This mismatch between popular institutions and populist policy achievements is not accidental but reflects an underlying reality of America’s increasingly oligarchic politics. Influencing public opinion and organizing mass campaigns are now very expensive propositions; they largely rely on billionaire donors and large corporations or foundations that typically have little interest in structural changes to the status quo.
At the same time, social media and other popular media are largely controlled by, or at least consumed through, a handful of Big Tech platforms. For these and other reasons, technocratic bureaucracies — although they can certainly be captured — actually retain greater capacity for autonomous policymaking in the public interest than theoretically democratic institutions like legislatures.
In this environment, the prospects for populist policy reforms will depend less on legislation or so-called grass-roots organizing than on the personnel and actions of technocratic executive agencies. Rather than pursue the hopeless and counterproductive task of eliminating these agencies, populists should focus on trying to positively influence them. Elections are one way to do that, of course, but hardly the only one. And in the case of the Trump administration, at least, staffing decisions only occasionally matched campaign messaging.