Although Vladimir Putin is widely regarded as a crafty, even brilliant leader, Russia is still by many measures a declining power. Real incomes continue to sink. The population decline is so pervasive that atheism-era abortion is now viewed as a moral evil. It is certainly a geopolitical danger. Even the New York Times featured an opinion piece asking whether Siberia would forever remain Russian when Beijing is so much more populous, richer — and closer than Moscow.
The 1.35 billion Chinese people south of the border outnumber Russia’s 144 million almost 10 to 1. The discrepancy is even starker for Siberia on its own, home to barely 38 million people, and especially the border area, where only 6 million Russians face over 90 million Chinese. With intermarriage, trade and investment across that border, Siberians have realized that, for better or for worse, Beijing is a lot closer than Moscow.
Russia isn’t governed well. But people don’t rise to power in Russia according to their skill at solving public policy issues. They climb a ladder by how well they can grip the rungs of guns, bribery and deceit. Putin’s “political socialization took place as vice mayor of St. Petersburg in the 1990s, where … one of his key roles was acting as a liaison between the political and criminal authorities. It was the Wild Wild East, a world where duplicity was the norm, rules are for sissies, and only might makes right. It was a world where informal networks ruled and you controlled people by corrupting them.”
Such jungles tend to evolve very capable predators. But they are ultimately successful failures. To clean up Russia now, Putin would have to turn against the very system that put him in power. “The emperor is at war with his inner godfather. … As the Kremlin leader culls his inner circle, purges the elite, and tries to enforce some limits on the massive graft that pervades Russian politics, he’s also fighting with himself.”
Russia is pretty representative of many states which are simply collections of informal power groups. Whether these groups are called cartels, clans, sects or Communist parties, they may essentially be described as what James Madison called factions. He regarded them as both a danger to democracy and the natural forge of leadership and so spent a lot of time figuring out how to control them.
in the fall of 1787, when he was still in his mid-30s, [Madison] began collaborating with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay to write a series of 85 newspaper essays explaining the U.S. Constitution and urging the people of New York to adopt it. …
Given the talismanic power the word “democracy” has to modern ears, it is worth reminding ourselves that the U.S. Constitution was largely an effort to curb or trammel democracy. Democracies, Madison wrote in Federalist 10, the most widely read and cited of the essays, “have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” Why? A mot often attributed to Benjamin Franklin explains it in an image. “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” …
The biggest threat to “popular” governments, he wrote in Federalist 10, are “factions,” interest groups whose operations are “adverse to the rights of other citizens” or the “permanent…interests of the community.” Factions are thus not accidental. They are—famous phrase—“sown in the nature of man.” Why? Because freedom and the unequal distribution of talent inevitably yield an unequal distribution of property, the “most common and durable source of faction.” …
Madison’s solution was the creation of a large republic in which a scheme of representation and a large variety of interests “make it less probable” that they will be able to “invade the rights of other citizens” successfully. … Madison’s central insight was that power had to be dispersed and decentralized if it was to serve liberty and control faction.
The paradox that Putin exemplifies is that while factions breed formidable conspirators, they also create poisonous leaders. They succeed in themselves but cause the society around them to fail. That is because they dispense a favoritism which is ultimately ruinous for the nation. The result is a self-vetoing enterprise. Marian Tupy observed that Chile began to succeed at the moment when its junta began to allow economic freedom while Venezuela started to fail by going the other way. But few ruling elites have the sense to get themselves out of the way. Usually they have to be shoved aside.
The question is whether Madison’s defenses failed and the factions are inside the wire. America for a long time beat the odds but recently things have taken a turn for the worse. It is no accident that many of America’s troubles have coincided with the growth of identity politics, special interest groups, foreign lobbying and corruption. If so they have spread their poison and created an American version of the “informal networks” that proved so fatal in other countries, as Madison feared.
Moreover, the American factional system operates in the worst possible way. The Clinton Foundation and private email scandal is a portrait of venality without competence. The peculiar characteristics of American factionalism have bred something singular; a phenomenon at once cunning yet stupid, both corrupt and inept. America is no longer exceptional, just another bum in the ring. Yet while Putin can often outwit Obama (and Hillary when she was in State), the Russian cannot seem to turn anything to lasting advantage. The outcome is a kind of impotence afflicting both sides.
2016 should have been an election charged with passion, but it is atmospherically deadening, as if many voters wished the candidates would just go away. If the 20th century was one in which people believed government could solve all the world’s problems, the 21st century is fast developing into one where government has become like the weather: chaotic, capricious and ultimately arbitrary — something everyone talks about but no one can do anything about.
The factions have filled political discourse with entropy. There it will remain until it settles around a new attractor. Until then, all that is left is to live out our lives in the shadow of a mysterious federal building that no intelligent life is known to inhabit, save for a lady rumored to be in periodic residence occasionally glimpsed trying to send a message on a BlackBerry before smashing it with a hammer.
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