Populism and Backlashes against International Courts
by Erik Voeten, Georgetown University
Why do some governments start backlashes against international courts whereas others continue to accept or avoid adverse judgments? Existing theories point to rising implementation costs and democratic reversals. I argue that a large number of backlashes are initiated by governments that rely on the support of populist movements and over court judgments that reinforce local populist mobilization narratives. Populist backlashes against international courts are not just about sovereignty. Populist attacks on international courts often follow efforts to curb domestic courts, usually for similar reasons. International courts do not just constrain governments but they also protect liberal limits on majoritarianism. This sometimes puts these courts in a position to protect the property rights of the ‘corrupt elites’ that are targeted by populists or the civil liberties of those who are targeted in domestic populist identity politics. Moreover, populism offers an ideology to attack the authority of a court rather than just its individual rulings. An empirical examination illustrates the plausibility of this theoretical argument. Yet, populist backlashes do not always succeed, either because leaders do not follow up on their exit threats or because populism is too thin an ideology for creating successful multilateral reform coalitions.