In a newish piece in The Washington Post‘s Monkey Cage, political scientists, Erica Frantz and Joseph Wright, write about Putin’s mental state that led him to invade Ukraine. They describe him as a “personalist” leader, meaning that he has successfully cast off any of the checks and balances that accompany the leadership of most countries. The governmental and societal institutions that might could have checked or balanced his decisions have all been gutted, neutered, or otherwise silenced. Any advisor or administrative office holder that once would’ve said no to him have all committed suicide or had fatal accidents. He has successfully reserved all powers for himself leaving him isolated and out of touch.
If this has started to sound like the product of groupthink to you, then you get a gold star! Let’s psysplain! First, we’ll outline what they mean by personalist rulers. Second, we’ll look at how well it matches up with groupthink. And, then, we’ll round the whole thing out by matching up the usual outcomes of groupthink with things that Putin is doing now. Isn’t psychology wonderful?!?
Personalist rulers are authoritarian dictators who rule by their own wits and guile and without interference from advisors, government agencies or institutions, or other organs of society like a free press. In other words, there is no one there to tell them no. Their rule is characterized by paranoia and erratic decisions. They often initiate conflict and errors in their relations with other countries.
Personalists don’t arrive at their individual and undisputed rule overnight. It takes years of hard work and effort to isolate all state power in their hands. However, their rise to power seem to have several commonalities. They come to power in one of two ways either by a coup led by junior military officers or by rising to the head of a weak political party.
This is significant because the governments these people take over are characterized by fractured institutions and a weak security apparatus. For junior officers to be able to take over, their senior officers must be weak and the military divided. Well organized professional militaries will channel the ambitions of their officer corps into more productive outcomes of leadership. Similarly when law enforcement agencies and the courts have their powers clearly defined, delineated, and enforced, it is difficult to do away with them or subvert their activities.
We were fortunate to have witnessed the Ol’ Pussy Grabber’s attempt to subvert the FBI and Department of Justice. We saw how successful, how far he was able to come in four years. Had he been re-elected, he would, no doubt, have completely coopted the Department of Justice for his personal needs. We were equally fortunate to have a very professional and independent military, but Mike Flynn and his brother General Charles Flynn demonstrate how easily the military can be bent to the will of an authoritarian.
Weak fractionalized governments still have power centers that seek to expand their spheres of influence and control. The would-be authoritarian ruler has to overcome their resistance by either winning them over or replacing them with more willing individuals. No authoritarian dictator comes to power without the help of many willing people. Just remember that.
The other route to power is through a weak political party. Frequently, these parties are organized by the rising dictator. This route requires them to be democratically elected and then the members of the office holders abandon the rule of law in favor of the personalities diktat. It takes time to take over a sufficient number of offices through election or appointment to end the rule of law. It is also the way most democracies are taken over.
The Ol’ Pussy Grabber used a weak Republican Party to get into office. They were so weak that their 2020 platform was whatever Trump wanted. The problem for us is that Republicans still hold many offices and are willing to use them to undermine our elections.
Putin rose to power in this way, too. It has taken him twenty-two years to consolidate his power to the point that he can invade a European country.
Human beings form our opinions and beliefs based upon what those around us believe to be true. While it is somewhat circular — I’ll believe what you’re believing and you’ll believe what I’m believing — it works by persuasion and perception. We’ll work out together what we believe in a weird feedback loop. But, we also listen to voices other than our own and incorporate their beliefs and opinions into our own. As a group we balance any single bad decision or misinterpretation with those of others. It’s worked pretty well for over 40,000 years with only a few thousand really bad group decisions being recorded in the anus of history.
However, this is why group decisions are often more radical and extreme than individual decisions. We feel our individuality get swept away into the group. Our desire to belong overcomes any moral qualms we might have about what the group is doing and any individual responsibility is drown in the sea of people participating. Perceiving group consensus makes us less likely to voice our dissent.
When a group coalesces around a dominant leader who cannot brook any dissent, they often will silence any of their number who disagree. They stop looking for contradictory information. Even if members disagree, they won’t say anything and go along to get along.
Kinda sounds like the modern Republican party, don’t it?
When this happens it is known as groupthink. As groupthink picks up steam the group takes on certain common characteristics:
Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.WHAT IS GROUPTHINK?
Illusion of invulnerability –Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.
Collective rationalization – Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.
Belief in inherent morality – Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
Stereotyped views of out-groups – Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.
Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
Illusion of unanimity – The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.
Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ – Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.
The decisions coming out of groupthink are increasingly reckless, dangerous, and immoral. The group experiences fewer and fewer checks on its behaviors and, as a result, becomes more self destructive. We see this taking place with the Republican party right now. And, we’ve been seeing this in Putin as he’s become increasingly isolated and hears fewer dissenting voices in his circle of advisors.
We should expect Putin to make erratic and paranoid decisions. We should not take him as a good-faith negotiator or actor as the Ukrainians seeking refugee corridors out of souther Ukraine are finding.
Putin has made several statements that should be concerning:
- He’s threatened to use nuclear weapons.
- He’s attacked nuclear power plants risking releasing substantial amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere.
- He’s called sanctions acts of war.
- He’s demanding unilateral compliance with his goals in Ukraine as conditions for the cessation of his aggression.
He is relying on barbaric tactics to achieve his goals. He is attacking Ukraine cities indiscriminately bombing population centers and destroying civilian infrastructure. He will continue to up the ante as long as Ukraine continues to resist, but, of course, Ukraine will resist him, what choice has he left them?
We should expect war crimes and crimes against humanity to be committed by Russian forces. They will raze the ground of Ukraine cities. The execution of the war by the Russians will be more brutal and inhumane than anything on modern record.
Yet, the West cannot completely join the war. To do so would risk a nuclear escalation. Eventually, though, Putin will come to see the West’s resupply of Ukrainian forces as an act of war much like Germany did in World Wars I and II. And, like Germany, he will attack our supply chain. Hopefully, Biden and other Western leaders have already thought about their reaction when the first allied transport plane is shot down or convoy shelled.
The most efficient way to deter Putin is to sanction his oligarch allies and the officer corps of his military. People change when they are in enough pain to change. We have to inflict pain upon the Russian elite and offer them a way out of the madness in order for them to stand up to Putin.
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Categories: Social Psychology