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4 February 2023: Momentum, plus texts and tunes
There’s a scene in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in which Rosencrantz happens upon a set of five hanging clay jars and accidentally discovers Newton’s third law of motion — until he attempts to demonstrate the phenomenon to Guildenstern, shattering the jar that was meant to set everything in movement. It’s a brilliant gag, and a running one, but it also marks a turning point.
As Rosencrantz, played in the film by Gary Oldman, is about to make his discovery, he is addressed by Tim Roth’s Guildenstern:
Guildenstern: Don’t you discriminate at all?!
It is that scene — in which the protagonists fully lose the ability to determine which of them is which — that sets off the story towards inevitable tragedy. But it is in the same scene that Rosencrantz discovers a fundamental truth about the universe and, in the process of trying to communicate it, destroys all hope of Guildenstern ever learning it. I may be reading things into Tom Stoppard’s script that aren’t there, of course, but I can’t help but think that the thing with the jars was more than just a gag. Without the ability to discover truths and share them with others, who are we?
Apropos of something, I feel sure.
What I’m thinking about
Everybody loves a winner, or so the story goes.
That sentiment—and its obverse, that nobody likes a loser—is a mantra in Washington, and I suppose that’s fair. It certainly helps describe aspects of the Donald Trump phenomenon, and there’s even a large academic literature on the psychology of “basking in reflected glory.”
That same mantra, though, is increasingly attaching itself to the discussion of American support for Ukraine, and it’s both politically and analytically problematic.
Ukraine’s well-wishers this week have been nervously watching two stories: the apparent preparations for a large-scale new Russian offensive in the east, and the evident softening of Americans’ willingness to keep supporting Kyiv. The implication of what I’ll call the “reflected glory” hypothesis, then, is clear: if Russia makes significant gains, support for Ukraine among the American public will evaporate, the Republicans will block further aid, and Kyiv will be forced to capitulate. I can’t count the number of times in the last 10 days I’ve heard someone in the DC policy world say something to the effect of, “If we want the Republicans to keep backing Ukraine, Ukraine needs to keep winning.”
Attaching the “reflected glory” hypothesis to the war is politically problematic for at least two reasons. First, it is an abdication of small-d democratic leadership. In a democracy, elected leaders are accountable to the public and should fear its wrath, but they are also charged with informing it, persuading it and, yes, leading it. If Republicans (or anyone else in power) feel that public opinion might swing against a policy that is important for the security and prosperity of the country, they have a moral obligation to make that argument, even if, in the moment, it is bad politics. Asking the Ukrainian military to make that argument for them is wrong in every conceivable sense.
Second, it allows the American public to continue to believe that its support for Ukraine is about Ukraine alone. To be clear, the degree of solidarity that Americans and Europeans have shown with Ukraine is remarkable: in World War II, it took the majority of Americans considerably longer to come around to the idea that they ought to help Britain and France. But, as I wrote way back in June (why doesn’t anyone pay attention?), Westerners in general and Americans in particular ought to understand that the world that will emerge if Russia wins this war — a world of more war, more barriers, less stability, higher prices and less welfare — is not a world in which they will want to live. And politicians ought to have the guts to say that out loud.
But I’m an analyst, not a politician, so back to my real point: there isn’t actually any evidence for the “reflected glory” hypothesis when it comes to American support for Ukraine.
Testing the hypothesis directly would be difficult, but doable. The easy part is running any of a number of different kinds of survey or laboratory experiments, to see whether people primed with information about Ukrainian success or failure on the battlefield were more or less likely to support giving aid to Ukraine; the hard part is adding in a bunch of controls and statistical wizardry to make sure that the results aren’t clouded by lots of other potential factors, including what people knew (or thought they knew) about the war before participating in the experiment. If anyone has run such an experiment, they don’t appear to have published it. (If anyone has evidence to the contrary, please send it my way!)
Now, the fact that no one appears to have conducted and published this kind of research does not, in and of itself, invalidate the hypothesis. And, to be honest, even if I had those data, I’m not sure I’d want to publish them, lest Tucker Carlson get any bright ideas. But the hypothesis suffers from at least two other problems: one, there isn’t even really any prima facie evidence for it; and two, it rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of how public opinion actually works.
To address the prima facie evidence point, let’s take a look at the numbers in the Pew survey that caused such a kerfuffle this week. On the most basic level, it shows two clear trends. The first is a generalized decline in support for American aid to Ukraine. Thus, the proportion of respondents who believe that America is doing “too much” has grown from 7% in March 2022 to 26% in January 2023, while the proportion who think that the volume of American aid is “about right” or “not enough” fell from 74% in March to 51% in January. The second trend is a clear and growing partisan division: 40% of Republicans now think the US is doing “too much” (up from 9% in March), compared to only 15% of Democrats (up from 5%).
If the “reflected glory” hypothesis were true, we would expect to see low levels of support for Ukraine in the beginning of the war — when Russian territorial control was at its peak, and Kyiv itself faced occupation — and a subsequent increase as Ukraine put the Russians on the back foot. Instead, we see a more or less linear decline over time. Moreover, the “reflected glory” hypothesis doesn’t sit well with the partisan divide: the Ukrainian military is not performing one way for Republicans and another for Democrats (and Fox News coverage of the war does not appear to have played down Ukrainian successes).
What’s more, because psychology is psychology and brains are brains, if the “reflected glory” hypothesis works for Americans, it should work for Russians, too — and it very clearly does not. In contrast to the significant shifts in American opinion about the war, Russian support for the war has been remarkably stable, peaking at 80% in March 2022 and never falling below 71% at any point thereafter; it currently stands at 75%, per polling from the Levada Center.
Now, there is one obvious and rather indisputable reason why Russian opinion about the war is more stable than American opinion: Russia is fighting in the war, and we should thus expect Russian public opinion to behave differently than American opinion. Beyond that, there are plenty of reasons why we should be skeptical about Russian polling numbers. While Russian state media cannot ignore losses altogether, they have certainly downplayed Ukrainian military successes. Nonetheless, Russians are aware that a war they were told would be swift is about to tick into its second year; they are aware that the Russian military has been taxed and is needing to recruit more and more men; and according to a study by Russian Field, more than half of Russians have at least one friend or relative who has served in the war. If the “reflected glory” hypothesis were true, we should have seen at least some hint of fluctuation in Russian opinion.
The difference between Russian and American opinion about the war is, in fact, instructive, because it reminds us to take a closer look at what public opinion actually is, and how it is formed. Pundits, politicians and political scientists often talk about public opinion as though it were just the mathematical aggregate of the individual opinions that lots of people have on a particular topic. Needless to say, the reality is considerably more complex. Equally needless to say, I’m not going to summarize the entirety of public opinion theory in a newsletter, or do justice to its nuances, but I will touch on some basics, and they are these:
First, a definition: By opinions, I’m referring to what we believe to be true about things that we cannot know. Anything that we cannot ascertain through direct sensation in its entirety — whether that be the existence of an almighty creator, or the inner workings of our lover’s mind — is, by this definition, a matter of opinion.
People don’t hold opinions just for the sake of holding opinions. Our opinions are purposive, and most — if not actually all — of those purposes are social. Sometimes, we have opinions about things because they help us figure out how to respond to event that occur in our lives: if it is my opinion that prices are going to fall, I might be inclined to hold off on a major purchase, for example. More frequently, we have opinions about things because we need to be able to talk about them with other people, and we use opinions to communicate that we are interesting and trustworthy (and to ascertain the same about other people), or just to win the dinner party.
Because our opinions are purposive, and because those purposes are largely social, our opinions are never really formed in isolation. It’s not just that we often form opinions through our interactions with others, whether in school or in conversation or by watching (gasp!) Tucker Carlson. It’s that, in order for our opinions to serve achieve their purposes, they need to be reasonably well aligned with the opinions of the people who matter to us, whether that be our close friends, or the person on the other end of a big-ticket transaction. Yes, some people have more appetite for conflict than others, but on the whole we don’t get very far if it is our primary mode of interaction.
Our opinions do not come from nowhere. In order to form beliefs about things that extend beyond our physical experience — and just about anything of interest to the public extends beyond our physical experience — we need to rely on what Walter Lippmann, one of the founders of public opinion theory, referred to as “fictions”.1 By “fictions”, Lippmann did not mean to say that we necessarily rely on things that are not true, though sometimes we do. Rather, he meant that we all have underlying stories of how the world works. These might be based in science or theology or something else altogether, but wherever they come from, they help us form judgments about things that are bigger than we are, and these stories are almost always held in common with other people. In fact, we often look to the people around us and the stories that they tell to make sense of the world to validate our own beliefs and opinions. If we didn’t, life as a social animal would be unlivable.
When it comes to public opinion, then, what really matters are two things. One is the structure of our social environment. If we live in a social environment in which it is possible to hold a range of opinions on a subject and still be seen as intelligent and trustworthy, we are likely to observe a greater diversity — and a more even distribution — of public opinion, than if we don’t. The other is the structure of the stories that underpin our opinions. If those stories are clearly articulated and deeply held, public opinion is likely to be more stable, anchored by our intrinsic beliefs about how the world works. If our stories are vague or ephemeral, opinion is likely to be more volatile, drifting, as it were, unanchored and unmoored.
In Russia, as Graeme Robertson and I wrote in Putin v the People, there are powerful social incentives to hold political opinions that hew closely to the mainstream; to do otherwise, unless you are lucky enough to be surrounded by like-minded oppositionists, is to risk being seen as more than slightly crazy, and thus, at the very least, untrustworthy. This, apart from the fear and the propaganda, helps explain why public opinion on the war, as on Putin in general, is so lopsided. But it is the stories Russians have been told and have told one another for decades — stories about a country always under siege, stories of a mythologized victory over fascism, stories of sacrifice and martyrdom, stories of infallible leaders — that help explain why public opinion has been so stable. Any new information that seeps in, including about losses on the battlefield, shatters on the edifice of surety built by these stories. That doesn’t mean this edifice cannot fall. Russians have other stories, too, including about the tragedy of millenarian visions. But switching the narrative from one of heroism to one of tragedy will take a catastrophic loss.
It’s not Russia that concerns me at the moment, though: it’s America. The fact that Americans have a diversity of opinions is not in the least surprising: polarization aside, Americans have multiple legitimate political camps, each of which has very different underlying stories about how the world works. It is thus possible for Americans to have different opinions about things like this war, or to have no opinion at all, and still to get along reasonably well in life. But the fact that support has waned — and that it has waned in both camps — suggests a sadder analysis, as well: the stories that Americans tell themselves about how the world works, across the political spectrum, have very little to say about the world outside America itself.
When Americans see something like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they, like many other people, have an immediate emotional reaction of horror and sympathy — and that, rather than “reflected glory”, explains the initial bipartisan support for aid to Kyiv. But when the emotions fade, Americans do not have a set of clear stories about the world to help them form durable opinions about what is going on in Ukraine, and about how America should behave. Indeed, as the World War II example reminds us, Americans tend to tell themselves complex stories about the rest of the world only reluctantly, and then only briefly. It’s time we fixed that.
What I’m reading
The other big kerfuffle in the world of Russia-watcher this week came from the International Monetary Fund, which, like Pew, contributed to the sense of an unfortunate shift in the momentum. In its January 2023 World Economic Outlook Update, the IMF revised its outlook on the Russian economy for the year, turning a projected 2.3% contraction into 0.3% growth.
Cue howls of anger and gnashing of teeth about the evident failure of Russian sanctions.
A little perspective is in order. In its January 2022 update — issued before a war that the IMF, like most analysts, didn’t think would happen — the Fund predicted that Russian GDP would grow by 2.8% in 2022 and 2.1% in 2023. In reality, Russia’s economy shrank by 2.2% in 2022, and the 2023 forecast is 1.8% of GDP below where it was before the war. So, while that might not reflect the impact that the West wanted to have on the Russian economy, it is still an impact, and a big one.
Perspective aside, teeth are still being gnashed. While the IMF hasn’t explained the analysis behind its upgrade, Grid has a good summary of the various factors that have boosted the Russian economy, including the resilience of the ruble thanks to sound monetary management and a strong trade surplus (as commodities continued to flow out and imports stopped flowing in), as well as the ability to reroute trade through countries not participating in the Western-led sanctions regime. Others, including the New York Times, a Washington policy research group called Silverado, and Sergey Vakulenko have dug into various aspects of the latter point, showing real gaps in the the effort to starve the machine that is feeding Russia’s war.
Now, I’m no economist, but I’m skeptical that all of this trade-rerouting and sanctions-busting ingenuity is sufficient to account for a 2.5% swing in Russia’s projected GDP. A more convincing explanation, at least for my money, comes from a piece published in iStories a week earlier by the Russian economic commentator Boris Grozovsky, about how Russia has begun to reshape its economy internally to support the war. First, the Kremlin has dramatically reduced spending on economic development, and dramatically increased spending on defense and national security. Second, it has moved labor freed up by the departure of Western business and the contraction of retail and other trade-based sectors into the military-industrial complex. Third, it has fed the military-industrial complex with contracts and investment. In the long run, of course, all of this will undercut Russian economic growth, and likely severely. In the short-term, however, it amounts to a direct injection of capital and labor into economic production. And that amounts to economic growth.
Other interesting things on my desk this week included:
A remarkably nuanced and encompassing report for Estonia’s International Centre for Defence and Security by James Sherr and Igor Gretskiy, titled “Why Russia Went to War.” There are parts of their analysis with which I don’t agree — including the argument that, had Ukraine’s “Orange coalition” not disintegrated as quickly as it did, Russia would have invaded a decade or so earlier than it did — James and Igor ably make a point that seems to escape so many other analysts: complicated things rarely happen for only one reason.
An excellent piece in Riddle by the Russian political scientist, now in refuge at Harvard, Irina Busygina, on the “surprising” stability of center-periphery relations in wartime Russia. Taking aim at allegations that the Kremlin is losing leverage and the federation is beginning to fray, Irina shows just how much hasn’t changed in how power is managed and exercised in the relationship between Moscow and the Russian regions.
MIT professor Carol Saivetz has a useful piece in Lawfare on summarizing Russia’s shifting position in Central Asia and the South Caucasus. In contrast to the situation within Russia itself, Russia’s power outside its borders does seem significantly diminished, as Carol neatly and calmly explains — while cautioning us not to overstate the case.
A mini-memoir in Mediazona by a Russian convict, who signed up with Wagner to go fight in Ukraine, deserted after being thrown into battle without any bullets, and decided to head back to prison — before realizing he would likely be killed, and going into hiding instead. The horror is in the banality of it all.
What I’m listening to
Because the musical-association part of my brain works in odd ways, all this talk of public opinion has put me in mind of this song — and indeed the whole album, with which I doubtless annoyed the hell out of my college roommates.
Will you never rest,
fighting the battle of
who could care less?
Lippmann, Walter. (1922) Public Opinion. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.