Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Elections and the electorate in Russia and the United States

I was very impressed by this interview in the journal Foreign Policy. The interviewee was the young journalist Evgeny Feldman, who struck me as intelligent, systematic, and sensible. As a result I found his description of the elections in both the United States and Russia to be useful.

It's worth thinking about how elections work in various countries in this kind of detail. Some electoral systems are completely corrupt, but they are not necessarily corrupt in the same way. Some electoral systems are fairly successful in keeping governments honest, but I don't think anybody in a country with free election thinks the system works amazingly well. (If you know any Americans, name five who think the system is just hunky-dory.) Maybe they are ignorant of how bad things are elsewhere, but I don't think that's the most important thing. I think there's lots of room for improvement, and honest well-run elections are part of it. But assuring high quality elections isn't simple, and might not mean the same thing everywhere. And honest elections may well be only a part of the puzzle.

Let me quote Evgeny Feldman, just to give you an idea of what he sounds like:

FP: Based on how your readers react to your journalism, can you tell what they have the most trouble understanding about our system?

Feldman: I quite often encounter the opinion that it’s all а show. But in large measure this comes from the position, which at least in Iowa is quite popular, that Washington is lying to everyone, that the liberal media is lying, and so on. All the top candidates in this election are saying this, in one way or another. So [my readers] kind of have a garbled, misunderstood version of this.

But I don’t think it’s so much a mistrust of the people who are in the [American] establishment — I think it’s more mistrust of the system of elections, as such. Because in Russia, there’s a syndrome of “learned helplessness.” For decade after decade, our society has seen that its opinions don’t affect anything. Since 1996, for sure. People don’t believe that one can really choose.

[Here in Iowa City], I spent a lot of time with this elderly couple. We’ve done a lot of talking. They went to see a Cruz rally in a neighboring town, and they came back having made a decision to vote for him. And their explanation really shocked me. They said: “We want to vote for him because he’s proposing term limits [in Congress].”

The fact that this was the deciding factor — Cruz’s position on how the political system should be set up in principle — is really a huge difference [from Russia]. It’s very cool — a completely different level of political thinking than what we have.

With us, it’s heavily weighed in the other direction — no one discusses tax rates, or whether we should have legal abortion. They talk about whether Russia should look towards the West or towards Asia, and about the overall makeup of the system, but not about term limits. It’s more about whether we should have competitive elections at all.

FP: So, in Russia, political discussions are on a much more general level?

Feldman: Not even general, more like illusory. The issues are discussed among major parties that are all controlled from the center. Those that are independent are barely allowed to participate in elections.

FP: Are there any similarities between Americans and Russians that have surprised you?

Feldman: I think that, both here and there, there’s a part of the public that’s inclined to various conspiracy theories. But here it’s a little more grounded, for example, people say the only reason Hillary isn’t in jail is because she’s part of the establishment. I haven’t heard anything about the Masons, whereas we have that [in Russia].

At the beginning, I had a strong impression of similarity between the campaigns here and what [opposition leader Alexei] Navalny did in Moscow [when he ran for mayor]. I knew that he was orienting his campaign on techniques that were developed in the United States, but still, the similarity seriously surprised me, at least at the beginning.

There are differences, too. As far as I understand, here the rallies are done mainly for the benefit of the media. They all take place in a closed building God knows where. No one who’s just walking by can get in, because there won’t be enough tickets anyway, at least if it’s a top candidate. The rallies are done to show the media an image: that we have many supporters. Isn’t that right?

FP: I think so.

Feldman: In Russia, of course, it’s quite different. In Russia, opposition candidates absolutely cannot get into any building.In Russia, opposition candidates absolutely cannot get into any building. Not in winter and not in summer. Because either it’s a government building, or it’s private, but then there’s a “burst pipe” or some kind of inspection, if they try to schedule a rally. Also, Navalny can’t get on TV, so he does rallies outside. At least this way he can have some access to the voters.

FP: Has your opinion about American democracy changed while you’ve been here?

 Feldman: I’ve always thought that the general elections are the most important stage. But now I understand that these primaries are even more important, because they allow more nuanced policy views to be spotlighted for the voters. So I’m really glad that I got to be here for this.

FP: So for you, this is a very serious exercise of democracy. It doesn’t seem like some kind of absurd circus?

Feldman: Of course there’s a certain element of “show.” But I can see that the absolute majority of people here take it very seriously. And I understand — this is probably mostly about Trump and his attempts to make the campaign about himself — that there’s an element of a talk show, and that’s probably bad.

But I follow the Democrats a little more, because their values are more understandable to me. For example, I live in a country that made abortions legal in 1920. So for me, the “pro-life” position is a completely incomprehensible thing. I understand, intellectually, where it comes from, but emotionally I can’t understand how anyone can support this. From this point of view, for me the Democrats are easier to understand.

FP: Of our candidates, who do you think would be most popular in Russia?

Feldman: On the surface, Trump is, of course, terribly similar to Putin.Trump is, of course, terribly similar to Putin.

Because in Russia, the elections are more like a choice between different aesthetics. That is, you have no chance to have an effect on actual policy. You can vote for the Communists if you’re nostalgic, for the screaming [Vladimir] Zhirinovsky if you want to bang your fist on the table, for [the ruling party] United Russia if you want to show your loyalty, and for A Just Russia if you’re loyal, but not very.

So in Russia, elections look different. It’s a ritual, a cult. You vote and it doesn’t change anything. Here it’s not like that — but in that way, on the surface, Trump is, of course, very similar to Putin. He’s the closest to this kind of Russian politics.

FP: In that, by voting for him, you’re more showing who you are than voting.

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