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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
17 September 2022: Political science, plus texts and tunes
If this weekend’s TL;DRussia roundup seems a little thin, blame political science.
This weekend finds me in Montréal, attending the annual conference of the American Political Science Association and wondering what in the world they were thinking.
In their wisdom, the powers that be at APSA decided to dedicate a ‘Breaking News’ panels to a discussion of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (When you only get together once a year, 7-year-old news is still ‘breaking’, I suppose.) On the dais were some of the most knowledgeable people on the subject: Dominique Arel from the University of Ottawa, Olena Nikolayenko from Fordham, Oxana Shevel from Tufts, and Kathryn Stoner from Stanford — and John Mearsheimer.
Yes, that John Mearsheimer: the man whose argument on the origins of this war has remained remarkably impervious to reality. The best thing I can say about the discussion is that it gave Duke’s Daniel Drezner the opportunity to post this thread:
What I’m thinking about
Let me back up a second: as a discipline, political science longs more than perhaps any other branch of social science to be right there in the moment. Anthropologists and sociologists look for longue-durée stories about the human condition. Economists seek timeless truths. But political scientists was desperately to be relevant to the questions that are motivating voters and politicians not simply on any given day, but on every given day.
As an actual science, however, we’re not very good at that. To get analytical leverage, we have to break down the big questions of the day into small parts, and then break down those small parts into even smaller parts. As a result, the answers we come up with are often very limited in scope. To make matters worse, by the time we’re able to collect, process and analyze our data — much less write them up and publish them — the world has usually long since moved on to more pressing questions.
That problem seems especially acute at APSA this year, at least for those of us who study Russia and Ukraine. Lots of people here — with the notable exception of Mearsheimer (see above) — have interesting and insightful things to say about the war, and about Russian and Ukrainian politics and foreign policy. Almost no one, however, has much actual research conducted in the seven months since the war began. So slow is the academic process that we’re still discussing the impact of Covid-19 on Ukrainian politics. It’s all fascinating stuff — but is it relevant?
That’s the question that bedevils the two papers at APSA this year with my name on them. For one of them, I think the answer is yes. Drawing on surveys conducted in Russia in 2019 and Belarus in 2020, I show that the decisions people make about media consumption — what media outlets to turn to for news, and how intensively to consume that news — are predominantly shaped by people’s need to socialize, rather than by their need for actionable information. This is important, I argue, because it helps us understand why people stick with problematic news sources: to abandon them means more than just switching from one newspaper to another — it means putting yourself at odds with your social circle and risking ostracism.
The reason I think it’s still relevant — despite all of the changes Russian politics have undergone since the survey was conducted — stems from the comparison with Belarus. At the time that the Belarusian survey was conducted, the country was in the midst of a revolutionary uprising against President Alexander Lukashenka, which was being met with overwhelming police force. In Russia, by contrast, things were mostly quiet, and dissent was still mostly met with persuasion, rather than truncheons. Despite those differences, the social determinants of media consumption were virtually indistinguishable. If that’s the case, then I expect I’d find the same thing were I able to run another survey in Russia now.
I’m not so certain, though, about the other paper — a group effort with Graeme Robertson at UNC Chapel Hill, Grigo Pop-Eleches at Princeton, and Bryn Rosenfeld at Cornell (and to which my own contribution was admittedly relatively minor). In that paper, we draw on experiments in a 2021 survey in Russia to show that the increasing repression the Kremlin was by then bringing to bear on protests and opposition groups was creating anger and outrage, more than fear — and thus potentially increasing the likelihood of a backlash.
While I have no doubt about the validity of the data and the quality of the analysis — after all, it was done by people much savvier than I am — the question remains of whether it is still true today. Anecdotally, when I talk to people in Russia, or who have left Russia for political reasons, fear is a remarkably big part of the conversation. The fear of police violence, or of spending years if not decades in prison does appear at least to be a powerful demobilizing factor in the context of the war and the economic deprivation that it is beginning to cause for Russia.
Here’s hoping we can figure out the answer to that question before next year.
What I’m reading
Other than a mountain of academic papers? Lenka Bustikova and Petra Guasti educated me this week in a piece for CEPA on what is going on in Czech politics, as the street — the same street that helped bring Prime Minister Petr Fiala to power just a year or so ago — threatens to pull the pull his government down.
Outside of the research papers, though, probably the best thing I read this week was this lengthy thread on Russian responses to their recent military losses, by the Russian sociologist Greg Yudin:
What I’m listening to
I’m in Montréal, so of course it has to be Allison Russell, whose stupefying 2021 album Outside Child I’ve had on repeat for months.