Understanding the silent majority in authoritarian populism: What can we learn from popular support for Putin in rural Russia?

15 March 2018

This paper distinguishes and challenges three main assumptions/shortcomings regarding the silent majority - the majority of the ‘ordinary’, ‘simple’, ‘little’ people, who are usually the main supporters of authoritarian populism. The silent majority is commonly portrayed as (1) ‘irrational’, ‘politically short-sighted’ people, who vote against self-interests; (2) it is analysed as a homogeneous group, without attempting to distinguish different motives and interests among its members; (3) the existing analysis often overlooks the political economy and structures of domination that gave rise to authoritarian populism.

These shortcomings are addressed while analysing the political behaviour of rural Russians, who are the major supporters of Vladimir Putin. In so doing, it is revealed that the agrarian property regime and power relations in the countryside largely define the political posture of different rural groups. Less secure socioeconomic strata respond more strongly to economic incentives, while better-off villagers are more likely to support the ideological appeals of the regime. Furthermore, Putin’s traditionalist authoritarian leadership style appeals to the archetypal base of the rural society – namely, its peasant roots – and, therefore, finds stronger support among the farming population. Finally, this study reveals that collective interests prevail over individual interests in the voting behaviour of rural dwellers, who support the existing regime despite the economic hardship it imposes upon them.

This paper was presented at the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI) 2018 Conference: "Authoritarian Populism and the Rural World"