Paul Pillar

Partisan Tribalism and Attitudes Toward Russia

A poll conducted by YouGov shows that sentiment among Republicans toward Russian President Vladimir Putin has become significantly more positive (or at least significantly less negative) than it was just a couple of years ago.  This sort of finding is easily subject to over-interpretation, in terms of grand realignments or sweeping transnational movements or the like. The truer explanation is much simpler than that, although the explanation operates slightly differently at different levels.

The primary level, and the one that most accounts for the polling result, is that people are following cues from the leadership of the party with which they identify.  This pattern arises repeatedly on many different issues, domestic at least as much as foreign.  The transmission of sentiment from leader to followers often occurs without any connection to more careful consideration of the relevant issues or even to ideological tenets traditionally associated with one or another party.  It is essentially a tribal phenomenon; members of the tribe conform with a collective belief system, as defined by tribal leaders.  Notwithstanding divisions of views within the Republican Party over postures toward Russia, Donald Trump is now the leader of the party.  The cues most followers of the party are taking come from him or his appointees.

A slightly more complex, but still highly partisan, explanation probably has contributed some to the poll results and involves the Russian interference in the U.S. election through hacking and leaking.  To the extent that Republican followers perceive that the actions of Putin and Russia helped their candidate to win the election, they are that much more inclined to express positive sentiments about Putin to the pollster.  We ought to be aghast over interference in an American election being a reason for any American citizens to express positive sentiments about any foreign leader, but this result reflects how much partisanship, at least on the right, has overtaken patriotism, with patriotism properly defined to include dedication to the integrity and fairness of the American democratic process.

A farther-reaching explanation portrays admiration for Putin as part of a transnational wave, including Trump’s win and the advances by xenophobic and right-wing European parties, which places high value on “strong” (even if authoritarian) leadership and on “traditional” (even if illiberal and intolerant) values.  There may be something to this explanation, although it does not go as far as the other ones.  There first is the matter of how to interpret a positive response in a poll about someone perceived as a strong leader.  One can admire an adversary for strongly advancing his side’s objectives and interests but still see him very much as an adversary. Moreover, as far as values are concerned, it is unlikely that more than a very few respondents have any knowledge of Putin’s policies on matters such as abortion or LGBT rights or the status of Muslims in Russia.

One explanation with validity that does have something of the nature of a grand trend is the longstanding American need for an enemy and how Americans’ conception of the enemy has changed over the last few decades.  During the Cold War the view was simple; Moscow was seen as the seat of the evil empire.  Since the Cold War ended a quarter century ago, defining the enemy has been a matter of stumbling in search of a new adversarial lodestar.  After 9/11, various simplistic formulations centered on political Islam or “Islamofascism” have been the main candidates.  But old Cold War habits have died hard, as reflected in the discomfort in some Republican Party circles with what they regard as a too friendly attitude by Trump toward Russia.  Some of the less artful formulations amidst the stumbling have tried to reconcile these different directions.  National security adviser-designate Michael Flynn, for example, in a book written with Michael Ledeen, asserted that the enemy consisted of radical Islamists allied with “North Korea, Russia, China, Cuba, and Venezuela”.  More recently, Flynn, taking cues from his new boss (and perhaps further motivated by paid speaking gigs in Russia) has played down the Russia part of this supposed alliance.

All the vaguely expressed sentiment, whether positive or negative, toward Putin and Russia is a kind of mood music that does not determine, but can inhibit, the formulation of actual U.S. policy toward Russia.  If Trump tries to be “transactional” (a new favorite word being applied to the incoming president) in dealing with Moscow, he will encounter lots of both the opportunities for cooperation of which he has spoken and the significant respects in which U.S. and Russian interests conflict.  There will be ups and downs in the relationship amid attempts at making deals.  The new president may give out more cues about the relationship according to whether the latest development was an up or a down.  His partisan followers will be listening to the cues and forming their own positions accordingly.