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Milan Svolik and Andrei Melville among students.
The key question I am interested in is “Why is it, that ordinary people sometimes support politicians, in particular incumbents that behave undemocratically?” And one answer that I’m trying to give in this paper is that in polarized societies incumbents can take advantage of polarization. The good examples of such polarized societies are Venezuela, where most of my data came from, but also Turkey. Because what is unique about polarized societies is that voters on one side hate voters on the other side. And what it means to say that the society is polarized is that there’s a lot of voters at the poles and very few in the middle. And incumbent, e.g. Erdogan in Turkey, can say: ‘Look, I represent your views. And maybe I’m not perfectly democratic, but the choice is between me, who represents your views maybe imperfectly, and some opposition, that may be democratic, but definitely does not represent your views”. And in polarized societies voters are willing to say “Yeah, that’s a tradeoff I’m willing to execute. I’m willing to select somebody who is maybe not completely democratic but represents my views, defends my interests.” Instead of another politician on another side of the political spectrum, who represents completely different views but may be democratic.
So, what I was interested in is figuring out exactly when and how much and who is making these tradeoffs. Who are the voters who are going to say “He is undemocratic but I’m gonna take him nonetheless”. And who are going to say “You know, he is undemocratic and it’s disqualifying. I never vote for somebody who is going to be undemocratic”.
Maybe not in a direct way. But, for instance, the purpose of research that I represent is to find out what kind of weakness there is in democratic institutions that would make them vulnerable to incumbents who have authoritarian ambitions. So, if you have an incumbent who actually wants to gain as much power as possible, and is willing to undermine democratic institutions, the question is “When can he do it?” within the context of at least superficially keeping democratic institutions in place.
As for me, the answer was that in highly polarized societies voters themselves will be ready to make a trade off when they vote in perfectly free elections for somebody who is actually openly undemocratic. And they are doing it because in polarized society voting against this person means voting for the opposition that you don’t like. That’s what makes polarized societies polarized. E.g., in Turkey that would mean an Islamist voters might vote for liberal opposition that they don’t like. In Venezuela there could be a leftist voter, who is poor and needs the government because the government provides services for him. And he votes against the leftist incumbent who is undemocratic for a right opposition that claims to be democratic. In societies polarized, voters are not going to do that.
I think, there’s a difference between a society being polarized and the close outcome. You can get a close outcome in both polarized society and one that’s not polarized. The case that I look at in my research is Venezuela, which by my measure is the most polarized society in the Americas. But the United States, if you look at similar measures that I use for Venezuela, is not very polarized. I still have to figure out in my research how this progressed over time. So maybe the United States now are more polarized than they has been in the past. Actually we have to carefully look at the data. But it’s definitely not as polarized as Venezuela. Turkey is definitely polarized.
So, close results don’t mean polarization. I’m not aware that Britain would be polarized. People may have been divided over the Brexit referendum, but that doesn’t mean that the society is ideologically polarized. What I mean by that is that when you ask people on a left-right scale, for instance, from zero to ten, where do you stand. And you will have a polarized society if a lot of people would stand in one extreme and another part stand on another extreme, and a very few people in the middle. In the United States, there are very few people in the middle and very few at the extremes. In Venezuela, most people are in the extremes and very few in the middle. Maybe polarization has gone up in the United States, but it’s nowhere close to as polarized as in Venezuela or in Turkey.
I don’t actually know. The trick about Russia is that I don’t think that this kind of polarization applies to Russia. Because I think in Russia the main ideological conflict axis is not left vs right. The current government in Russia embodies many elements of the left and many elements of the right. It is socially conservative, it adheres a hard line in foreign policy, and it seems to be that it has fairly centrist government in terms of redistribution, social benefits and so on. So I think it is somewhat different in places like Russia. On the other hand, Ukraine has highly polarized society, but mainly on the ethnic ground, either you Ukrainian speaker or Russian speaker. That’s very different kind of polarization. So I don’t think this framework applies well to Russia and post-soviet society.
It comes to the paper that I represented. I think the question it addresses is something that we don’t know much about. So the question is when is it, that democratically elected incumbents can subvert democracy, behave undemocratically, and often with genuine significant support by population. So I think it is the open and interesting question. Because there’s a possibility that significant fractions of population are actually willing to support, sometimes explicitly, undemocratic incumbents. And that raises a puzzle, which is how can masses, ordinary people, who presumably value democracy, nonetheless vote for or supporting politicians, who are sometimes implicitly, but sometimes even explicitly illiberal or even undemocratic.
And we have a lot of examples of this around the world. Chavez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia, Erdogan in Turkey, some say maybye Hungary and Poland are actually going in this direction. And many people say Russia is the case of it. Putin, according to most of the measures, is genuinely popular politician. And according to the same measures, he is not behaving democratically. And nonetheless he is supported by the large fractions of population. So in political science we need the better answer on the question why is this happening.
Mikhail Taraskin,student of the master’s programme ‘Politics. Economics. Philosophy’