by Professor Andrew Wilson
A decade ago, I wrote a book describing the ‘virtual politics’ of Eastern Europe. Many common patterns could be detected in all the post-communists states, but the paradigm was set by Russia, where the Kremlin had managed to create a world of puppets and fakes. Politics was not institutional, but theatrical, and its key principal was narrative control. The Kremlin determines a script, in Russian the dramaturgiia , that all the key players must follow, and whose carefully-staged ‘achievements’ are the basis of Putin’s super-ratings. In Russia, so-called ‘political technology’ has developed ever-broader forms since 2005. Peter Pomerantsev has even argued that the system requires ever-higher doses of drama; both the domestic Russian system and Russia’s tendency towards conflict with its neighbours is based on narrative escalation dominance, not on the conventional threat of military escalation.
Picture credit: Yale University Press
The West has different problems. The key parts of the political system are not fake; although there are some practices that Russians might recognise, like astroturfing (running fake grassroots campaigns, and disguising the real sponsors of political messaging). Russians would also recognise the increasing abuse in US elections of what they would call ‘administrative resources’ – the resurrection of practices that were more common before the landmark Supreme Court judgements of the 1960s, particularly the abuse of redistricting powers by state legislatures and efforts to reduce the registration of minority voters.
But Russia’s would-be democracy has always been infected by ‘political technology’. In the West, the quality of democracy is under threat from technological and social change. The traditional institutions and formats of politics of the modern era, that predominated until roughly the 1980s, like political parties, broadsheet press and national TV news, are being disrupted by post-modern technologies. Moreover, new paradigms of social identity and new forms of social protest are replacing the agit-prop and door-knocking of party or trade union members with passive-aggressive activism or slacktivism. Virtuality, in the Western sense, is not an entirely fake democratic process, but the cumulative disruptive effect of technological and social changes that are now the tail wagging the democratic dog.
Nevertheless, the extraordinary 2016 US election has taken things a step further. But the election process has become more ‘virtual’ in several different ways. Many commentators have described the eruption of Donald Trump into the election as the victory of virtuality over reality, or of the takeover of reality by reality TV. According to Matt Taibi in Rolling Stone, for example, ‘the presidential election campaign is really just a badly acted, billion-dollar TV show whose production costs ludicrously include the political disenfranchisement of its audience. Trump is making a mockery of the show’, but his critics have ‘all got it backward. The presidency is serious. The presidential electoral process, however, is a sick joke, in which everyone loses except the people behind the rope line’. Politicians have been gradually turning into actors for some time, so why not a real ‘celebrity’ pretending to be a politician? (more…)