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Jul 2, 2013

Putin’s Southern Strategy

After losing significant political support by a portion of liberal intelligentsia (especially in the capitals), Putin’s party has decided to bet on the socially conservative Russian majority. Hence the shift towards religion, family, protecting the children, tough on crime and coppurtion, against gay rights, against the West, against the western-funded NGO’s, against punk music, etc. Hence the uniforms in schools and a single history textbook. Hence the officially proclaimed conservative ideology of the United Russia. Some people lament this development as a slip backwards, to an autocratic rule. I disagree; it may be the beginning of normal political life in Russia. It does not feel that normal if you’re on the liberal side of the emerging divide. I know, and yet let me explain.

Anyone who knows the history of American politics is familiar Nixon’s Southern Strategy. It was a very successful attempt to attract the White Southern vote to the Republican party (and away from their traditional Democratic affiliation) by catering to their racist instincts. Taking more broadly, the strategy is to use controversial “wedge” social issues to attract voters to your party, and then do whatever you feel like with the economic, social, and foreign policy. As a result, the contemporary Republican Party is a weird alliance of evangelical Christians, the anti-abortion and anti-gay groups, of pro-gun and military people with economic liberals, neocons, and libertarians.

I don’t know if someone within Putin’s cabinet actually studied the playbook of American politics, but it does not matter. The logic of political struggle is the same everywhere. If you want to retain power, you should cater to whatever social mores of population’s majority, and preferably also create an impression that your opponents are on the other side of those social issues. It is somewhat dishonest, manipulative, and yes, this is exactly what the NORMAL politics in a democratic society feels like.

The better is the enemy of the good. Unrealistic expectations about the democratic political process do more harm than good. Just think about this for a second: at least Putin and the United Russia are worried about getting the votes. That’s important! That is huge step forward! They don’t feel like they can impose whatever they want on the population without winning elections. That is called democracy.

Their opponents should stop bickering and philosophizing, build their own broad coalition, use their own wedge social issues (just like Democrats learned to do), and play the same dirty games to win the support of the public. That’s exactly what the democratic politics is. It is not the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, as generations of Russian intellectuals believed; nor is it your three dreams of Vera Pavlovna. Democracy is the worst form of government except for all other forms (Churchill, I think?). It is frustrating, slow, unfair, it may appeal to the basest instincts of the population, and – your party may keep losing for a long period of time. Get used to it.

Let’s give them some credit: Putin and his advisers understood this sooner than any of his opponents, again.

However, there are other reasons to worry, namely – how much free hand will the repressive bureaucracy get, and what progress if any is made on developing the independent judiciary. The fourth power – the free mass media – is in retreat, and one cannot win elections by Fb alone. As the recent American experience shows, the security apparatus will always go too far without limiting it by other branches of government. There is just no way to let them self-regulate; unhindered they only know how to grow and justify their existence. This is the instinct of all bureaucracies; however, it is just a little scarier in security organizations.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous5:52 PM

    "They don't feel they can impose whatever they want on the population without winning an election. That is called Democracy." Isn't this precisely what happened in America's Democracy when the election was stolen from Al Gore by the courts?

    So, the American/Russian must be settle in. smile.