The obsession with Vladimir Putin’s supposedly decisive influence over events in the West, particularly the unwelcome ones, is spreading from America’s political class outward. First it was believed that Putin somehow “hacked” the American election, or that Donald Trump’s presidency is to be understood primarily as the result of a Russian plot. Now there is the same murmur in Britain that the existence of trollish social-media accounts directed from Russia invalidate the popular result of Brexit. Or that an obscure business deal in Russia some 15 years ago began a long chain of events leading to the white paper that influenced British cabinet ministers Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to take a harder position on leaving the E.U. customs union. If a large enough segment of the political class is cheesed off about an unexpected turn in their politics, well, it must be Putin’s fault.
This is an astonishing exaggeration of Putin’s power. Russia’s actual influence efforts are troubling and deserve countering, but they do not explain away political discontent in the West, much less invalidate election results.Trump’s campaign was foolish to reach out to foreigners promising dirt. But the media manipulation attributed to Russia is small, and sometimes quite silly. The exaggerations of Putin’s ability to influence our political disagreements don’t just distort our debates; they strengthen Putin at home. His potential rivals loathe the way that the Western world makes him out to be a world-bestriding genius, a master of geopolitics. This reputation papers over his mixed record. The fact is Putin’s Russia suffers under sanctions. The American government is now in the habit of kicking out Russian diplomatic personnel and shutting down their facilities. Putin essentially lost the great game of influence over the neighboring government in Kiev and settled for an undignified scramble to collect the vitally important land around his nation’s naval base in Crimea. His government is often reduced to playing the role of petulant jerk, spoiling little diplomatic meetings with the U.S. president.
The belief in overwhelming Russian influence amounts to a dismissal of real disagreements in our societies. Just waving fellow citizens away as mere extras in Putin’s master plan is high-handed and ugly. It’s a shortcut. But I worry that the shortcut isn’t just to get around the unpleasantness of argument. I worry it is a shortcut people are tempted to take out of a larger frustration with democratic governance itself. I worry that Putin’s critics secretly envy the power, foresight, and effectiveness they attribute to him.
The politics of the last few years in the West has featured a subtle, but very direct, conflict between democracy and liberalism. On the one side, liberal-minded elites have removed certain issues from democratic input or limits. In Europe, liberal elites said the direction of history required ever-closer political integration, facilitating the ever-freer movement of capital, goods, and people. In America, issues of America’s military management of the Middle East, or its generous and somewhat negligent immigration system, were protected from real democratic checks by the way the political class could hide them behind a bipartisan “consensus.”
Political journalism has abetted this transformation of politics, often portraying government as a kind of technical challenge, a matter of expertise, knob-turning, and dial fiddling, where citizens are useful not for their political input and direction, but only insofar as their reactions produce data which then helps the experts tune the great machine’s performance.
The accusations of Putin’s influence have been hottest precisely where democratic results have upset the historical self-confidence of the post-Cold War liberal order: Brexit and Trump. Putin’s influence is a way of explaining why the destiny of liberal champions was upset by populist ogres, why liberal policies haven’t pulled us into the final glory at the end of history, or why the liberal world was vulnerable to these “mistakes,” the ones produced by voters.
The Putin obsessives imagine that Putin accomplishes his ends because he doesn’t have to deal with opposition in his own country.
But when you line up the complaints, it is hard to avoid the sense they add up to a perverse admiration for Putin’s brand of authoritarianism, and an impatience with the West’s openness. The Putin obsessives imagine that Putin accomplishes his ends because he doesn’t have to deal with opposition in his own country. He doesn’t need consent. He just makes the train of disinformation run on time. America’s openness and its democratic norms are recast as a weakness in this view: Our information streams are unregulated and can be polluted by him, while the need to periodically respond to political discontent in our country restricts our leaders.
In this way, obsession with Putin can act as a kind of infantile escapism for depressed liberal elites. At its most benign it is a convenient way for them to explain away real and troubling problems that the last generation of liberal governance has bequeathed to our societies, and to dismiss the hot disagreements that are the result, as a foreign plot. At its worse it is an open fantasy of power completely unconstrained by responsibility, a wish to finally detach the liberal project from the democratic mechanisms that give it legitimacy.