Putin Didn’t Undermine the Election. We Did.
Three weeks after Election Day, allegations of Russian interference in the contest continue to appear. Adm. Michael S. Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, stated that there was a “conscious effort by a nation-state to achieve a specific end.” Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein has formally called for a recount in Wisconsin, citing reports of potential outside hacking. Hillary Clinton’s campaign has joined the call, even though a campaign lawyer admits that her team has “not uncovered any actionable evidence of hacking or outside attempts to alter the voting technology.” The Post features an article alleging that independent research reveals that Russia ran a “sophisticated propaganda campaign” to interfere in our elections, weaken Clinton and discredit our democracy. But much of the research cited comes from a group that insists on remaining anonymous and bases its conclusions on murky methodology.
"It doesn’t take alleged Russian propaganda operations to reveal that the way we run elections is a disgrace."
Clearly somebody hacked into the Democratic National Committee computers and into Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s email. The intelligence agencies state that the former was done by hackers supported by or promoted by Russia. The agencies have been less clear about the source of the latter. Clinton campaign spokespeople have suggested that the Podesta emails — and the election eve machinations of FBI Director James B. Comey, who no one argues is a Russian stooge — contributed to Donald Trump’s victory. Somehow Comey’s announcement and the dribble of stories out of Podesta’s email forced the Clinton campaign to close with salvos of ads attacking Trump’s character rather than those rousing voters to a clear vision and agenda to make this country work for working people.
What were Russian President Vladimir Putin’s purposes in meddling with the U.S. election, if in fact he did so? (Putin dismisses the charge as “hysteria,” and cybersecurity experts argue there is no hard evidence.)
The Economist argues that “the Kremlin’s main objectives are to discredit the institutions of democratic elections and free press, and to weaken both candidates as much as possible.” It sought to make the election “look messy,” the Economist argues, and to “damage the brand.”
If we’re going to use market lingo — “damage the brand” — in reference to democratic elections, let’s consider Putin’s ROI, his return on (alleged) investment. The two candidates used billions in free airtime and spent more than $1 billion, almost all of it on negative ads, to “weaken” their opponents “as much as possible.” This was, as Trump says, the nastiest campaign not because of anything Russians did, but because of the candidates’ choices.
We didn’t really learn anything from the hacked DNC emails or Podesta emails that we didn’t already know. And those hacks surely aren’t what brought “discredit” to “democratic elections and the free press.” The mainstream media wallowed in horse-race reporting and “gotcha” journalism while devoting little attention to the platforms and promises of the two candidates. It was the media, not Putin, who decided that catastrophic climate change didn’t merit even one question during the course of the presidential debates, or decided that the troubling foreign-policy views of both the hawkish Clinton and the blustery Trump needed less probing than Clinton’s emails or Trump’s potty mouth.
Our election system is embarrassing not for anything Putin allegedly did. In the “world’s strongest democracy,” this is the second presidential election in the past five in which the winner of the popular vote has lost. In U.S. elections, money talks louder than elsewhere, simply because we spend so much more of it — a record $6.8 billion spent in the 2016 presidential and congressional elections. Yet our turnout — 58 percent of eligible voters this year — is among the lowest of all democracies’. It is only in U.S. elections that money is considered protected speech and corporations pass for people. In this year’s elections, the Brennan Center for Justice reports that 15 states had new restrictions on the right to vote, part of a systematic, partisan effort by Republicans to suppress the vote, particularly the vote of people of color. Gerrymandered congressional districts make it so that Democrats must win the popular vote by an overwhelming margin to have any hope of winning a majority in Congress. The Russian-state-funded RT may report on these grotesqueries, but Putin didn’t create them. If we want to keep foreign powers from “discrediting” U.S. elections, we might start by cleaning up a broken system.
The hysteria being drummed up around Putin’s alleged intervention in the U.S. elections isn’t accidental. Neoconservatives and liberal interventionists have been pumping for a new cold war with Russia. Now, with Trump suggesting that he might seek a new detente with Russia, cooperate to attack the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and cool tensions over Ukraine, hyping Putin’s alleged intervention in our elections makes any cooperation more difficult.
In this situation, the press has to be careful that its reporting doesn’t peddle fear and neo-McCarthyite slurs rather than fact. For example, The Post’s front-page article touted “independent researchers” making the sensational claim that Russian propaganda efforts in the election “were viewed more than 213 million times” on Facebook alone. But the primary source of the report was the anonymous executive director of PropOrNot, which apparently started up just this summer and refuses to release the names of its leaders or the sources of its funds. PropOrNot, The Post reported, maintains a list of more than 200 websites that it claims were “routine peddlers of Russian propaganda” during the election. These include RT and Sputnik News, which are funded by the Russian government, but also independent sites such as Naked Capitalism, Truthout and the right-wing Drudge Report.
It doesn’t take alleged Russian propaganda operations to reveal that the way we run elections is a disgrace. Leaders of both parties, if they had any concern for the republic, would move expeditiously to reform our election laws. And it doesn’t take Russian hackers to discredit our free press. Shoddy and shallow reporting on the election contributes more than enough to do that. Putin may be an authoritarian leader and a master strategist. But he didn’t undermine American elections. We do that to ourselves.
© 2016 The Washington Post