Growing up in Russia, I got used to the fact that elections are not necessarily a democratic issue. Because even as the will of the people is expressed, the deals between parties guarding their own interests make the calls. After all, the history of the 1996 elections, which Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), is purported to have won (with multiple accounts backing those claims) but conceded to Yeltsin, haunts the post-Soviet space. I don’t identify with my homeland’s ruling party, and rarely see any politicians in Russia fully align with my views. However, it wasn’t until I moved to the US that I realized how little democracy the biggest peddlers of “pro-democracy” narratives offer to their own citizens, either. Nonetheless, as I watch the trainwreck that is American electoral politics happen in real-time, Americans never fail to remind me that, where I come from, there is no real democracy. Meanwhile, the US is a fantasy land where votes matter, and they can solve everything. I don’t believe in democracy as pundits present it but, most importantly, my material experience shows me that, whereas the will of the people is expressed, it’s the will of the few that is exercised, and it doesn’t matter which country we’re in.
I was still living in Russia in 2011 when protests swept the country after the widely contested State Duma elections. Everyone was extremely worried about falsifications at the polls and, in the following years, any self-respecting politically-minded person would seek to become an election observer. I worked the presidential election of 2012, where Putin got the sweeping 64 percent, and Zyuganov trailed in second place with 17 percent. Then, I worked the Moscow Mayoral election of 2013, where the incumbent mayor Sergey Sobyanin got 51 percent and the opposition candidate Alexey Navalny (of the recent poisoning fame) got a respectable 27 percent. Those enlightening experiences were way more instructive in my understanding of Russian electoralism than any kind of punditry.
As young, determined observers with accreditations from CPRF and other opposition parties and organizations showed up to the precincts to ensure there were no falsifications, the seasoned poll-workers looked evidently fatigued. They had been doing it for a while now, and the rookie fervor of the protest-fueled observers, armed with road maps and phone cameras ready to stream, looked a bit nonsensical to them. Alongside skeptical senior observers, we must have seemed extremely annoying as we tried to track down every single semblance of an infraction. I was live-tweeting both elections and, at one point, a suspicion I voiced online prompted one liberal magazine’s team, who were closely monitoring respective hashtags, to send their journalist to our poll station. He was dressed in a full ninja outfit: think Kilmonger robbing the museum of artifacts. When he arrived, I felt awkward because there was nothing quite fitting for him to do, since, by the time of his arrival, we’d resolved the problematic issue. I also felt awkward because I realized how insane this must have looked from the outside. The time to count the votes approached during that guy’s visit, and suddenly no one was allowed to leave the room. So the sullen Electoral Kilmonger had to sit in the corner, his mercenary getup and all, and wait until the poll workers were done with the count–way after midnight.
Even though I personally was not happy with the results of the elections, after participating in the vote counts both times and talking to friends from other precincts, I realized that choosing Putin and Sobyanin was pretty much the will of the people. Just like the poll workers tried to tell me. I do not doubt that there may be various trespasses at other precincts, those more remote from urban centers, and those that no enthusiastic observer will reach. I also do not doubt that the general process of voting is fraught with dangerous biases and mental manipulation. But in general, working as an observer made me realize that the issue isn’t restricted to the elections. It’s with the overall set-up, where the ruling party and the people have an implicit social contract: as long as things are at least slightly better than they were in the 90s and nothing changes for the worse, the status quo remains. Putin does not feel the need to even participate in the debates because this contract, especially from the point of view of power, doesn’t have any weak links.
And, currently, there are no viable alternatives to the existing line of power in Russia. First, because candidates running are just the same neo-liberal players, only wearing sneakers instead of dress shoes, and are less predictable than Putin or his crew on issues, which renders them unelectable. Meanwhile, the CPRF is simultaneously too reactionary for the true communists and not taken seriously as an alternative by the liberals in large cities because of their overwhelming anti-communist bias. While it has some exciting labor organizers within it, A Just Russia is a bit centrist for many and offers support for power too often. Of course, some really exciting insurgents are rising up from grassroots levels, in indie orgs and left parties’ youth blocs. They get detained often and are prevented from running for office. But, once again, this issue doesn’t have to do with electoral politics as much as a plurality.
It’s now been six years since I moved to New York City, and we’re nearing my second presidential election here. Alongside other disillusioned people, I did try to shove my principles and rooted –twice!– for the campaign of Bernie Sanders, despite the qualms I have with some of his politics. Healthcare, student debt forgiveness, climate change stuff, and a slightly less insane foreign policy was not too shabby for a concession. On both occasions, Bernie’s campaign went from underdog sweeping the polls to fizzling out in a mere second as the Democratic National Convention plotted around him. Both times, I was shown just how quickly an American radical, who’d be seen as a mere centrist elsewhere, let’s be honest, can become a bootlicker to the corporate shills. I’m glad I can’t vote in the US, though, and can just enjoy the cheap thrills. The elections here are titillating as I’d never seen them in Russia. They put up quite a show, akin to those halftime performances in team sports, and you might even be fooled into thinking that any of it matters.
However, it doesn’t. Like in Russia, the policies are decided from above, and the mere mortals are merely allowed to pick the flavor they prefer. But while in Russia, you get a spread of people of various affiliations across the parties, from the Marxist-Leninists to the lamentable nationalists, in the US, you can only pick from the two approved varieties: democrats or republicans, red or blue. And for the presidential election it means having to decide between the incumbent senile-looking alleged rapist or the old/new senile-looking alleged rapist. Both are white and known for their xenophobic agendas, all while their country is in its fourth month of protests against racial injustices and police brutality. Of course, there is also Kamala Harris, who will assume the presidency if Biden is incapacitated further: for many, she is first and foremost a prosecutor–or, speaking in laymen’s terms, a cop– and only then a VP of color.
America has always prided itself on the many different flavors of ice cream it offers to the public, as opposed to the (ex-)communist countries. It’s not an honest argument, as anyone salivating at the thought of the Soviet nine-kopeck fruit sorbet will attest—and it falls apart when you actually look at the ballots. When it comes to presidential candidates or even to congressional candidates, there are usually two candidates who are guaranteed to run unobstructed in all 50 states, the republican and the democrat. Everyone else’s chances are contingent on the state’s ballot and many other factors. The other parties, for instance, the Green Party, are allowed on the ballot, but not in all the states. It might work in the congressional elections: any given candidate only runs in their home state, so reaching out to the electorate is challenging but doable. The presidential candidates who are not the GOP and DNC nominees are practically destined to fail. And even beyond the issues with voter outreach, it’s quite logical that if you’re only officially running in some of the 50 states, you’re not exactly in the contest to represent the people of the whole nation. The decentralized voting system is very helpful in that it doesn’t allow anyone to cling to power indefinitely. However, it shouldn’t become an obstacle for candidates.
And then, there’s the “independent write-in” issue, which is supposed to be a way for anyone to vote for whomever they choose. We’ve had it in particular elections in Russia and the Soviet Union, too. However, it was usually a way to exercise your wit or pretend that there are more alternatives than meet the eye. In the US, however, non-establishment candidates are supposed to rely on the “write-in” option. This is not fair. Compare having a candidate’s name on the ballot, with his or her candidacy established in all election literature, to being an option that people have to independently research or learn how to use before voting. It basically makes any prospective non-establishment candidate have less potential to be written in than, say, Lady Gaga, whose name is more generally on the tip of everyone’s tongue. And, may I add, the write-in options also vary wildly by state.
This is not to mention that to actually vote, you have to register before the event, where you also have to choose between the two parties or independent voting. In Russia, unless you need an absentee ballot, you just show up to the precinct on the day of the election, show your passport, get ticked off in the database, and get your ballot. This, akin to voter ID issues discussed at large in the US, might not be beneficial to underrepresented minorities. But back when protest vigilance first became a trend, and live streaming cameras were installed across numerous precincts everywhere in Russia, one could see the precincts serving the most remote clusters of people. I starkly remember watching footage of a precinct operating out of a family home in a tiny Chechen village, where the voter registration happened from a comfy-looking sofa, and sometimes members of the household reclined on it right next to the ballot box. Of course, the footage went viral: everyone in the big cities, enveloped by their urbanized liberalism, seemed amazed that an entity so arcane as that sweet little family had access to the voting booth.
Many things could be improved about election processes in both countries: for instance, poll translators are severely lacking in both, which puts non-native speakers at a disadvantage. But the element that needs to be resolved first and foremost is the inclusivity. And America is even more behind Russia on that matter, despite what it’s trying to make the narrative out to be. Because, while those who feel at peace with their partisan allegiance are unquestionably happy to support Biden or Trump, it’s the disaffected voters who struggle most. Even if they make up their minds, not all states offer a chance to vote for the Green party, Party for Socialism and Liberation or write-in Bernie, the Native American candidate, Mark Charles, or whomever else they may choose. In fact, the Democratic party has been actively fighting in court to keep the Green party off of ballots: and as many may recall, the Green Party remains one of the scapegoats for Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016.
I have never in my life felt powerful when voting; however, in the past, I have been made to think that democracy exists. Perhaps in some countries in Latin America and Europe, elections are a bit closer to this, especially in places where you have more diverse representation from the non-centrist Left. But America, as much as it tries, is as far from democracy as it is from solving racial issues or tackling climate issues. I wish it stopped propagating the myths about its hegemony and finally did something about it just as much as I wish for a more inspiring, structured Left to counter neoliberalism in Russia.
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