Monday, June 19, 2017

Leaders and States

From the Vox review:
The most telling moment in The Putin Interviews, director Oliver Stone’s four-hour conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, recorded over the course of nearly two years, comes late in the second hour.

Stone is trying to get Putin to say whether he does or doesn’t like then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Putin demurs entirely, but offers up a theory of how power functions.

Should Sanders become president, Putin says, he would suddenly realize the vast weight of the American bureaucracy that existed underneath him. He might make some changes to the US on a domestic level, but he would ultimately be unable to change that much — the person at the head of the state matters less than the centuries of power the state has accumulated and will protect at all costs. People aren’t responsible for what happens; the vast structures surrounding them are. Look at Barack Obama, Putin suggests. He sincerely wanted to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, and did he? No. You can’t fight the state.

This is telling for two reasons. The first is that it, if true, explains Putin’s motives in regards to the United States in the time since that interview was conducted in 2016. But the second reason is even more telling. This isn’t just how Putin sees [insert US president here]. It’s how he sees himself: as a conduit for the vast sweep of history, guided less by his own political beliefs and desires than by forces even he can barely understand.
I believe something like this, but for the "vast sweep of history" I would substitute "all the forces operating on the nation and its politics right now." Some of those forces have to do with the weight of history (race in America, for example) but others may be very new, such as the rise of tech monopolies. In any case the best the president can do is nudge things a tiny bit one way or the other; even with the help of a friendly Congress he can do very few things that will still seem important in a century.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

Upon reflection, it makes perfect sense for Putin to argue that American leaders are hamstringed by bureaucracy.

That allows him to turn around to his people and say, "See? See how ineffectual a government is when it doesn't allow a single great leader to have near dictatorial powers? This is why Russia is so strong! Because I, your great glorious and heroic saviour figure who is better than any ordinary men than could ever hope to be, am able to rule you without any pesky limitations and restrictions on my power! The foolish Americans are afraid to entrust a Great Man with absolute power, and see what it gets them! Dissenting voices! Nonconformists! Political opposition! Criticism and questioning! All leading to disunity and inefficiency!

Putin's absolutist system relies upon swift, overwhelming action and a near-total stifling of dissent. He's happy to operate a bureacracy when it inhibits those who might oppose him, but he wants to be unrestrained by such limits himself.

Meanwhile, Americans are far more willing to accept most of the inefficiencies and flaws our government bureaucracy suffers from, in exchange for more equal protections and greater justice for all.

In Russia, if Putin wants to impose a Muslim Travel Ban, it simply happens overnight. In America, the courts step in and say "We believe the law doesn't allow for this, and you're going to have to spend a lot of time and effort arguing to convince the top legal experts in the country otherwise before you can do this, and if you can't successfully do so, you'll have to spend even longer trying to get the law itself changed to allow this."

Putin isn't wrong to point out that our system doesn't allow for swift, overwhelming action like he relies upon to stay in power. He's just wrong to think that quality is a failing of our system rather than a strength.