Discussions of populism often focus on the most visible points of executive power: individual leaders. Yet individual leaders only accomplish things through administrative apparatuses that enable and support their power. Rejecting a political theology that imagines sovereignty as inhering in a single decision-maker, this article turns to political pragmatics focused on the people who populate the government. I draw on interviews with administrators in the government of two successful but quite different democracies. The first is the United States, an old, flagship democratic state. The second is Taiwan, which transitioned from a four-decade military dictatorship to a vibrant democracy in the late twentieth century. My interviews probe how administrators understand their work and how they describe the conditions for its legitimacy. Many Taiwanese administrators tend to present their regulatory practices as highly dialogic and legitimated through ongoing interactions with multiple outside influences, including the legislature and multiple public sectors. Many American administrators, in contrast, tend to hew to a more rigid notion of separated powers, in which too much interaction with those outside the executive threatens the legitimacy of agency action. My Taiwanese interviewees’ idealized state-involved government branches highly integrated with one another and their surrounding society. I suggest that this insistence on interpenetration as a hallmark of legitimacy presents conceptual obstacles to populist impulses, which seek to cordon-off executive action from outside influence and bypass legislative power and public influence. In contrast, the ideal of separated, antagonistic powers that underlies my American interviewees’ descriptions of their work presents potentially hospitable channels for the flow of such populist desires.
Interpenetration of Powers: Channels and Obstacles for Populist Impulses,
28 Wash. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.uw.edu/wilj/vol28/iss2/8