Staunton, April 24 – Experts at the Kremlin’s Institute for Social Research say that the populist wave that is sweeping the West will come to Russia only “after six or seven years,” allowing Moscow to learn what how it should respond. But they add that Vladimir Putin can use “populist technologies” in the upcoming presidential elections.
Not long ago, the Presidential Administration created an Expert Institute for Social Research, and that body has conducted a study of populist movements around the world, a copy of which has landed in the hands of Moscow’s Gazeta newspaper and is discussed by its journalist Andrey Vinokurov (gazeta.ru/politics/2017/04/23_a_10641071.shtml).
The report, its authors, including Gleb Kuznetsov, say that the study was prepared in the first two months of this year after Donald Trump won the US presidential election and Marin Le Pen appeared set to do far better in the French presidential vote than many expected. It does not include data about Russia now but insists that the populist wave is coming to Russia soon.
That means, the report says, that Moscow has the opportunity to study how populism works and how it can be opposed or exploited before its leaders have to confront an analogous upsurge in the next electoral cycle. And the authors say that the current wave is far from being the first one.
Perhaps the report’s most important argument is that “contemporary populism is politics for the distracted voter,” a means, even a technology of helping him or her feel reconnected with decision making by providing simple answers and attacking existing elites. Such voters are numerous in many countries, including the Russian Federation.
The report also argues that it is impossible to call the ideology of populism “leftist” or “rightist.” In some countries, it takes one form; in others, the opposite. What ties it together is that it arises most often during a time of crisis “when the middle class is losing its customary benefits.”
Vinokurov also reports that the study argues that “the enthusiasm of the populists for internet technologies in large measure arises from the nature of such movements … because populism calls for the participation of ordinary citizens in the taking of decisions. Such present-day technologies give people a chance at ‘direct democracy.’”
Social media give people a sense of horizontal and vertical connectedness, the report continues, but they also have a powerfully centralizing effect: the followers of a charismatic leader get to the point that the only source of news and views that they are prepared to accept as true and valuable is the tweet or post of that leader.
Traditional politicians have not yet figured out how best to respond. Criticizing the populists in normal ways simply represents an effort to extinguish a fire with kerosene. Efforts to marginalize the populists also backfire because they play into the mythology of the movement and its leader themselves.
Sometimes borrowing ideas from the populists works, the report says, but not always.
According to Vinokurov, “the authors predict that the wave of populist technologists will reach Russia in six or seven years. By that time it will be possible to analyze both the mistakes of traditional parties and leaders in the struggle with populists in other countries and also the methods which allow leaders to take control of the wave and become first among the populists.”
Kuznetsov, one of the authors of the report, says that Aleksey Navalny isn’t really a populist but rather a traditional politician who is trying to use social media. A better Russian example of populism, he suggests, is LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky. And he argues that Putin may use populist technologies even in the upcoming race.
“This is the best means of increasing participation,” he concludes.