The stakes are high in the US

Obama's victory is far from certain - and a Romney win would have far reaching effects.

It has been election season in Europe recently. Incumbents of all political colours are feeling the backlash from electorates dissatisfied with stagnant living standards.  Merkozy has been replaced by the more frosty Merkollande; in German Lande and British local government voters have given the national incumbents a kicking and in Greece the up-coming rerun of the inconclusive recent ballot could be a defining moment for the eurozone crisis. Yet for all this, the most important election of 2012 may be across the pond, between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

As the US, along with much of the developed world, grapple with fundamental questions about which economic and social policies will best secure widely shared increases in prosperity, the outcome of Presidential election could be of profound importance.  Indeed, as Theda Skocpol – Harvard professor and formidable authority on US politics – puts it in IPPR’s new journal, Juncture:

“I think the 2012 election is going to be one of the most riveting, most hard-fought no-holds-barred elections in US political history – and that says something.”

Part of the excitement stems from how close the vote looks set to be.  Any casual observers in Britain who assumed the election would be straightforward for Obama need to think again. Yes Romney has been bruised by having to slug it out in the Republican primaries – and yes the Democrats will attempt to cast him as out of touch (he recently described $374,000 as “not very much” money). But the polls have been tightening recently and the outcome is far from certain. The economy, while growing, does not look set to take off any time soon. And to make matters worse, the benefits of what growth the US economy has experienced seem to be unevenly shared out.  It looks likely that Romney will seek to focus the election almost entirely on the economy in the hope that cold economic winds will blow Obama from power.

The election is also, in the view of Theda Skocpol, a “turning-point election”. As well as shaping up to be closer than you might think, the implications of this election could be felt by Americans for decades to come.

Why so? An Obama win could mean the entrenchment of progressive changes, however modest, in US politics: healthcare reform, a reappraisal of the principle that the wealthiest should contribute more through their taxes and support for state investment in promoting growth. Few expect a radical turn from a President who has become known for his caution more than his boldness. But in time, by defending these important progressive principles and institutions, the electoral base for further Democratic success could be considerably strengthened. Critically these gains could then be fused with and exploit underlying demographic changes which will see the emergence of a younger and more diverse electorate, potentially giving the Democrats a big long-term opportunity to shape US politics. As Skocpol puts it, a second term for Obama, would “allow a transition to incorporating younger people and a more racially diverse electorate to blow winds into a centre-left Democratic party.”

In contrast, were Romney to win the White House – carried there by the current old, white Republican base and more centrist voters dissatisfied with slow economic growth – he could destroy the institutions and policies which provide the bedrock for Democratic Party support, before looking to reform the Republication Party and broaden its electoral appeal. In the words of Skocpol:

“… there are forces on the right who understand that they are close to their last chance – to use an American football analogy, it’s in the final two minutes and they have got to get that ball down the field and score a touchdown. They understand the importance of this election much better than the befuddled people on my side. They understand that if they can destroy or eviscerate healthcare reform, if they can change Social Security and Medicare for future generations then they can turn afterwards to making an appeal to the growing Latino population and to the younger generation around somewhat more free-market principles. After this election they’ll have to change – they’ll have to give up some of their ‘dead-endism’ over their opposition to gay marriage for example. Republican elites already understand that. But by winning they could very well buy themselves five to 10 years to make this shift, because they’ll be associated with whatever economic recovery occurs and they will have destroyed policies that could have built political identities and coalitions which they understand would have been a threat.”

For many Democrats – and progressives around the world – Obama’s victory in 2008 pulled at the heart strings. But four years on, the optimism of “yes we can” will be hard – perhaps impossible – to revive. Yet 2012 looks set to be a more important election to win – with long-lasting and fundamental implications.

Guy Lodge and Will Paxton are the joint editors of Juncture, IPPR's new journal of centre-left thinking, the first edition of which is out this week. See www.ippr.org/juncture for full details.

Photograph: Getty Images

Guy Lodge and Will Paxton are the joint editors of Juncture, IPPR's new journal of centre-left thinking.

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot