Vladimir Putin shows that dictators hang on to power not despite the people, but because of them

More than fear or censorship, it is social interactions with like-minded friends and relatives that keep people on board.

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Picture this: A government in trouble. The economy foundering. Poll numbers sliding. In the corridors of power, advisers struggling to gain traction with wayward voters decide to get mean – by turning citizens against one another. They pick on people who sound different. Look different. Love different. It’s us versus them – nothing less than our values and our culture on the line. You’re either with me, the leader says, or against us.

Whom does the image bring to mind? Donald Trump? Vladimir Putin? Theresa May?

In fact, it’s a long list – because identity politics works.

If it feels like the list used to be shorter, that’s because it was. Not all that long ago, we used to think about politics in the west as being about policies, ideas and ideologies – the push and pull of left and right, differences over the role of the state, or the balance between freedom and security. Political scientists taught that citizens were basically rational, basing their decisions primarily on the state of the economy – what pundits call “pocket book voting”. For politicians and academics alike the mantra has long been “it’s the economy, stupid”. Even dictators know that rule; just ask Nicolas Maduro.

But as incomes for the middle classes stagnate and inequality soars, technocratic politics has been pushed aside. Voters increasingly seem to cleave to their parties and their leaders as though they were tribes – Democrats and Republicans, Leavers and Remainers, “real” Americans and Brits vs “citizens of nowhere”.

The usual answer is to point a finger at the bad guy: at Trump or Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen – or at Putin or Viktor Orban or Recep Tayyep Erdogan. We blame them for leading formerly rational citizens astray, paralysing them with fear or beguiling them with populism. In fact, one of the most damning accusations some Americans level at Trump is that he’s behaving like a dictator – witness his vitriolic stump speeches, or his ceaseless attacks on the press.

If only it were that simple.

The truth is that dictators – actual or would-be – do not get into power by themselves: we put them there. A deeper dive into the Russian experience is instructive.

When Putin returned from being prime minister to retake the presidency in 2012, he faced a concerted opposition and disturbingly low (for him) levels of popularity. To rebuild his legitimacy, Putin turned like so many others to identity issues. First, it was “protecting” religion. Then it was “saving” Russia from gay rights – specifically protecting children from the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” (this might sound familiar to British people of a certain age). Other issues followed, most notably migrants and Americans. And it worked.

To see how, we tracked both the Kremlin’s activity and the responses of ordinary Russians over the ensuing six years, through surveys, interviews and social media. What we found did more than challenge our notions of how dictatorship works: it forces us to rethink how identity politics work in democracies, too.

In Russia, Putin’s most reliable supporters as he turned citizens against one another were not ideologically committed xenophobes and homophobes. Quite the contrary: many of Russia’s most ardent nationalists were deeply suspicious of the “moderate” Putin, while those most likely to get in line were actually the people who were least aggressive, least prone to conflict, but most concerned about getting along well with others. People whose personalities made them care most about what others around them picked up the signals from the media and from the churches and schools and became those most likely to hate and to vilify. In Putin’s divided Russia, fitting in came to mean lashing out.  

The following year, Russia illegally annexed Crimea and launched a covert invasion of eastern Ukraine, sparking a war that smoulders to this day and a deep geopolitical confrontation with Europe and the United States. The resulting “rally round the flag” – which sent Putin’s poll numbers soaring still higher – likewise worked by connecting people to others. Being part of something big and exciting, even if the rest of the world was up in arms about it, made people feel better about Putin and about their country, but first and foremost it made them feel better about themselves.

The euphoria of the Crimean “moment” – a four-year-long emotional sugar high in which Russians positively re-evaluated not only their president, but their present, their future and (as our data showed) even their past – was not injected by Putin directly into people’s psyches. It was created by people interacting with one another: watching television, talking about the news with friends and relatives, and whipping one another up into a froth of patriotic fervour.

What this means is that dictators like Putin hang on to power not despite the people, but because of them. More than fear, more than censorship, it is social interaction with like-minded friends, neighbours, colleagues, relatives and peers that keeps people on board, even as the economy disintegrates and the country slides into conflict with much of the rest of the world.

But what does it mean for the rest of us?

Just as in Russia – where the conventional wisdom focuses too much on Putin and not enough on ordinary citizens – we tend in the West to assume that it is people like Donald Trump or Nigel Farage (or Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn, if you prefer) who lead us astray. They tell lies, and those lies resonate because people are either ignorant, or are locked into media filter-bubbles, where they can hear only what they want to hear. This is true, but it is only part of the story.

For one thing, top-down thinking encourages us to believe that if we could just get through to people with the facts, things would change. Unfortunately, what the Russian experience shows us is that a simple intuitive story is more powerful than facts, even when the citizens can see those facts for themselves. Moreover, people who are “resistant to facts” often have good reason to be: switching your viewpoint means risking conflict with people who are socially and emotionally important to you. That can be a very hard thing to do.

Finally, the conventional wisdom suggests that the people whose behaviour have gotten us into this mess – the people who voted the wrong way – are following leaders, rather than following one another. Again, the Russian experience provides a useful corrective. Our research suggests that it is the thrill of being part of the crowd that keeps people on board, more than the charisma of the leader. Once the thrill of the collective fades, so does adoration of the leader.

Undoubtedly, politicians do have a role to play in fixing this mess. A reinvigorated socio-economic agenda, for example, might give voters reason to re-focus on actual policymaking. Equally, the inevitable failure of identity politics to deliver prosperity might serve as a useful wake-up call. In Russia, for example, five years of declining real incomes have finally begun to bite into Putin’s popularity.

But if the dysfunction of politics – Russia’s or our own – comes from the bottom, and not (only) from the top, it needs to be addressed from the bottom, too. If we want to get back to a more fact-based political discussion – and a more civil one – then we need to lower the costs of being politically different. We need to make it possible for people on all sides to diverge from the assumptions of their social circles and still feel included and secure. And we need to check where our own human instincts are taking us. Nothing less than our democracy depends on it.

Sam Greene is Reader in Russian Politics and Director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London. Graeme Robertson is Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina. Their book, Putin v. the People: The Perilous Politics of a Divided Russia, was published by Yale University Press in April.