Are there parallels between this U.S. election cycle and Putin’s rise to power in Russia?

2016-02-23_22-49-40That title might make you think that this article is some indictment of Trump or Clinton (or Sanders or Cruz or Putin really). It is not. I am not making value judgments on the particular candidates, but rather I am sharing observations based on the process of electing those candidates, and potentially showing that this process might have an outcome that we do not desire.

In my classes, I talk a lot about technological determinism. How is communication technology shaping culture? This is a huge subject dealt with in an entire field of research called media ecology, but to put this in practical terms, the media we use changes how we think about things and how we interact. The question really is, what effect will develop from a particular medium?

Well, we are right in the middle of a technological revolution in America that is the most significant shift in communication technology since the printing press. Digital media, and now social media, are dominant methods for communication. There is a ton of theory that we could talk about here. If I was writing a scholarly article, I could cite hundreds of academic works discussing this issue, but, in reality, the inquiry simply continues to develop the question: what effects does this technology have on culture?

I would propose that digital communication has led to three realities that have created parallels between Putin’s rise to power and our current election situation. Now at the surface, Putin’s rise and our current election cycle are completely dissimilar. Putin wasn’t elected into office for his first term. Yeltsin dismissed the previous prime minister, and promoted Putin into office. Putin later won a presidential election, but his initial move to power was appointed. We’re in the middle of a hotly contested election with multiple voices, multiple options and tons of media attention and opinions on every aspect of the process. So what creates a parallel between these two instances?

First: Fragmentation

Russia had a fragmented sense of self at the time of Putin’s rise. We, as a nation, have a fragmented sense of national identity, and often a fragmented sense of personal identity because of digital and social media.

Russia’s fragmented sense of self was due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, so it was not technologically created, but rather politically created. But the fragmented sense of self and nation existed nonetheless. In the United States, political parties are garnering devotion through vilification of the opposition, and social media is creating an environment where like-minded people can rally to each other, without engaging and compromising with those who do not think like they do. Tribes are developing. These tribes create tension and dissonance in the public sphere, leading to the ever-present Facebook posts that say, “stop talking about politics,” or “stop talking about babies” or basically, “stop talking about anything that isn’t in perfect agreement with my views.” But even within the tribes, individuals realize that they do not perfectly fit within the tribe, and that creates a secondary level of cognitive dissonance. So, in America, we have cognitive dissonance, and a fragmented sense of self because of the extreme egocentrism allowed by social media. So the cause of the fragmented sense of national identity and of self-identity is radically different than for Russia, but the result might be similar.

Second: Information overload (a.k.a. TMI!)

Russia had numerous voices competing for attention creating a media and social environment that was exceptionally cluttered, filled with disagreement, and generally overwhelming. While I could give several examples, one that comes to mind deals with religion. In the aftermath of the reorganization of the Soviet Union, Russia went from being a primarily atheist nation with other religions repressed, to one with missionaries from every traditional religion swarming the nation, and even numerous cult religious leaders developing – so even religion became a cluttered, confusing realm with unclear options and basically too much information to handle. This happened in many, many spheres of life for Russians: they went from a very stable national identity to a fragmented and chaotic experience.

America’s situation is quite different, but again, may parallel Russia’s reality to a degree. In this election cycle, it seems to me like we have a serious case of TMI. We hear about the election all the time. We see posts from the media, friends, enemies, frienemies, family, opinion leaders, in diverse forms like memes, articles, listicles, videos, podcasts, broadcasts, etc. etc. etc. While the availability of information is fantastic in some ways, in others it can create a media barrage that might be perceived as just that, a barrage; something to escape, or find shelter from.

So while Russia was experiencing political, economic and religious TMI in the material world primarily, technology has allowed this generation to experience a similar situation in the digital realm, which is having a direct impact on culture. This creates a sense of insecurity, as a person or population living with information overload loses connection with stable institutions and ideas. They become lost in the “stream” of the now. Again, regardless of the cause, the two situations created a parallel experience.

Third: Trauma

Russians experienced several levels of Trauma during this period, from the literal dissolution of their nation and ideology to numerous political, economic, and natural disasters. Just the situation in Chechnya alone was critical, but then add the economic restructuring, loss of an ideological system and more, and you had real trauma.

Frankly, Americans are wimps comparatively. But America recently came out of a deep recession and still live in a perceived state of economic uncertainty. A national sense of trauma developed after the terrorist attacks on 9-11, with that feeling of trauma being experienced and re-experienced through national and individual experiences of terrorism and gun violence within the nation (and then, in a way, by the proposed solutions by political forces to such problems, which then propagate and are propagated by fragmentation and TMI).

Why does this matter? We’re choosing candidates that are tribal and extreme.

What is the problem with these parallels? What does this mean? Well, it could mean many things, honestly. But one potential conclusion is that because of the fragmentation, information overload, and trauma, we now are looking for leaders based out of a national sense of dislocation. We are looking for order within chaos, and we are doing that partially by choosing candidates that are tribal and extreme.

This is a gross simplification, but it could be argued that Putin rose up because he offered solidarity, security and strength to the Russian people. The people were so weary of the constant sense of identity dislocation and insecurity, that the benefits of strength, solidarity and security outweighed the populace’s desire for personal independence, freedom of speech, etc.

Well, it could be argued that America is currently disregarding candidates that seek compromise or have nuanced views, and are selecting candidates that offer solidarity, security and strength for similar reasons: they want to reduce dissonance and desire a stable sense of identity.

Trump is the consummate paternal force, similar to Putin in some ways (not their styles, just their paternal nature), who will bring security through “winning” and the like. Cruz is also a paternalistic force who will bring these things through extreme adherence to his political stances, and devotion to his tribe. Sanders is the consummate maternal force, who will act as a caretaker of the population and offer sustenance (and therefore security) to the populace through social programming, etc. Clinton is also a maternal figure who seems to be maintaining support due to tribal loyalty, as she really hasn’t developed a singular message yet. But for those in her tribe, she is the secure choice. We could go on and look how quickly candidates who branded themselves as “compromisers” were kicked to the curb, showing the converse reality, and analyze the leading candidates more, but for the purpose of this blog post, I think you see the point (well the point of this theory). We’re choosing candidates to attempt to find order in the chaos: security and strength.

Every leading candidate in the current U.S. election represents an extreme and/or a tribe. I postulate that this has happened largely because we desire to reduce the dissonance and perceived chaos that we live within because of our fragmented, media and message saturated, traumatized reality. Compromise equals insecurity in this type of atmosphere, and extremes show strength. While there are serious parallels between Putin’s rise in Russia and the situation in the U.S., it is interesting that the situation in the U.S. is potentially primarily the result of technological determinism. The medium has dramatically changed, and so the message (well the way we do culture really) is changing dramatically as well.

My last point:

While Putin did many wonderful things for Russia, and in some ways brought freedoms found in identity, security, and strength, he also came at a cost. But Putin is leading a very different nation than the U.S., and so he might be exactly what the people there want and need, and that is fine – they see the world differently than we do.

America is not Russia. We must have compromise and nuance to persist as a free nation, for really, what are we if we are not a free nation? It seems like the trend toward extreme candidates in the search for security and strength will produce byproducts that are not congruent with the cultural milieu found in the U.S.

We desire freedom, plurality, and frankly, a little chaos. We desire innovation and success, which require the opportunity for failure and loss. We are also binary, politically speaking – so if one of these extremes wins, the other will likely become marginalized in some way.

I fear that the movement toward the extremes will produce numerous byproducts that we, as a free and pluralistic society, do not want (especially for those who “lose”, but even for those who win). So that’s the…fear, and it leaves me with a question that I don’t know how to answer: what can I/we do about it?

If you made it this far, thanks for reading! I’d love your thoughts.

Dr. Michael Finch works as a professor and student media adviser at Lee University. He writes about digital media, journalism and the intersection of media and faith. All rights reserved.

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