Could Putin Be Failing Because of a Lack of Democracy?
Sinclair Lewis was (metaphorically) wrong. It happened there, and it can also happen here
Russia’s President Putin isn’t an irrational actor; he and his administration are suffering from a deficiency of democracy, and that’s why he’s making terrible decisions. Seriously. Follow me on this:
The media has recently been full of speculation about why and how Putin so badly misunderstood the will of the Ukrainian people to fight for their democracy.
That he has damaged himself and his country for the rest of history is not in dispute.
The question is, “Why?”
Why would Putin make such a mistake around a decision that’s outcome was so obvious to so many others?
1. Some have suggested that Putin has only surrounded himself with “yes men” who’ll tell him what he wants to hear, or people so terrified of his murderous rages that they’re unwilling to tell him the truth (or both).
This theory is supported by the shocked looks on the faces of his subordinates when he asked their “advice” on attacking Ukraine.
He then reamed the terrified guy — the head of his security service! — who wasn’t totally 100% on board as you can see in the astonishing, breathtaking video of the man Putin yesterday put under arrest:
2. Some have theorized that the failure of his invasion to win quickly was because of the Russian privatization of much of his intelligence and military to companies owned by corrupt oligarchs.
Those fat-cat Russian military-industrial-complex billionaires have been skimming so much off the top that the end product is often useless.
This theory is supported by a recent internet post explicitly thanking the Russian defense oligarchs for stealing or converting to cash so many of their Army’s resources.
Ukraine’s National Agency on Corruption Prevention Director Oleksandr Novikov thanked Russia’s Defense Minister Shoigu for putting egg cartons on tanks instead of metal armor, and sending their soldiers into battle with cardboard bulletproof vests:
3. Some commentators have even speculated that Putin’s simply gone mad or his brain was addled by Covid, beliefs enhanced by stories that he’s using food tasters and TV clips appearing to show that he won’t let anybody closer than 30 feet to him.
But could the answer be much simpler?
Could he simply be failing because of a deficiency of democracy?
Could it possibly be that simple? Were the Founders of our democracy and the builders of democracies worldwide that have now evolved from it really that brilliant?
Is there some sort of practical, mathematical, scientific, and predictable mechanism at work here?
Astonishingly, the answer is, “Yes.”
What all of those analyses miss about why Putin would have made such a disastrous decision is the importance of democracy — or, in this case, the lack of democracy — in Russia.
Although the word didn’t exist back in the 1780s when our Constitution was written, democracy is essentially crowdsourcing.
The core idea of crowdsourcing is that the greater the variety of inputs and opinions — the larger the number of eyeballs on an issue or problem — the better the chance for a positive and honest conclusion or output.
Aristotle laid this idea out in his Politics, writing:
“[T]he view that it is more proper for the multitude to be sovereign than the few of greatest virtue might be thought to be explicable and to have some justification, and even to be the true view. For it is possible that the many, though not individually good men, yet when they come together may be better, not individually but collectively…
“[F]or where there are many, each individual, it may be argued, has some portion of virtue and wisdom, and when they have come together, just as the multitude becomes a single man with many feet and many hands and many senses, so also it becomes one personality as regards the moral and intellectual faculties.”
Back in 1906, Sir Francis Galton tried a famous experiment to prove the idea: he invited 787 people at a county fair to estimate the weight of an Ox that had been slaughtered and dressed. The median guess was 1197 pounds; the measured weight was 1198 pounds and, scales being what they were then, may have actually been 1197 pounds.
This “wisdom of the crowd” is the reason we rely on juries to provide the best outcome to trials where a person’s life or freedom are at stake.
It’s why companies ask for widespread customer feedback (so they can make real-time course-corrections and avoid stupid decisions) and, knowing this, we’re more likely to purchase products rated well by a large number of people.
It’s why we look to and have faith in crowdsourced products and information sources, like earlier versions of Linux, Firefox, and Wikipedia.
It’s why every advanced democracy in the world except America makes it super-easy to vote: they want to get the greatest number of people registering their opinions, so the outcome of the elections will be the best possible government.
Putin’s Russia, however, was flipped from a democracy to an oligarchy in the early years of this century after, at GHW Bush’s insistence, neoliberal Chicago School advisors “reformed” the old Soviet system.
Most government functions were privatized and austerity economics — what we call “trickle down,” “supply side,” or Reaganomics — was imposed on the nation.
Simultaneously “free speech” and “the magic of the market” were invoked to allow the new oligarchs who emerged from Russia’s neoliberal “reforms” to pour virtually unlimited money into Russian politics.
As the oligarchs made more money from lower taxes and less regulation, they pumped more and more of that money into their captive politicians and bureaucrats.
The result was predictable, as I laid out in The Hidden History of American Oligarchy. An oligarchy first emerged, then the oligarchs used their wealth and the political power it gave them to crush those still advocating democracy, essentially shredding all their opposition parties.
As a result, today Russia is an open police state and all major decisions are made by a single dictator.
This is why Putin made such a terrible decision in Ukraine.
Without democracy in Russia, and without anything resembling a functioning democracy even in the parliament (Duma) or Putin’s cabinet (as you can see from the clip above), the “wisdom of the crowd” was lost.
Putin could only rely on himself, and he made a mistake. A deadly mistake for thousands of others, it turns out.
A mistake he and Russia will struggle with for decades, at least.
A mistake an honest and genuinely democratic debate and majority-wins vote in his own parliament would have avoided.
There are lessons for us in this.
Our Supreme Court sabotaged American democracy with their Citizen’s United decision, leading to American oligarchs — the morbidly rich and giant corporations — being able to legally control half of our political system.
They used that political power, the tax cuts, and the deregulation to further enrich themselves while draining dry the assets of the middle class.
Putin-wannabee Trump and his buddies Manifort and Stone (old business partners before going to work for various dictators) finalized the transition of the Republican Party from “business friendly” to “full-out authoritarian” in its worldview and behavior.
Following the script of previous authoritarian regimes from Pinochet’s Chile to Putin’s Russia, Republican legislatures are now making it harder and harder for people to vote in Red states across America.
At the same time, they tolerate and even celebrate (like January 6th) racial and political violence among their base.
These are the hallmarks of the emergence of a fascist government, although they’re still early enough to be turned back in America. In Russia, they went beyond the point of no return more than a decade ago.
Russia could have become a functional modern democracy back in the early 1990s. Gorbachev was enthusiastic about the prospect, as were most of the countries of western Europe.
But, as I detail in the upcoming Hidden History of Neoliberalism: How Reaganism Gutted America, the GHW Bush and Clinton administrations crippled the process by cheerleading their own embrace of Milton Friedman’s and Ronald Reagan’s neoliberalism.
The result was sadly predictable: Russian oligarchy emerged and now there is an open Russian dictatorship. Which, predictably, brings with it all the stupid, nonsensical decisions that dictators throughout history are famous for making.
Now authoritarian true-believers and the American oligarchs who fund them want to do the same to the USA.
They have a willing political party and a stacked Supreme Court on board for the project (along with two Democratic senators), and the elections this year and in 2024 will determine whether America returns to democracy or follows Russia down the road to autocracy.
Sinclair Lewis was (metaphorically) wrong. It happened there, and it can happen here.
The Hartmann Report is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.