Hearing public grievances helps autocrats — until it doesn't

February 9, 2021
Appearing receptive to public questions can turn bad for autocrats. (AP Photo/Mikhail Klimentyev)

Appearing receptive to public questions can turn bad for autocrats. (AP Photo/Mikhail Klimentyev)

Autocratic rulers can shore up public support by appearing to listen to citizens' grievances, but this benefit may eventually backfire for governments that have opposition building against them, according to a new study in Comparative Political Studies.

The paper, published as part of a forthcoming book, found via original survey experiments in Russia that leaders engaging with citizens’ complaints on television and other formats can improve opinions of the regime among supporters and citizens who are not politically active, even when those people do not call in or watch the program.

The opposite was true, however, for those who already distrusted President Vladimir Putin, whose annual Direct Line broadcast — in which the Russian leader addresses concerns sent in by citizens — is the focus of the paper as an example of how an autocratic ruler balances rewards and repression to ensure mass loyalty.

In a departure from existing literature, the paper explores how awareness of programs like the Direct Line, rather than personal participation, can help manipulate political attitudes in nondemocratic countries, said Hannah Chapman, the paper’s author and an assistant professor of political science at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

“By carefully controlling but still permitting participation, authoritarian regimes in the short term can actually very effectively improve public opinion in the country,” Chapman told The Academic Times. “However, it is only going to be effective insofar as you already have some basis of support that are going to be willing to buy into this message in the first place.”

Chapman's paper, published Jan. 31, arrived as thousands of Russians took to the streets late last month to protest the imprisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who later released an investigation of Putin's vast personal wealth from jail. Navalny, who had been poisoned by Russian spies per German officials, was sentenced Feb. 4 in a Moscow court to over 2 years in prison over alleged embezzlement.

The researcher said these latest protests in Russia help demonstrate that leaders like Putin cannot rely on the illusion of free participation alone to quiet calls for democratic reforms and policy changes over the long term, especially as some concerns like low wages and poor health care go unresolved year after year.

“People have been asking the same questions over and over for two decades, with very little change” in Russia, Chapman said. “[When] you see the same questions in 2001 and 2021, people are going to start to question whether or not it means anything. What it means for the government is that [efforts to engage with voters] can actually degrade their support and backfire against them in the long run.”

Autocrats like Putin have historically introduced certain quasi-democratic institutions, such as legislatures and courts, as a cheaper and longer-term alternative to repression like censorship and violence, which tend to be more costly.

A common way for leaders to accomplish this is by creating and promoting a two-way communication channel between leaders and their constituents, a concept Chapman calls “participatory technology” — a play on the concept of “political technology” in the Soviet Union, by which authorities manipulated the political process to their own ends.

The concept of "participatory technology" builds on earlier works of other researchers, who posited that nondemocratic governments use “elite-mass communication strategies” that allow citizens to interact with political leaders as a way for leaders to placate concerns about the lack of political participation.

“This is another type of democratic idea that is so central to what we think of democratic governance,” Chapman said. “I was interested to see how it’s also used not to shore up democracy in authoritarian regimes, but rather to shore up the autocrats themselves.”

This concept can take many forms, such as social media or writing letters to officials, but Chapman honed in on Russia’s annual Direct Line with Vladimir Putin broadcast, in which the president addresses voters’ concerns on the air. Though it has waned in popularity since its launch in 2001, the broadcast still draws in roughly 40% of the country’s population each year and is presented as a way to give voice to the people, Chapman said.

To investigate the broadcast’s influence on Russians’ political attitudes, Chapman designed two nationally representative survey experiments that were embedded in two independent opinion polls administered by the Yuri Levada Analytical Center, one of Russia’s largest independent, nongovernmental polling organizations.

In both cases, members of the experiment group were reminded of Direct Line’s existence during the survey so as to reveal their opinions of Putin and their ability to participate in the political system in relation to the broadcast, a process known in psychology as "priming," Chapman said.

“In fact, one of the main reasons that I picked the Direct Line is because it really lent itself to a successful survey experiment,” she explained, given that the program’s popularity made it easier to prime respondents. About 99% of respondents said they had heard of Direct Line prior to the surveys.

The first experiment presented statements about an increase in the price of utilities in Russia — a key policy issue in the country — as well as Putin’s response to the issue and whether it has been resolved. Respondents were then asked to rate Putin’s performance on a five-point Likert scale, from “strongly disapprove” to “strongly approve.” Chapman also asked respondents how politically active they were and their preexisting opinions of Putin’s regime.

Half of the experiment group respondents were told only that Putin promised to look into the matter during Direct Line, while the other half was also told that prices were lowered since Putin’s promise on the air. Respondents in a control group were also given primers on issue resolution, but no primers on Direct Line.

Respondents who were told Putin promised to look into the matter improved their approval rating of the president by 0.1 units, to 3.55 points, compared to respondents who were not told about Putin addressing the issue during Direct Line.

Those who were then told that utility prices were lowered improved their assessment of Putin by 0.45 units, to 3.74 points, compared to those who were told prices remained the same.

The second experiment asked respondents, after being primed for Direct Line awareness, whether they believed they had opportunities to air their grievances to officials in Russia. Chapman also asked respondents to indicate their level of political activity and whether they supported Putin’s regime.

As Chapman expected, Direct Line awareness had the greatest impact on attitudes of people who do not vote or have no interest in politics; the exposure increased the number of these respondents who believed they had adequate opportunities for political participation by 17 percentage points, to 66% of the group.

The priming effect also resulted in an eight percentage-point boost for people who said they trust Putin, as well as those coded as having “moderate political sophistication,” defined as someone who either votes or has an interest in politics. No effect was observed on those with the highest levels of political sophistication.

Conversely, knowledge of Direct Line caused a negative influence on the opinions of those who were predisposed to oppose Putin, contrary to Chapman’s expectation those people would see no impact. Priming resulted in a 23 percentage-point drop in the number of people satisfied with opportunities to air their grievances to just 29% of the group. 

Chapman said those who already distrusted Putin may see the broadcast as propaganda rather than an earnest forum for policy, which could cause such programs to backfire against the government.

“If I am somebody who is really involved in politics and aware of so much of the corruption going on … by making people aware of these programs, you are just intensifying these negative feelings because you’re bringing something that they think negatively of in the first place to the forefront of their mind,” she said.

The use of a call-in show format to address the common people, which is also seen in countries like China and Chechnya, may also be interpreted as a way for Putin to cement the illusion of himself as a common man’s leader, Chapman added.

“A part of Putin’s popularity has come through the cult of personality he has built, that he has spent his career presenting himself as someone who acts on behalf of his people,” she said. “So while the system itself may be corrupt, Putin is seen as a person who listens to people, seeks them out and really cares about what they have to say” among much of the country.

The paper, “Shoring Up Autocracy: Participatory Technologies and Regime Support in Putin’s Russia,” was published Jan. 31 in Comparative Political Studies. It was authored by Hannah Chapman, the Karen and Adeed Dawisha assistant professor of political science at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and faculty associate at the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at Miami University. Her research received funding from the Center for Russia, East Europe and Central Asia at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a grant from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and the U.S. Army Research Office.

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