Let’s take “populists” seriously. Let’s listen to them. They want to “take control back”. They feel that democratic institutions at national scale have lost the capacity to act on the collective future of the population. My argument is: they are right in this statement – but wrong in their solutions.
What are the important political decisions? Those addressing large-scale, long-term issues, such as global warming, international trade, or the taxation of multi-national corporations. Where are they taken? In the secrecy and unaccountability of inter-governmental negotiations, in the United Nations, bi-lateral negotiations of free trade agreements, in the G20 or in the Council of the European Union.
My interpretation is the following.
All these institutions are rooted in the diplomatic practices inherited from the 17th century, when Europeans established the concept of the sovereign nation-state as a means to ensure internal peace after the bloodbath of the Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648). The idea was simple. Within a nation-state, the State has the monopoly of legitimate force, and ensures peace and the rule of law internally. Between nation-states, no law exists, except that of mutual deterrence and the necessities of balance of power. Each nation-state is thus an absolute, independent sovereign, accepting no other rule than the one it has explicitly consented to – whereas all other members of society are submitted to a law that they may have contributed to (in a democracy), but that they may disagree with (e.g. when the result of the election is opposite to one’s views).
This worked somehow, as long as the issues to be addressed, and specifically those with economic and social impact, remained within the geographic limits of the nation-state. It does not work at all when global inter-dependencies, operating beyond national boundaries, created by technology (the Internet, transport networks) or industrial development (global value chains), or revealed by science (global warming) have become predominant. By then, the scale of the nation-state becomes too small, and the only way to act is that of coordinating between nation-states.
The problem is that nation-states have wanted to preserve their absolute sovereignty, and continue using the tools of traditional diplomacy, even when tackling issues stemming from these global inter-dependencies. This principle of absolute sovereignty implies unanimity rules in inter-governmental negotiations, leading to powerlessness and lack of accountability – the opposite of democracy, and something that many populists complain righteously about.
I would argue that there is therefore at least one fundamental reason why traditional democracy, at national scale, appears not to work any more, and why populism appears: the mismatch between the scale of the issues and of the underlying phenomena, which has risen because of the global inter-dependencies outlined above, and that of the nation-state, now too small to address them appropriately.
The solution proposed by populists is to bring decision-making to national scale. I believe it to be a pure illusion, specifically for issues such as global warming – a global inter-dependency based on the laws of physics.
In my views, the positive alternative is trans-national democracy, a democracy operating beyond national boundaries.