The Corruption of Popular Sovereignty

34 Pages Posted: 14 Mar 2020 Last revised: 14 Jun 2020

Date Written: March 6, 2020


Populism marks a departure from the central forms of democratic governance over the past two centuries. As opposed to the primacy of the legislative branch and of institutional actors, most notably political parties, populism tends toward the unilateral authority of a charismatic leader, ruling on the basis of an electoral mandate. This article starts from an understanding of populism as being grounded in political mobilization in disregard of the institutions of governance. Even more centrally, populist leaders try to dismantle institutional constraints to allow for greater individual discretionary power.

This article looks to legal vulnerabilities that might allow the institutional framework of democracy to withstand the new populist assault. The central insight is that corruption might prove the means of checking governance by the new breed of caudillos, the strongman rule that stands in opposition to separation of powers limitations on the executive. Two forms of corruption are examined. The first is the attempt to subordinate the electoral system itself. The second is the use of state discretionary authority to push the boundaries of clientelism and ultimately outright corruption.Whereas questions of electoral integrity are more commonly checked by formal constitutional boundaries, the question of ordinary corruption surfaces with regularity under populism.

The article offers reasons why this might be the product of a descent from clientelism to cronyism to outright capture of public resources for private gain. In turn, the article offers arguments for how corruption invites review by broader layers of judicial and prosecutorial authorities than constitutional law.

Suggested Citation

Issacharoff, Samuel, The Corruption of Popular Sovereignty (March 6, 2020). ICON , NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 20-02, NYU Law and Economics Research Paper No. 20-02, Available at SSRN:

Samuel Issacharoff (Contact Author)

New York University School of Law ( email )

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