Putin is popular, but his voters don’t necessarily agree on much

There is little excitement about the result of today’s presidential election in Russia, but that does not mean that there is nothing exciting about it. Sam Greene has a sharp analysis on his blog, Moscow-on-Thames:

Vladimir Putin will win today’s elections because he is genuinely popular. We should be clear about that. But we should also be clear about what exactly that popularity means.

The typical political-science view of political behavior holds that preferences – whether expressed at the ballot box or to pollsters – are formed by citizens acting as rational, utility-maximizing individuals. Without wanting to knock the importance of rationality, if there is anything that the events of recent years around the world, from the Euromaidan to Brexit to Trump, should have taught us, it is that politics is fundamentally a social phenomenon. People intuitively and continually read their social surroundings, looking for cues that would convey meaning, solidarity and a sense of inclusion. Nobody votes in a vacuum.

As Graeme Robertson and I have been arguing in a series of articles and in a forthcoming book, Putin’s popularity is based in part – perhaps in large part – on the role that he plays as the galvanizing symbol of a political community that is socially and emotionally valuable to people. That is not to say that symbolism is the only thing that is valuable to Russian citizens. But our surveys, interviews and terabytes of social media data are clear that Putin’s popularity is not based on any evaluation of material benefit. Russians know they have gotten worse off over the last several years. Russians believe the country will continue to get worse off, even if they believe they themselves will prosper. And people do not expect Putin to make their lives better.

These are hard times for rational actor theorists.

Another thoughtful point is that Putin supporters ironically have a tendency to see themselves as representatives of a minority group.

As in many Western countries, Russians tend to live in political bubbles. Most of the people we have interviewed and surveyed feel that they share the values and political beliefs of those around them, whether family members, friends or colleagues. Relatively few people, however, think that more than half of the country as a whole share their beliefs and values, including about politics and Putin. Thus, despite the headline figure we constantly see about 86-percent support for the president, Putin supporters are if anything more likely than opposition supporters to think that they’re in the minority.

I suppose this could speak to the fact that Putin supporters don’t necessarily agree on much when it comes to actual politics. Perhaps he should more be seen as a uniting figure of many minorities.

Sam Greene also suggests some interesting things to look for in the election. This includes a good explanation of why it is important whether voter turnout is higher or lower that 70 percent.




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