Animosity and Shenanigans

To say the parties don't trust each other is akin to describing the Antarctic as 'a bit nippy'.

"Do you know what the life expectancy of an Obama-Biden yard sign is 'round here?" a Tennessee Democrat asked me last weekend. "Two days. Doesn't matter, though. They just march straight back in here and buy another one, and that's another eight dollars for the campaign."

The odd thing is, I'd heard exactly the same story the previous week. Only that time, it was from a Republican.

To say the parties here don't trust each other is akin to describing the Antarctic as 'a bit nippy'. Each is convinced, completely and whole-heartedly, that the other is trying to screw them. "They're plotting to steal this election like they did in 2000 and they did in 2004," one Democrat said to me last week. When I reacted with surprise - surely the last victory, at least, was fair and square? - she just shook her head, disappointed that I could be so naive. "They stole the election in Ohio," she said firmly.

And it's true, there are plenty of stories of electoral shenanigans circulating. Republicans surrounding polling stations with volunteers in police uniforms, to put black people off voting. Democrats registering Mickey Mouse to vote in Florida. And, in a stunt lifted straight from an old Onion story, Republicans warning voters that, due to overwhelming demand, election day is to be split, and anyone thinking of voting for Obama should come to the polls on November 5th. Both parties are planning to flood polling stations with lawyers.

Yet when activists talk about a friend or parent who's voting for the other guy, they're more likely to roll their eyes indulgently than start foaming at the mouth.

You get the feeling that, when people demonize the other side, they're not talking about the neighbours or family members who happen to disagree with their politics. They're talking about them, these strange, shadowy figures who want to destroy their way of life by taking away their guns and forcing their kids into gay marriage, or, conversely, forcibly baptizing them and sending their kids to war.

Attempts to get past this, and actually understand what the other guys have to say, are depressingly few and far between. One is the Ohio politics blog, run jointly by Obama hugging liberal Kyle Kutuchief and arch conservative Ben Keeler. Despite disagreeing on just about everything, the two of them have, so far, managed to work together without accusing each other of being mentally ill. And both reckon their debates have made their own arguments stronger.

The catch, though, is that they can only do this because they were childhood friends before they were political enemies. "When Kyle called me in 2004 after John Kerry lost, I really felt bad for him. But not that bad," says Keeler. But he adds: "We couldn't have done it if we didn't already know each other."

Kutuchief agrees. "When I was in college, my professors would talk about the great political leaders arguing tooth and nail all day and then going out to have a beer," he says. "That concept seems lost on our generation."

If it wasn't lost, I suspect, this election would need a lot fewer lawyers.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times