How Putin Just Revealed Democracy’s Secret Superpower
"In just one month, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has restored democracy’s image and its mojo."
Readers note: This is the first essay I’m publishing to our Substack in my own voice. Let us know what you think.— JT
Recent years have not been good ones for democracy. The U.S. model has been tarnished by hyper-partisanship, gridlock, fake news, the rise of Trump, his mishandling of COVID, and Biden’s inability to push through his reform agenda. Authoritarian states—some of which, like China, have mounted national projects at remarkable speed, whether to fight pandemics or build shiny new infrastructure—have bragged that theirs is the superior system. World events have seemed to support this claim: since 2006, 19 members of the G-20 have become less democratic, and the percentage of democracies worldwide fell from 61 to 55 percent. No wonder that much of the public, even in the United States, began to doubt democracy’s virtues. In a poll last fall, a majority of Americans under age 29 said they thought democracy was in trouble or had failed, and a 2017 survey found that almost a third of Americans would support military rule.
Now, in just one month, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has restored democracy’s image and its mojo. How? The answer is that Putin’s blundering and brutal behavior has accidentally highlighted democracy’s greatest superpower: the trait that insures that, for all of democracy’s flaws, it will triumph over autocracies in the long run. Democratic virtues like the supremacy of law, independent courts, and the protection of human rights are all important. But Russia’s debacle in Ukraine underscores the fact that democracy’s guarantee that leaders are regularly replaced is actually the system’s most important advantage. It turns out that our power to throw the bums out could end up saving not just the West, but the world.
The key to understanding how Putin became democracy’s greatest, if unwitting, promoter lies in the answer to the Ukraine war’s greatest ongoing mystery: why on earth did Russia’s president—long seen as a savvy operator— launch a military campaign that almost everyone, from think-tankers in Moscow to regular Russian grunts, could have told him would fail?
I’ve been speaking to a lot of Putin-ologists over the last few weeks (see here, here, here, and here), and their answers to this question are unanimous. Russia’s dictator invaded Ukraine because, over time, Putin has lost his edge but not his control. So when his age- and power-addled brain convinced him that invading Ukraine was a good idea, no one in Russia had the ability or the courage to tell him the plan was nuts.
Alexander Gabuev, a former reporter and editor at Kommersant and now a senior fellow at Carnegie Moscow, explained it to me like this. Imagine a Russian czar “who’s been lucky and successful by Russian standards. … To the self-confidence born from that success, add the impact of his age and his isolation”—Putin, 69, is terrified of COVID and so has radically limited his contacts over the past two years—and “you get a state of mind that led him to believe that his legacy would be the return of Ukraine to Russia’s control.” The idea, supported by his belief that Ukrainians are just wayward Russians with funny accents, may be lunacy. But in Putin’s view, it’s a prize he can win and one worth fighting for.
Compounding the problem, Gabuev added, Putin never had to do what a normal leader in a democracy would: go to his national-security establishment and say, “‘Hey guys, I want to invade Ukraine, so let’s start thinking through the scenarios and debate the economic costs.’ A full invasion of Ukraine was such an unimaginable idea that Putin tried to keep his plan as well hidden as possible. Instead of serious war planning… only a handful of military planners [were] involved.”
What’s does this insider view reveal? That Putin, who was more moderate and effective in his early years, has now ruled Russia for too long. Over time, his power has grown exponentially. But as it has, his thinking has become both delusional and lazy, in part because he’s surrounded himself with yes-men, in part because he’s limited the flow of accurate information to his office, and in part because he’s ensured that no one can challenge him. Russia’s oligarchs won’t dare; they owe their fortunes to his benevolence. And the guys with guns—Russia’s military and its intelligence services—have been selected for loyalty, not competence, and thus won’t push back either. (This last point also helps explain why Russia’s once-vaunted army has performed so miserably in in the face of Ukraine’s fierce defenders.)
To be clear: the problems caused by an overlong tenure are not specific to Putin. All leaders get worse over time, as age, hubris, and the constant blandishments of sycophants take their toll. Democratic politicians also decline the longer they serve; as Ruchir Sharma, the author of The 10 Rules of Successful Nations, argues, they “grow stale with years in office and leave on a low. Those who endure tend to grow arrogant or complacent… and get caught in scandal or are overtaken by events. Most lose momentum and support, usually well before their first decade is up.” Sharma’s research shows that of the 14 U.S. presidents to have served out their terms since the 1940s, 11 saw their approval ratings fall over the course of their tenure. In the United Kingdom, Britain’s two longest-serving modern Prime Ministers, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, both left office with less than 25 percent support. Worldwide, the leaders who have remained effective over long tenures—think Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew—are very rare.
Fortunately—and this is key—democracies have a way to deal with this problem: when our leaders pass their prime, they’re either term-limited or voted out. Indeed, this is why, after President Franklin Roosevelt died during his fourth term in 1945, the United States passed a constitutional amendment restricting his successors’ tenures to eight years. Most autocracies, meanwhile, lack this capacity for regular renewal at the top.
What are the global implications of this phenomenon? The repercussions for Ukraine, sadly, don’t look good. Putin’s ever-diminishing acuity will likely lead him to even worse decision-making there—which will cause ever more carnage.
At the same time, other authoritarian states like China should take note—and be afraid. While President Xi Jinping has ruled China only half as long as Putin’s led Russia, Xi is bound to follow a similar trajectory over time. Especially since his steady attempts to concentrate power have systematically undermined all the features—such as meritocracy, term limits, and collective rule—that once made China an exceptional autocracy. As Xi has dismantled one check after another, he’s drained China of the special sauce that allowed it to outperform other dictatorships, ensuring it will instead follow the same sad trajectory as Russia, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, and the like.
Finally, this story has a moral for the United States too. The fact that the regular replacement of leaders has turned out to be democracy’s strongest feature underscores just how high were the stakes behind Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election. Had he succeeded, not only would it have meant four more years of a disastrous presidency. It also would have destroyed the key trait that has long underwritten America’s many successes, and that ensures that the nation will—eventually—best its undemocratic rivals in the future. That means all of us who care of America’s future—Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and more—must do everything we can to preserve the country’s most important asset.