Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Is Putin's Majoritarian Democracy the Alt-Right's Fast Track to Fascism in America?

by Nomad

Mob rule

In the hands of a corrupt leader, majoritarian democracy can be a very dangerous thing. Russian president Putin is all the proof the world needs. 


A Dangerous Idea in the Wrong Hands

Most Americans take a positive view of democracy. Everybody wants to live in a democracy. Yet, it might surprise a lot of people to learn that, in its purest form, the democratic idea can actually be a dangerous thing.
The term, majoritarian democracy, for example, refers to a democratic form of government based upon majority rule of a society's citizens.
Pedro Schwartz, a professor in the Department of Economics at the University San Pablo in Madrid, explains:
Many modern constitutions proclaim that sovereignty is ultimately vested on the people. In that case, the power of the people must also be divided if liberty is to endure. Democracy can therefore not be defined as the rule by majority vote. Neither does it imply that the vote of the majority is "an authoritative expression of what is right".
Strictly speaking, majoritarian democracy is defined as the concept that anything more than a 51 percent share of the popular vote entitles the election winner to rule without interference.
For far right-wing parties, who claim this to be no-nonsense democracy, it has proved to be an extremely useful concept to justify their agenda.

In contrast to majoritarian democracies, liberal democracies offer respect for the civil liberties of the minority population. In such systems, constitutions enshrine the ideas that the rights of any minority- whether they are black, Muslim or gay or lesbian- should not depend on the sanction of the majority. 
There are plenty of excellent reasons why this is so. 

People, as a rule, tend to believe things that demonstrably false or refuse to believe things that universally true. The majority also may be swayed by superstitious or irrational beliefs.  The Salem witch trials and European heresy trials are two examples of majority rule gone mad. 

Another example of the danger of majority rule can be seen in as the pre-Civil War notion that African slaves had no rights, comparable to white Americans. The courts of the South upheld that view. So did the science of the age. And so did the local religious leaders.
The majority of Southerners agreed and didn't think there was any reason to debate the matter. Of course, nobody thought to ask the slaves what they thought.
Altogether, it was  quite a triumph of majority rule.


Democracy and Fascism

A government formed only on the will of the majority could spawn a multitude of evils. Besides the hazards of the ignorance and prejudices of the majority, there was another serious problem.  In the hands of a skilled manipulative leader, the majority could hardly be trusted.

As Professor Schwartz points out that, back in ancient days, the Greek philosophers understood there was a danger of vesting too much power on a person, beloved by the majority, who later would turn out to be a tyrant.
At its extreme, the popular vote could be self-destructive: what if the people democratically willed to be governed by a populist strong-man? This is not as rare as one could wish; remember Austria's vote for Hitler or Argentina's for Perón.
Actually, it is worth pointing out that in the final two free elections (in July and November 1932) the Nazis received 38% and 33% of the vote, respectively. That was not enough bring them into government. 
In the 1932 presidential election, Hitler lost to Hindenburg by a wide margin. In other words, the rise of the Fuhrer was a result of a weakened power structure- the result of backroom dealing and not the popular vote. 
It is true, however, that the Nazi leader would go on to claim to be the democratically-elected representative of the German people based on this imaginary support. In the time, the lie became the truth.

According to the fascist ideology, liberal democracy is obsolete. Respect for minorities, it claims, weakens the state. National unity is required to deal with the imminent threat, whether that means economic hardship, terrorism or outside pressures.
Such national unity demands a strong leader who spuriously claims to be the voice of the majority. It must be a person isn't afraid of re-shaping the rules, suppressing civil liberties or rejecting the constitutional restraints- all in the name of forging a new order.  

That first step on the road to fascist (or at least autocracy) normally begins with the suppression of the minorities in the name of nationalism.

vladimir Putin

Russia and the Majority Rule

In our time, we have a perfect example, namely Russia under Putin's United Russia Party. It is the largest party in the Russian Federation; as of 2016, it holds 343 (or 76.22%) of the 450 seats in the State Duma.

With its dominance, and under the tutelage of President Putin, United Russia Party has been able to draft laws that run contrary to the 1993 Russian constitution. Some of these laws have given greater power to the majority while at the same time, reducing the rights of the minority.

Anybody defending human rights is also liable to feel the sting of the law. As one civil rights monitoring group points out:
Since 2000 the human rights situation worsened in Russia and has greatly deteriorated since Putin was reinstalled as President of Russia in 2012. State repression over the past few years became more sophisticated as legislation was adopted to discredit and/or attack human rights defenders.
All these limits on civil liberties are in clear opposition to the inalienable rights afforded by the constitutions. 
New laws restricting the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association have been introduced since Putin’s re-election. Russian authorities have made efforts to control and limit the last available channels for freedom of speech – Internet and social media through two new laws introduced in 2014.
In 2013, for instance, a new law, signed into force by President Putin, allow the state to crackdown on the small, but active LGBT community that wanted to live in the open and enjoy the same minority rights and protections that LGBT people in the West do.

Nyet! said the Russian government. Enough with your inalienable rights!
Article 29 of the Constitution states that every Russian citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought and speech. 
Article 30 guarantees the freedom of public associations activities and Article 31 was meant to protect the right of citizens to "gather peacefully, without weapons, and to hold meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches, and pickets." 

Despite all that, nobody batted an eyelash when the city government of St. Petersburg, for example, slapped a 100-year ban on all gay pride events. Nobody seemed to question the constitutionality of the law. 

It's the latest in a raft of legislation passed by the Duma and signed by Mr. Putin over the past year that appear to be aimed at changing the character of Russia's state system from the secular, pluralistic democracy outlined in Russia's 1993 Constitution to something supporters refer to as a "majoritarian" democracy, in which the stress is laid upon defending the traditional identity and sensibilities of a majority that feels itself under threat from what it sees as attacks by "aggressive minorities."
As preposterous as it might seem, there are many seemingly intelligent people who believe that minorities inside Russia present a threat to the stability of the motherland.
For the ruling party, it's a very useful idea to promote.

Sergei Markov

The Myth of the Minority Threat

One of those who has advanced this alternate species of democracy idea was Sergei Markov, vice president of the Plekhanov Russian University in Moscow.
Putin-loyalist Markov has been a long-time adviser to the president and, as such, presumably shapes (or disseminated ) his views.

Markov argues that when it comes to the definition of democracy, it is merely a matter of East-West semantics.
Nothing more. You say potato, I say "pahtato."
"In the West there are elaborate protections for minorities, whereas in Russia the protection of the majority is the priority. It's still democracy. Every country may choose between liberal democracy and majoritarian democracy."
In what some might see as an admission of the Russian government's inability to adapt to liberal democratic norms, Markov explains:
In Russia we tried to follow the liberal model in the 1990s, but it was disastrous. Russia found itself at the mercy of aggressive minorities, who robbed the country and undermined the position of the majority. Now the trend is that minorities must subordinate themselves to the interests of the majority."
There is but one problem with this argument. The Russian constitution states:
The State shall guarantee the equality of rights and freedoms of man and citizen, regardless of sex, race, nationality, language, origin, property and official status, place of residence, religion, convictions, membership of public associations, and also of other circumstances.
As Markov knows very well, constitutions, including the Russian constitution, are not really based on "trends" but on fundamental principles.The fact that these principles can so summarily be cast aside is a testimony to the dangerous power of the majoritarian idea. 

That's hardly a new observation. Plato taught that the majority rule concept in the hands of a persuasive autocrat is at the heart and soul of every fascist regime.

Who are the Real Aggressive Minorities?

Returning to Markov's peculiar remarks, it's hard to imagine how the Russian state was "at the mercy" of aggressive minorities if he is referring to gay Russians. Is he is seriously suggesting that gay and lesbians robbed the country and undermined the majority?  
The only aggressive minority that attempted to rob the country in the 1990s were the Russian oligarchs. 

In a New Yorker article, Markov admitted to being a conspiracy theorist. He claimed that an international cabal- big rich families like "Soros, the Rockefellers, the Morgans" who are intent on taking control of Russian gas and oil resources.  

However, that's a little hard to swallow. 
Markov ignores the fact that under Yeltsin, the oligarch family names were not Rockefeller or Morgan or Soros, but BerezovskyFridmanGusinskyKhodorkovskyPotanin, Smolensky, and Malkin.
More importantly, under Putin's leadership, the names were still Russian and included people like  Roman AbramovichAlexander AbramovOleg DeripaskaMikhail ProkhorovAlisher UsmanovGerman KhanViktor VekselbergLeonid MikhelsonVagit Alekperov.   

During Putin's presidency, the wealth of Russian oligarchs actually increased. According to Power and Policy in Putin's Russia, between 2000 and 2007, the majority of top Russian oligarchs increased their fortunes. 
The cumulative fortune of the 100 richest Russian persons in a single year, between May 2005 and May 2006, almost doubled from $107 billion to $248 billion and rising to $283 billion in 2007. 

Ruble crash
Today, eight years later, the economy of Russia contracted by almost 4% last year and is expected to decline further this year, according to the IMF. 

According to analysts, the USD-equivalent income of the average Russian in the third quarter of 2015 had fallen by more than one-third compared to the summer of 2014. Since that time, the value of the ruble has collapsed.  

When Vladimir Putin rose to power in 2000, he inherited severe economic problems. Whatever economic success Putin had in the last 16 years (largely as a result of high oil prices) has now slipped from his fingers. 
Various Russian economists and officials have warned that conditions may get worse (Zubarevich). It remains to be seen, how much economic hardship the Russian people will tolerate.
Meanwhile, Putin's defenders are on the hunt for "aggressive minorities" who plot to rob and undermine the Russia nation. Who are these "aggressive minorities? Young men and women waving rainbow flags. Journalists asking the wrong questions and opposition leaders who dare to oppose the ruling party.
The use of the "aggressive minorities" propaganda tool in Russian history should be cause for grave concern.

Blaming internal problems on outsiders or on the conspiring minority has long been one of Russia's traditions. It seems as though the majority in Russia are always ready to believe it.

Ignorance, Prejudice, and Superstition

It's extremely important to analyze in more detail how majority rule can be used against a chosen scapegoat, in this case, Russian gay and lesbian minority. 

As we have already seen, Markov's rationale for majoritarian democracy, as flawed as it might be, is sufficient to allow the government to bring the hammer down on Russia's gay and lesbian population. It could, of course, be any minority. 

Markov isn't quite the intellectual he pretends to be. He reportedly has claimed that Russian doctors were devising a “special medicine” to “cure” gays and lesbians and move them toward “normal sexuality.”
Gay Rights in Russia

In the past, such conversion treatments for "reforming" or "curing" homosexuals included hormone treatments, negative reinforcement produced by electro-shock, vomit-inducing drugs.

Since the 1950s, studies in the West have shown that homosexuality is both widely practiced in non-human species and that there was nothing inherently associated with psychopathology.
Therefore, there is nothing to cure, any more than a person can be "cured" of their eye color or their ethnic background. More importantly, the term "normal," as Markov uses it, means only that the majority has given its approval. 

When confronted by an American journalist, Markov was mildly upset to have to defend his ideas about Russian gay cures. That's not a surprise since they are untenable. He makes this surprising admission.
“I will speak frankly, Russian medicine is not working on this. I personally believe homosexuality is part of a human mind’s nature. And I believe homosexuality is behind every human being’s nature, one per cent, two per cent, and it can develop under some circumstances.
Suddenly there is no cure. There is no science. There is only an opinion based on his personal prejudices, prejudices the uninformed Russian majority is quite willing to support.

Because he refuses to believe homosexuality is no longer considered a form of mental illness, Markov thinks that the rights of gay Russians must be limited for the good of the state.
If someone becomes gay, it is also, I believe, bad for him. . . . Someone can say, ‘I am proud that I am gay.’ O.K., I can believe. But if they say, ‘I am happy I am gay,’ I don’t trust that. It just isn’t true.”
As the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles observed, what people believe prevails over what is true.
In this case, Markov's distrust and his personal faith are enough to trump the Russian constitution and the consensus of Western psychologists. He is by no means alone. His ideas reflect the majority of Russians.

Even in the US, we have listened- word for word- exactly the same types of remarks from the far Right, including the current vice-president elect. Regardless of facts, personal beliefs and prejudices are more important.

A Rejection of Democracy

In her 2004 book, "The Importance of Being Famous" Maureen Orth wrote an insightful essay on Putin in which she quotes Vladimir Posner, a journalist/propagandist
"Over the last ten years.. for a lot of people, democracy has become crap, because it has destroyed their livelihood, their culture... At first, it dazzled them. What it's turned out to be for many Russian people is misery."
This was Putin's peak when he had no problem portraying himself as a champion. That seems like a long time ago.

Last year Posner was still attempting to window-dress, just as he once done for the Soviet Union before it collapsed. 
"For the average Russian, who is a very proud person with a sense of history and a belief that his country is a great country, Putin has given him back his sense of pride - you cannot ignore us any more, the way you did when Yeltsin was in power and Russia was on its knees."
Putin might not be good for democracy, noted one Moscow-based journalist from Sweden in 2004, "but he might be good for Russia. Democracy is not the highest ideal now."

In the time that has passed, we clearly see that democracy was never a high priority for Putin and the sense of pride, Posner talks about, came with suppression of civil rights, the destruction of the free press and a return to Soviet-era adventurism. 

In "Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped" Garry Kasparov, former Russian chess grandmaster, and political activist, writes:
Fifteen years of propaganda have created a powerful cult of personality that says Putin is the only person who can lead and protect Russia. It says that all his critics are dangerous traitors who should be jailed or murdered. (As they often are.) Anybody who might rise as a rival is demonized and cut down. ... As was increasingly obvious after 2008, the only way Putin was going to leave the Kremlin was feet first, either in a box or dragged out by a mob.
Kasparov stresses that that hold on power very much depended on economic prosperity.
As long as he enjoyed economic engagement with the free world and could prevent a million Russians from rioting in Red Square, he wasn't going anywhere.
As the Russian economy spirals downward, Putin has been forced to rely on other forms of manipulation. 

The Unconstitutional State Religion

Attempts to break down the separation of church and state, as mandated by the constitution, have successfully destroyed all traces of secular principles in Russia. 
The rise of the autocrat Putin has been matched by the rise of the idea of a state religion. The two are, in fact, interdependent. 

That was made perfectly clear at the 70th birthday of Russian Orthodox Church's Patriarch of Moscow Kiril (secular name: Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev).

The Russian president said:
"Orthodoxy and Russia are inseparable. Throughout our history, Orthodoxy has been playing an important role in the life of our country and our people. Our moral values ​​are based on Christian values, so Orthodoxy is an important part of the soul of Russia."
That's an extremely misleading statement. The Soviet Union's policy toward the Orthodox Church ranged from mere tolerance to outright persecution.
Vladimir Lenin, the founding father of the Soviet Union, himself wrote:
Religion must be of no concern to the state, and religious societies must have no connection with governmental authority. Everyone must be absolutely free to profess any religion he pleases, or no religion whatever, i.e., to be an atheist, which every socialist is, as a rule...Complete separation of Church and State is what the socialist proletariat demands of the modern state and the modern church.
As a former employee of the Soviet Empire who must be aware of this history, Putin's remarks are hard to take very seriously. The Patriarch's own grandfather, Rev. Vasily Gundyaev, was a prisoner at a labor camp for political prisoners. He was imprisoned and exiled in the '20s, '30s, and '40s for his church activity.

It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the introduction of the constitution that the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) was able to come out of hiding. 
Under its leader Patriarch Kirill, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has backed the aggressive expansionism of President Vladimir Putin, which has seen him extend Russian power into Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Kirill described Putin at a religious leaders' meeting in 2012 as "a miracle of God".
It's no mere coincident too that the ROC has been supportive of a government crackdown on "gay propaganda."
The ROC has made billions from trading concessions granted to it by the government. It is increasingly asserting its position as the largest of the 14 self-governing Orthodox Churches and is using its political muscle in support of Putin's aims.
The majoritarian democracy ideology is equally effective in helping to establish a state religion, despite the most basic provisions of the Russian constitution. 
If the majority of the people belong to the ROC, the general view is, then why should minority religions have equal standing.. or even tolerated?
Most importantly, they demand to know why shouldn't the Russian government- as a defender of Russian culture- be obliged to favor the church which is so firmly a source of Russian culture?

The problem arises from Articles 13 and 14 of the Russian Constitution which specifies- like the US constitution that no ideology or religion may be established as state or obligatory one.

The Russian Federation is supposed to be a secular state and all religious associations shall be separated from the State and shall be equal before the law.
(Ironically, Putin's Russia violates both the Russia Constitution and Lenin's ideal Communist state.)

Constitutional secular principles have been all but abandoned in the age of Putin. The Pravda Report, what's remains of the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, can declare that Russia is "the only defender of Christian values." 
God himself, the article states, guides Russia to help our civilization survive. 
Policies of same-sex marriage and genderless children, juvenile justice and promotion of homosexuality is a way to the degradation of man, who, as we remember, was created after the image and likeness of God.
Despite the contradiction of the enrichment of the oligarchy under Putin, the paper somehow makes this claim.  
It is therefore natural that Orthodoxy is the main threat to oligarchs and multinational companies. It is Orthodoxy that has preserved monotheism and moral dogmas of Christianity. During Putin's stay in power, Russia started bringing Orthodoxy back to its ideological place that was lost during the time of Bolshevism.
Too many people forget that, in the 1930s, the Nazi fascist Hitler,   early on in his career, he portrayed himself as a fighter for the Christian religion, "doing Christianity a great service by pushing [Jews] out of schools and public functions."

British historian Laurence Rees in his book, "The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler" observed the true explanation behind the Fuhrer's religious views. Rees concludes that Hitler was first and foremost a politician. The German leader "simply recognized the practical reality of the world he inhabited."
His relationship in public to Christianity—indeed his relationship to religion in general—was opportunistic.
That explanation goes a long way in explaining this former KBG officer 's true motive. It's all about opportunism.

Trump as the Voice of the Imaginary Majority

If all of this Russian mob rule is starting to sound a bit familiar, then it's no accident. It is essentially the same message that President-elect Trump has sold to the American people. 

Whenever any leader says to the cheering crowds "I am Your Voice," you can be sure he is speaking only of the majority's voice and not the voices of the minority.
It is, of course, marketing and opportunism. One of those fantasies is that salesman billionaire Trump in any way represents "forgotten America" or the down-trodden. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is perhaps no wonder that the Russian government has taken a deep interest in Trump's campaign. He is, at least, superficially, the perfect salesman for their form of majority democracy. 

They see in Trump a like-minded compatriot whose majority rule philosophy validates their own wrong turn away from liberal democracy. The same dissatisfaction and search for scapegoats (minorities, illegal immigrants, China, and homosexuals) are fuel for one man's pursuit of power.
Many on the far right see Trump as their savior, just as Russians once saw Putin.

Yet there's an irony here.Trump's problem is the same as Hitler's: the election proved the opposite than what he is claiming.
Despite unfounded claims to the opposite, it was his democratic rival who won the popular vote. At best, the country's electorate is evenly divided and Trump was victorious (and just barely) by a quirk of the electoral system.

Trump's victory was a hollow one, The count of the popular vote revealed that Trump does not - and perhaps never will- have the backing of the majority of Americans. Even though the Republicans promote the idea of the election of Trump is a reflection of the so-called silent majority, the numbers do not add up.
Therefore, the far-Right's claim to majoritarian democracy is, for the most part, a red herring. Understandably, this is a fact that must bother Donald Trump.

As a recent New York Times article points out that only 29 percent of Americans say that Mr. Trump has a mandate for the agenda.   Without a mandate, the idea of a majoritarian democracy simply will not work. 

Much to his dismay, Trump will never be considered a champion of the American people. Unlike Putin, no amount of marketing will allow him to claim to be "The People's President." This is perhaps the reason why Trump has repeatedly claimed that he won the popular vote.

There seems no plausible way he can use the concept of majority rule to his advantage in the same way Putin managed to do. And, for that reason, he unlikely to have the same success as Vladimir Putin once achieved.
That will not stop him from trying.

Nevertheless, wise Americans can see what happened in Russian under Putin as a warning to what is likely to happen under Trump.


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