After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the country broke apart. Russia remained the strongest player, led by Boris Yeltsin, a popular reform leader who stood up to Communist coup leaders in 1991.
Yeltsin also was popular in the United States because he continued Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of reform and ended the deadly brinksmanship between the world’s two largest nuclear powers. Under President George H. W. Bush and his successor, Bill Clinton, the United States provided various forms of aid and advice to help Russia adopt an American-style market economy and enact related legal reforms.
Yeltsin embraced this program, reduced Russia’s military, and generally appeared to be a friendly, if weak, leader, amenable to cooperating with the United States and NATO.
Americans and the Oligarchs Propped Up Yeltsin
The honeymoon between Yeltsin and the Russian people soon became strained. While Communism was gone, the country soon endured significant new problems. Many Russians found it difficult to adapt.
Negative economic growth, inequitable privatization, a less-than-effective military campaign in Chechnya, gangsterism, mass theft, hyperinflation, and declining life expectancy were all the marks of a country in crisis. These phenomena encouraged a great deal of nostalgia for the old regime. When Yeltsin was up for reelection as president in 1996, the Communist candidate stood a decent chance of winning.
As unpopular and ineffective as he was at home, Yeltsin remained America’s preferred candidate. At Yeltsin’s invitation, the United States government and various private individuals got to work providing financial aid and consulting to his campaign so that Yeltsin would come out on top.
Time magazine ran a cover story after his victory on the “secret story” of how American advisors—including Clinton guru Dick Morris—used “polls, focus groups, negative ads” and other American political techniques to propel Yeltsin to victory. Bill Clinton gave Yeltsin a public endorsement and helped Russia secure a large IMF loan when his victory appeared in jeopardy.
Russian media and business interests also cooperated in the campaign. The heads of Russia’s two largest TV channels—both run by oligarchs—conspired to provide Yeltsin favorable coverage, as did most of the print media. Yeltsin may have won more votes, but the process was a managed one, designed by powerful and self-interested parties at home, dependent on propaganda, and tainted by secret foreign influence.
After winning, the Russian people continued to suffer, culminating in the country’s default to foreign creditors in 1998. Yeltsin’s physical state reflected the country’s condition: weak, disorderly, and alcoholic.
Powerful Institutions Have Propped Up Dementia Joe
Like Yeltsin, Joe Biden is also well past his prime and apparently in the grips of others and their interests. No one thinks Dementia Joe is coming up with reams of executive orders or otherwise deciding what to do and when to do it. His press secretary’s flailing performance when asked simple questions shows that “his” policies, including the flurry of executive orders, are being concocted behind the scenes, without presidential input other than a signature.
Biden’s victory also followed an election we know was rigged in a similar way to Yeltsin’s 1996 victory. In both cases, powerful interests from both sides of the spectrum united against what was seen as an existential threat to the system and its legitimacy. For both candidates, the media suppressed important negative information and used sophisticated propaganda to achieve their desired result. For Biden, the role of China and others in his life and accumulation of wealth remains completely unexplored.
The media and America’s tech oligarchs also suppressed the New York Post’s exposé of Hunter Biden’s role as the family “bag man,” taking and distributing large sums of money from China and Ukraine (among other places) to the Biden clan. This story obviously casts a cloud over Biden’s preferred image as a restorer of national unity and integrity.
More important, in both cases, Time magazine described what happened only after the fact. The “shadow campaign” story about the coordinated effort to elect Biden appeared on February 4, 2021. It reported, infamously, that “it sounds like a paranoid fever dream—a well-funded cabal of powerful people, ranging across industries and ideologies, working together behind the scenes to influence perceptions, change rules and laws, steer media coverage and control the flow of information. They were not rigging the election; they were fortifying it.”
It is telling that the same kind of coordinated efforts by power brokers—labor, media, business, NGOs, and the like—have engineered an election in the United States, just as they did in post-Soviet Russia 25 years earlier.
While the two countries and their paths differ in many ways, there are some important parallels. Both were at one time empires devoted to grand ideological missions, resting on their laurels of World War II victory and post-war dominance. The last chapter of the Soviet Union featured increasingly dire domestic crises that shook public confidence in the leadership’s competence and basic honesty. Finally, both nations have had expensive and long-running foreign policy disasters in Afghanistan.
Like the late Soviet Union, we also have decrepit infrastructure, rising economic inequality, and an expensive military arm, which appears less able to field new weapon systems or achieve results in its overseas deployments. And we have a privileged and hostile ruling class, which does not understand or have much sympathy with large social classes and geographic regions of the country.
When Yeltsin won, the Russian people lost. Soon after the oligarchs and Americans engineered his 1996 reelection, Russia sank further into economic and foreign policy disasters, including the 1998 debt default and the NATO attack on Russia’s ally, Serbia, in the Kosovo War.
People who scratch their heads over why Russians welcomed and still mostly support Vladimir Putin forget the painful interregnum between the Soviet system and the relative normalcy and increased national prestige that accrued during the last 20 years under Putin’s rule.
The Road to Managed Democracy
Conservatives have many well-articulated criticisms of democracy. Even when bound by the rule of law, it has many flaws, not least the threat to stability and to property and its hostility to standards necessary to achieve excellence. But the archaic alternatives of monarchy or exotic imports like socialism have little chance for success, nor any connection with the American people and their character or beliefs about legitimacy.
The real emerging alternative to ordinary democracy or even liberal democracy is managed democracy. In other words, a democratic system where the political choices, both in policy and personnel, and even political speech, are cultivated and controlled by a supposedly expert managerial class.
Like any system of management, the question of whose interests the managers are pursuing is paramount. There is always a risk that the managers are captured by interest groups or are looking out for their own interests as a class, rather than those of the people as a whole.
This problem is familiar from the realm of corporate governance, i.e., the principal agency problem. In politics, it manifests as corruption, when managers subtly disadvantage their constituents or, worse, decide to loot and scoot, much like the kleptocratic elites of the Soviet Union did as the system fell apart.
There is strong reason to suspect that Biden has been chosen by the managerial class because he himself is easily managed. The person in what is ordinarily the most powerful role in a democratic system can do little to restrain other powerful actors—career bureaucrats, the military, government contractors, and the legislature—when he is lethargic and drunk, as in the case of Yeltsin, or lethargic and demented, as with Biden.
Even those now thrilled about Biden’s elevation, including the anti-Trump wing of the Republican Party, seem overly confident in his ability to govern and overly sanguine about the content of the managerial class’s policy agenda. After all, this same agenda came to force in the Obama years and resulted in an anemic economic recovery, racial strife, dilapidated borders, and mass dissatisfaction with both parties. Similarly, Yeltsin embraced the free-market reforms counseled by American advisors, only to find a large class of aggrieved pensioners and the rise of the unpopular oligarchs.
In other words, the American managerial class will likely govern in its own interests rather than the broader public interest, and its claims to competency should be viewed skeptically. Whether he is similar to Trump or to someone altogether different, a strongman anti-establishment figure is likely to rise, consolidate power, and be popular after America’s “Yeltsin” era.