Increased but Insincere Support? New Evidence from Putin’s Post-Crimea Annexation

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Leah Costik, covers the new article by Henry E. Hale, George Washington University, Authoritarian Rallying as Reputational Cascade? Evidence from Putin’s Popularity Surge after Crimea

Elected leaders tend to enjoy an increase in popular support when the countries they govern become embroiled in international conflict. For example, George W. Bush could boast a 90% approval rating in the wake of 9/11. Existing theories claim that such “rally effects” occur due to favorable media coverage, support from opposition party members, and/or an uptick in patriotism. These existing theories share a basic assumption: rallies or rally effects reflect sincere changes in preferences, or individuals’ beliefs. In his new American Political Science Review article, Henry E. Hale argues for a re-examination of the causal mechanisms in relation to rallying effects.

Hale’s argument lies in the interaction between social desirability considerations, preference falsification, and an ensuing reputational cascade. He builds upon theories that argue individuals change or falsify their preferences because they desire to appear socially acceptable when compared to other members of the same society. In the wake of an international conflict, early and prominent messages of support for elected leaders create an impression that supporting a leader is “the most prevalent and hence socially desirable attitude to hold.” These messages, especially when circulated throughout social media and on television, convince individuals who are sensitive to social pressures to adopt the same positive attitude toward the elected leader to appear socially acceptable, even if these individuals do not sincerely hold such political beliefs. Individuals may adopt public preferences (which diverge from their private ones) to protect themselves from risks such as repression, a threat which can be particularly high within non-democratic systems.

Social desirability considerations and subsequent preference falsification can result in a reputational cascade. Similar to a row of falling dominos, a reputational cascade makes more and more individuals adopt the same socially desirable attitudes until a social consensus is reached. Hale describes this entire process of social desirability, preference falsification, and an ensuing reputational cascade as a “regime defection cascade in reverse.” Reputational cascades have been associated with regime defection (for example, in the Arab Spring). In the event of an international conflict or shocking political event, individuals look to the media to get new information. If the media portrays messages of popular support for elected leaders, a “regime defection cascade in reverse” gets support, rather than defection, for the government.

“Importantly, Hale does not claim that all rallying is insincere. Rather, he argues that rallying may involve a “substantial reputational cascade component” and does not always reflect sincere beliefs in non-democratic (and possibly democratic) settings.” Hale investigates two hypotheses related to his theory of dissembling and a reputational cascade. He differentiates between two types of supporters: ralliers and dissemblers. Ralliers are individuals who went from a position of non-support to support for Putin. Ralliers’ position of support changed immediately following the rally event. Dissemblers represent individuals who were non-supporters but eventually came to mask or deny their position of non-support and claim support. Hale’s research uses a case study of increased popular support for Vladimir Putin after the 2014 Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula that juts into the Black Sea. After this international conflict, Putin enjoyed an increase of support from 60% to 80% of the Russian population. A nationally representative panel survey of approximately 1,650 individuals was administered in two rounds. An experiment designed to shield interviewees from embarrassment and allow them to answer freely helped him determine that as many as 75% of Putin’s “‘Crimea ralliers’” engaged purposely in a type of dissembling: misrepresenting their past voting behavior. Another experiment indicates these people are insincere not only about their past, but also their present attitudes. In other words, a large share of “Crimea ralliers” were likely insincere in their support for Putin.

Importantly, Hale does not claim that all rallying is insincere. Rather, he argues that rallying may involve a “substantial reputational cascade component” and does not always reflect sincere beliefs in non-democratic (and possibly democratic) settings. Hale’s research makes several important contributions to existing literature on rallying effects. First, he draws readers’ attention to potential differences in rallying effects across regime types. Second, Hale usefully distinguishes between sincere and insincere preference change, challenging a long-standing assumption of sincerity within the literature on rallying effects. Finally, Hale’s research forces readers to reflect upon an uncomfortable question: If individuals mask their private preferences and adopt what they perceive to be a more socially acceptable preference, what implications might this process have for various forms of political behavior? In this article, Hale not only teaches us something new; he leaves us with exciting questions for future research.