What have Trump, Brexit and Russia’s 2016 elections got in common? While it’s debatable whether the referendum and presidential elections represent a revolt against the elites – by whom and for whose benefit, we should immediately ask – the Russian elections surely are completely unrelated – after all, the ruling party increased its share of the vote?
Usually Russian elections are something I largely ignore. My research has been about the ‘everyday’ experience of ordinary Russians, and formal politics is a topic my working-class informants usually actively avoid, beyond their misinterpreting Navalnyi’s most successful slogan. They insist that the slogan applies to more than just United Russia: that all politicians and bureaucrats are ‘crooks and thieves’. The most political statement I can recall from my informants was in 2010: that Medvedev and the government would never have the interests of the people at heart and would only act for the benefit of city-folk. With such cynicism and distrust of politics as a main narrative, you can probably tell where I’m going with the bundling of Trump, Brexit and Russia.
However, it so happens that when I arrived in my new job here in Denmark, one of the first things I was asked to do was to give a public talk on the ‘meaning of the Russian elections’. Beyond a rather spiteful spat between Russian political scientists arguing about the absolute and percentage share of the vote for the ruling party, United Russia, and the disappointment about the opposition’s performance, surely the only possible take away would be the tightening of the ruling elite’s grip on the administrative delivery of votes for ER?
I’m not qualified to really engage in analysis of voting patterns or the validity of the term electoral authoritarianism and so on, so for me the only result worth noting, apart from the fall in turnout, was that while all the parties’ vote share fell (apart from UR), LDPR’s rose – Zhirinovsky’s nationalist and populist party. While acknowledging LDPR’s links and usefulness to the Kremlin, let’s leave aside the issue of whether LDPR is a real political party and whether Zhirinovsky is a real – i.e. free – political actor. These issues are not relevant.
Leaving aside the rise in UR’s share – not a ‘real’ phenomenon but rather an artefact of ballot stuffing, administrative resources, and outright falsification, the only ‘real’ winner in improving showing was LDPR (their absolute number of votes of course, fell from 2012, but then so did everyone else’s). In fact, if we wanted to underline LDRP as a significant fixture of Russian electoral, not to mention political, life we could point to the consistency in percentage vote share in the elections since 2003: 11, 8, 11, 13, as well as the party’s back-from-the-dead resurrection after the 1990s. LDPR is the only party machine apart from the Communists to survive intact the whole of the post-Soviet period of electoral politics. Sergei Shpilkin’s assessment of fraud puts the real voting figures for LDPR at 17%, v. 18% for Communists and 40% for United Russia. Real turnout according to him was 37%.
As Alexei Makarkin rightly pointed out in 2007 – to its voters, Zhirinovsky’s disingenuous opposition positioning and his clear links to the Kremlin are irrelevant. LDPR remains attractive to conservative patriots who are pro Putin foreign policy, nostalgic for the USSR in some way, distrusting of the state in general and harbour anti-elite sentiment simultaneously. And my small ethnographic sample bears out the paradox of ‘outsider-loyalty’ identity among voters. If the political histories weren’t so different, it might be worth comparing LDPR voter identity to the Jacksonian world-view of middle- and lower-class Americans that it is argued swung Trump’s election.
LDPR had the most expensive campaign spending 50% more than ER ($10m). Arguably, it also ran the best targeted media campaign of any parties in the election, with clear and simple media messages – particular those of interest to vulnerable citizens and which are sensitive areas for UR – inflation on food products, access to medicine, access to housing finance. These important and highly resonant issues were overshadowed by the attention given by the media to LDPR’s typically provocative and chauvinist foreign policy pronouncements such as ‘Return the borders of the USSR’, and ‘an end the humiliation of Russians’. These were but two of a number of catchy slogans broadcast on a loop, in the waiting area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo international airport in August, for example. This exclusive focus on LDPR’s nationalist rhetoric is also present in Western analyses of the election, [with Andrew Monaghan describing the party as merely ‘nationalist’.] Only four of the 28 well-produced TV ads were on the subject of foreign policy and differed little from the government’s formal policy. What resonated with my informants were specific measures like caps on pay ratios between CEOs and workers, and policies to restrict debt collectors’ activities – loose credit policies were likened to drug pushing. LDPR as a self-styled protest party is also evident in Sevastopol billboards responding to ER campaign. ‘Vote LDPR or carry on putting up with it.’
[This placard was actually from 2015]
Makarkin also finds what he calls a periphery of protest voters who might vote LDPR given lack of alternatives, given Zhirinovsky’s move to ‘mainstream’ great Russian chauvinism which is anti-Soviet and anti-West, and not particularly ‘extreme’ against backdrop of Putin’s foreign policy. In his latest piece Makarkin seems to indicate LDRP’s continuing success as a kind of maturing and greater realism on part of lower-middle class and lower class electorate – ‘we’ll take our elite-led chauvinism with a pinch of oppositional salt – and after all, Zhirinovsky can be no worse than the corrupt URs. The Communists, Opposition and others who are always going to lose.’ People can choose unthinking or thinking loyalty to Putin; choose internal emigration; or choose LDPR – and strikingly Makarkin includes disaffected youth in this equation – something of the Bernie Sanders-Trump linking there. And what Makarkin describes was pretty much exactly what I encountered among my long-term informants: People switching from other parties, including UR to LDPR, but not only that of course – what I was able to examine was the more substantive reasoning behind their voting behaviour.
Thus, LDPR, Trump and to a lesser extent the Brexit campaign came together to prompt me to re-examine my long-term ethnographic research data in a more explicitly political way. What emerges is the attraction, regardless of political system, of populist reactionary currents that cross left-right political classification and challenge traditional survey methods. Political ethnography – engaging with local contexts and individuals and communities – can help understand the ‘mature’ phase of electoral authoritarianism in Russia, by acknowledging the complexity of ordinary voters’ views, values and positions, regardless of who they vote for.
Fact is we don’t have much of a dataset of political ethnographies of populist voting, so I offer a proxy attempt at one here. The point of the piece is to illustrate the potential for political ethnography to enrich our comparative understanding of politics and society. So, even though Russian, British and US electoral politics are completely different, talking to voters ethnographically seems to uncover some commonalities. As Jan Kubik notes, a contribution of political ethnography may be to focus on processes of opinion formation – this takes place and changes over time. But talking to people about politics is harder than you might think. What follows is a small sample of my revisiting of informants before and after the election.
Non-voters. These are the biggest group – borne out by the district and national results – ‘We would vote LDPR, but we don’t vote. Why would we?’ Said by man in his 50s about whole family. This was the same person that in 2009 told me Medvedev would never care about ‘people like him’. Zhirinovsky is not a serious politician, but at least he’s genuine ‘nastoyashii’. He has the right idea about recreating the borders of the USSR; Russians were the biggest victims of the end of the USSR. The younger men in this family had similar views, but if anything were more xenophobic. Victimology, trauma, loss, anger. Dangerous emotions regardless of whether or not they are expressed at the ballot box. I write about trauma and loss at length in my book. ‘I don’t know a single person who voted. I wouldn’t even know where to go to vote.’
Attitudes towards opposition – cynicism towards Navalnyi (I don’t vote for him, but….) – ‘how can he be walking around if he hasn’t done a deal?’ And can we answer that? ‘Opposition is divided and ordinary people can see that’ (cf. David White’s EEP piece 2015). ‘I don’t watch his stuff. It’s just for Muscovites’. This turned out to false. The informant, a 30-yr-old male with technical education working in Turbine factory and on above average wage later sent me a link to Navalnyi videos about Medvedev’s dacha – published on YouTube three days before the election. There’s an interesting argument that this intersects with about the broadening and flattening of internet audience in Russia that has political implications which I’ll come back to. ‘I never thought about voting for them’ – the dominant narrative about opposition. ‘Cultural’ distance in terms of class, metropolitan identity, etc, is a factor, surely.
My ‘thinking’ LDPR informants 1. ‘Protest vote with nowhere to go – desperation’: Q. Do you like Zhirinovsky? A. I don’t like ER. ‘Zhirik is a clown but I voted for him because we need to send a message and there is no way of doing that. UR has too much power. This is the last time UR will win big.
My ‘thinking’ LDPR informants 2. ‘Tactical opposition vote’ ‘I think UR has too much power. I voted for the opposition. So that the UR has limits’ ‘uprava’ (?) – also connotations of justice and punishment. ‘I voted against UR, so that they get a normal competition.’ Did you vote for UR in the past? Doesn’t answer at first ‘A the moment, UR is like a monopolist. It passes its own laws, and puts them into practice itself and controls them’ So you think a counterbalance is needed? You said many people didn’t vote. Did people discuss this? ‘Yes. I did vote for UR before, but then I found out lots of interesting things. [referring to Navalnyi Medvedev dacha video] A lot of people said the same thing to me: why bother voting when UR will win just the same.
Regional and local concerns. Almost all the important posts are held by representatives of UR. Take the Regional Governors, and accordingly the regional administrations […] I discussed my choice with no one.’ So you’re unhappy with the regional regime [stroi]? How does that affect your thinking? ‘Almost all the higher-ups are corrupt and wallowing in bribes.’
Thinking KPRF (Communists) informant 1: ‘Almost everyone was labouring under the illusion that Clinton would win. But during the last six months I have had the feeling that Trump would win…. What about our elections? Yes. I voted. I voted for the Communist Party. But not because I trust them. but rather to “squeeze” votes away from the UR. Unfortunately, after the elections this year, I am finally convinced that the opposition in our country DOES NOT EXIST. For whomever you vote the result will be UR… Everyone I talked about the elections to (more than a hundred people), did not vote for UR. Mostly – for the KPRF and the LDPR.’ Unlike LDPR informants, this informant struggled to find paying work putting her more in the camp of other informants who do not vote but used to vote LDPR. Also – women don’t vote so much for LDPR.
‘Thinking’ LDPR informants 3. ‘Other opposition parties are too weak’ ‘Why not vote for other parties – Rodina, Yabloko, Spravedlivaia Rossiia?’ ‘I think the other parties are too weak. I might have voted for Communisits, but I don’t like Ziuganov so much’.
Socio-Economic context: Downward spiral of economy. Labour unrest – miners in Rostov (unpaid wages), farmers in Kuban, unemployment, underemployment. No safety valve is available. Massive income destruction: high inflation AND ruble devaluation means real incomes of ‘average’ industrial workers falls from $800 to $200. Best paid workers among my informants earn 40,000 roubles at VW. This is $600. They earned around 30,000 roubles in 2012 which was around $1000. Can import substitution soften this? – not really – inflation+quality and trust issues are key. Division in my informants between those voting at all = getting at least an average salary. And those not voting because completely disillusioned and ‘excluded’ = those suffering non-indexed wage cuts, stoppages and wage arrears.
Electoral Data for districts where informants live: they are typical – i.e. Communists do not do better than nationally, neither do LDPR (important because in some Regions they outperform). Focus on UR and LDPR. Three types of electoral district – metro, district urban – typically 10-30k inhabitants plus villages, rural UR got 40, 45, 50+ in these districts. In the oblast as a whole 45% LDPR got 15-20% across board; KPRF got 15%. Side note: Yabloko got 226 votes from the 44,000 electors in the district studied (turnout was less than 50%. PARNAS got 107. These parties did about twice as well in the metropolitan districts of Kaluga (2-3% of the vote)
‘I found out lots of interesting things.’ Internet penetration of opposition messages. Traditional view of TV and internet constituencies – separate ‘parties’ in Russia according to Muratov (Novaia gazeta editor). Cottiero et al. 2015 in Nationalities Papers confirm this is no longer the case – Internet a mirror of society. Is this ‘bad’? This comment from an informant was interesting : ‘I found out lots of interesting things.’ Which cemented his anti UR vote. What was he referring to? To Navalnyi, which he and others had previously denied was even on their radar. This was true in 2012 when I surveyed internet use by my informants. But striking, now, internet habits of my ‘conservative’ informants are more omnivorous. Here is an indication of the diversity of internet current affairs sources:
https://www.youtube.com/user/kamikadzedead – latest post on corruption in leadership of Russian football association (Mutko) by Dmitri Ivanov. He is a ‘liberal’ middle-of the road vlogger. Some association with 2011-12 protests, white ribbon movement and ‘League of electors’ movement.
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCsAw3WynQJMm7tMy093y37A Navalnyi on Medvedev dacha
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtO0TzSAoIOzTnTsQeywSSw Mount show with Daniel Kaigermazov– unlike others has an outlet on VK as well as YouTube – anti-American anti-Ukraine satire.
Some conclusions: Uses of micro/ethnographic qualitative portraits of voter choice that include exploration of political values and socio-economic context helps avoids issues that have dogged interpretations of poll mapping post-brexit/trump: ecological fallacies. As Economist James Kwak notes in criticising the rise of big data journalism: ‘Some of those [Trump] voters will be racists. Some will be poor people concerned about their economic future. Some will be poor racists concerned about their economic future’ clearly there is a real problem with group tendencies and sorting producing knowledge of questionable value. Trump voters had lower education – but that doesn’t map on to class or income neatly – plenty of insecure workers with degrees in the US as elsewhere, and in some parts of US there are high income areas with low education. Political anthropology can provide more than just snapshots of the landscapes of values that cut across so-called class-gender-ethnicity divisions, and that inform voting and political consciousness – a kind of political intersectionality.
So is this just a repackaged reading of ‘white working-class anger’ = racism & sexism? No, I really think this kind of recourse to a crude ‘identity politics’ is part of the problem, not the solution – witness the panning Paul Krugman got when he used this term recently. A better approach, one that still acknowledges identity but is more reveal the complexity of reality is that by Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016) (she popularised the concept of emotional labour) – on a link between political voting and ‘deep story’ – internalised emotional value systems. Indeed this is how Hochschild explains the electoral success of the tea party with poorest US citizens. Unsurprisingly her book has been in demand recently.
The deep story for Hochschild is a story of resentment, exclusion and neglect. My voters ‘deep stories’ reveal long-term value systems (in the book, but less in the ‘electoral’ talk), some of which are inherited from Soviet mores, as well as the despair, anger and betrayal identified among protest and populist voters elsewhere. However, they also reveal mobile, shifting evaluations of electoral politics and politics in general – dare I say it, there is practical adaptation to electoral authoritarianism here that is sophisticated and nuanced; ‘sophisticated’ reasoning –I hesitate to use that word – surely all political reflection is sophisticated. But too often pollsters, journalists and even academics infer simplistic reasoning. Especially when it comes to less-educated or working-class persons.
Two social geographers Christian Parenti and Matthew Richmond wrote two of best pieces I’ve read on Trump victory and actually analysing voters’ concerns. First talks about voters taking Trump seriously but not literally, a point worth making in comparison to Zhirinovsky’s populism and about voters themselves. Richmond rather hyperbolically calls Trump’s victory a ‘historic crisis in the epistemic basis on which we understand political change.‘ , but then goes on to make a more valid point about the dangers of social science in general inevitably reproducing the bias of the social group conducting it. ‘In simple terms, we must move closer to the social worlds that quantitative and theoretical political science purports, but largely fails, to represent.’ – he highlights as challenges to quantitative approaches, issues of unquantifiable uncertainty, demographic boundedness as a false premise, the persistence of two-dimensional left-right axis of political positioning. Richmond refers to Bourdieu’s example of the pollster’s non-response as the most interesting, most meaningful response (Distinction: 398).
Unsurprisingly, his piece calls for more involved qualitative work on how political opinions emerge and coalesce: ‘How does their evolution into political subjects unfold, so that they move from the “don’t know” category into voting for Trump, or remain in the “don’t know” category despite being a target of his hate?’ Richmond ends up arguing for active listening, as opening up political space. It is not passive to listen. Richmond: ‘political subjectivity as a space of possibilities is important because it highlights the fact that the regularities we observe in the world, including in the political behaviour of different populations, have structural bases but are radically undetermined.’
All our ‘examples’ of populist success – even the meagre one of LDPR – indicate the dissatisfaction among voters with the status-quo. Of course, the electoral contexts are completely different. However, even in the authoritarian system of Russia where the ruling party is guaranteed a large majority – indeed constitutional majority, absolute support for the status quo fell significantly. Is this like the Jacksonian interpretation of Trump’s victory in US? In a way, yes. LDPR and to a degree the other ‘systemic opposition’ can access not people’s ideology, but a set of deeply held values that go back in time and are formative of aspects of the Russian state’s character itself: fear of enemies, the urge for social justice in a kind of ‘deserving estates’ form (many of my informants come from labour aristocracies fallen on hard times). There is also fear and awe of the state as a punitive mechanism in equal measure, and support from the individualist estates of Russian society – small business, skilled and technical workers. But again, like Jacksonian values there are contradictions indicative of the cultural-historical roots of such populism, with LDPR voters also responding to ideas about just claims of ‘equality of dignity and right’ based on self-reliance and in-group membership of a folk community (Russel Mead 1999: 12-14).