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Who’s Responsible for Russian Meddling?

Of course it's the Russians, because they are doing it, either as a direct or indirect action of their government. Hacking into our voter registration rolls or, much worse, hacking into our voting machine tallies, is tantamount to cyber warfare and undermines both confidence in and the results of voting—the ultimate act of free citizens. I am in favor of our government doing everything in their power to protect our voting process from influences that could invalidate it.

Russian meddling extends far beyond trying to directly alter the record of cast votes. We have learned that they have provided fake news reports, used “bots” to promote fake news via sharing and liking on social media, and have promoted, via bots and real accounts, posts, memes and news stories that are likely to divide our nation. In the last election, according to FBI reports, Russian interference was partisan and favored Trump over Clinton. This has led to speculation and investigation into whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. The jury is still out on this issue, but it has led to some very strange outcomes in our political scene: liberals, who have historically promoted cooperation over confrontation with the Russians have become Russian hawks, taking every opportunity to vilify Russia and Vladimir Putin and cast negative accusations at any Republicans who suggest cooperation with Russia. Conservatives, who have always stood for law and order and praised our federal law enforcement, have become suspicious of the motives and even the patriotism of our FBI and Justice Department, while liberals, who have often been suspicious of law enforcement overreach, have claimed that criticisms of the FBI and Justice Department threaten “the very foundations of our rule of law.” It seems clear to me that opinions on these issues are shaped primarily by the perception of political advantage and not facts, and thus can be disregarded as demagoguery on both sides.

Putting the issue of collusion with the Russians aside, the evidence of Russian attempts to shape American political opinion are ominous. Our political system is nearly broken and its ability to enact legislation or policies that benefit our country is stalemated by partisan disagreement and extreme positions that don’t allow the kind of compromise that is necessary for a democracy to work. As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, professors of government at Harvard, and the authors of How Democracies Die have argued, “The lessons of history are clear. Extreme polarization can wreck even established democracies. America is no exception. As long as Americans do not overcome their deepening partisan animosities, democracy remains at risk…” Levitsky and Ziblatt point out that constitutional democracies, our own included, contain the seeds of their own destruction by including mechanisms that allow either a leader or a congress to exercise its total power using what Mark Tushnet, another professor at Harvard, calls “constitutional hardball—exploiting the letter of the law to undermine its spirit.” They are talking about such actions as a president packing the courts or a congress cutting off government funding—both of which are legal and both of which we have recently seen in the U.S. The engine which fuels the use of such techniques—which effectively undermine our democracy so that it ceases to meet the people’s needs—is extreme polarization of the citizenry. This is what Russian meddling seems to be aiming for. It is also something for which we, as Americans, are responsible.

Fake news is believed because people suspend their critical sensibility when they encounter information that confirms their biases. We believe fake news because we want it to be true. When we are duped, it is our own fault. It’s also true that we have allowed ourselves to splinter into entrenched and antagonistic camps; not just Democrats and Republicans, although those are the two largest, but progressives, liberals, conservatives, anti-fascist militants, neo-nazi militants, feminists, LBGT, liberal or conservative “preppers”, various ethnic divisions, etc. The language we use against each other is derogatory, accusatory, demeaning and intolerant. Our groups are cohesive and exclusionary. Within a group, people only talk to each other, except to make attacks on non-group members or members of rival groups. As a nation, we view our fellow citizens with suspicion, sometimes with horror. Most of us cannot fathom how others maintain the views they do and end up attributing it to some kind of character defect, lack of intelligence, biased upbringing, or brainwashing from the “fake media.” The idea of finding common ground is equated with a cowardly surrender of principles.

As Levitsky and Ziblatt point out, a democracy only works if its members exercise “mutual toleration” and “forbearance.” They say, “when mutual toleration exists, we recognize that our partisan rivals are loyal citizens who love our country just as we do.”  Forbearance is “self-restraint in the exercise of power…  In politics, it means not deploying one’s institutional prerogatives to the hilt, even if it’s legal to do so.” Forbearance means not playing the kind of  “constitutional hardball” that we increasingly see our politicians playing. They are doing so because they are being urged on by polarized supporters who regard winning their point as something worth risking bringing down the system. At the extreme, they see the system as already broken, and any concession to preserving it, if it requires compromise, is a failure to stand up for the moral principles their position espouses. If the system stops working, either because a dictatorial president is able to nullify the influence of those who oppose him (or her), or because an uncompromising congress refuses to allow the government to function if its programs are not enacted, then so much the better. At least one has not given in on his or her principles.

These irreconcilable differences and the emotional energy maintaining them are the bulwarks of the kind of polarization that Levitsy and Ziblatt say eventually bring down democratic governments. We are not at that point yet in America, but we appear to be heading toward it, with most people happily contributing to our dysfunction. It is this fallow ground upon which the rain of Russia’s meddling falls. Their goal may be to impair or even destroy America’s ability to function effectively, but their success is based upon the vulnerability we have created among ourselves.

Footnote: Levitsky, S. and Ziblatt, D.”How Wobbly is our Democracy?” New York Times, Sunday Review, JAN. 27, 2018










Reader Comments (1)

In view of the latest mass murder, Casey, I cannot agree with you in regard to this post because you base your argument on a false equivalence between the two sides, whereas I firmly believe (and I base my thoughts on scientific evidence and my having lived under Soviet-made Communism as well as Western cultures other than the U.S.) that the Republican party is no longer a legitimate party but a group of kakistocrats who have, with Russian help, begun their death grip on American democracy with the view of becoming overlords of a civilization in ruins from which they and their offspring will benefit like bedbugs on sleeping victims. I am not dysfunctional. A government dominated by the Party of Death that daily sacrifices its citizens on the altar of the NRA, also an agent of the Russians as we have seen, is not only dysfunctional but criminal.

February 15, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAnca Vlasopolos

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