The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Volokh Conspiracy

Jacob Levy on 'The Sovereign Myth'


What explains the populist moment in politics? A common explanation is that "people are frustrated that they've lost democratic control of their lives and their economies." This would seem to explain both the support for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the United States and the various populist surges witnessed throughout Europe. But is it the best explanation? Jacob Levy is not so sure.

Writing for the Niskanen Center, Levy suggests that this common explanation is wrong "not as a description of voters' psychologies, but as an implied history." The explanation is based upon a mistaken premise. The greater sovereign democratic control that many seem to want was never really there.

Levy writes:

They never had such control; it's not available, and never was. This matters a great deal for understanding what choices lie ahead. There is no option of restoring what this explanation implies sovereign democratic states used to have. Holding out the promise of it invites perpetual frustration, exploitable by opportunistic demagogues. I don't have any simple recipe for either getting us out of the current upsurge of populist nationalism, or for forestalling its return in the future. (Yes, I still think it's current, notwithstanding recent European elections—a topic for another day.) But the answer is not to hold out the prospect of a return to a sovereign control over the world by democratic electorates.

Levy adds:

the sense of control that is often attributed to voters in the olden days was really a sense of satisfaction with outcomes. Long years of economic growth in the West, broadly shared in, and in excess of the expectations of people who had lived through wars and economic collapse, propelled this satisfaction. In retrospect, though, it's easy to flatter ourselves that, if things went well, it's because we made such good decisions. Things look rather different when expectations are suddenly, sharply disappointed, as in the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath. It's all too easy for opportunistic politicians in such moments to tell the story: the reason why things went so badly is that control was taken away from you—whether by faceless international bureaucrats, greedy financiers, or alien others, whether they have immigrated or are still in their countries of origin, producing and competing against you.

He concludes:

Those of us hoping to see decent liberal democratic constitutionalism in the future have to proceed differently. Yes, there has to be hope for a better future; but hope is not the same as autarkic, nationalist, or democratic sovereign control. There are hard questions about how we psychologically coexist with large-scale, impersonal social, cultural, and economic forces that are genuinely outside of anyone's ability to just decide. Indeed I've recently argued elsewhere that we need to think of politics itself as a result of human action but not human design and decision, which even those who understand spontaneous and emergent orders in economics and society have been reluctant to do. It's difficult to come to terms with. But however we are to manage the difficult psychological task of navigating currents that we didn't decide into being, the first step will be understanding and admitting that we didn't decide them.

The whole post is worth a read.

UPDATE: Crooked Timber features comments from Chris Bertram and Henry Farrell.