to reduce political leaders’ discretion to appoint and replace public servants—thereby limiting voters’ ability to drain the swamp. Such reforms are dangerous: by insulating public servants from voters, they empower them to dismiss Average Joe’s concern more often. Counterintuitively, this may induce voters to more often elect populist leaders, who, in turn, will more often drain the swamp.

In our model, the only robust policy response against the threat of anti-elite populism is to have a more representative bureaucracy. Public servants should be recruited from diverse backgrounds that are representative of the different sensitivities of voters and have labor conditions not too dissimilar from those of the average voter. For example, a return to an economy in which job security in the private sector is closer to that enjoyed by public sector workers. Having a more representative bureaucracy will help public servants devise and recommend policies that better internalize the costs that they impose on Average Joe—in turn, fostering greater trust between voters and the state. Perhaps we may be able to save democracy and humanity too.

Articles represent the opinions of their writers, not necessarily those of the University of Chicago, the Booth School of Business, or its faculty.