It Matters, Yes, But How Much?

Are Putin and the DNC leaks worth our attention? Sure. Are they our number one priority now? Probably not.

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As of this moment, millions of people remain incarcerated in this country. Immigrant families are living in fear for their livelihoods and lives, with no idea what may face them over the next four years. An opioid epidemic is ravaging white communities, gun violence is ending hundreds of black lives in New Orleans and Chicago, and the U.S.-created bloodbath in Iraq continues unabated. This is not to mention the civilization-ending threats of climate change and nuclear war

Yet few of these issues would penetrate your consciousness, were you to pay attention to certain Democratic and progressive commentators. Instead, you would see a single-minded focus on the question of Russia, and the connections between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. If, for example, you were to browse through the recent written output of Mother Jones Washington bureau chief David Corn, you would find that fully ¾ of the stories he has written since Nov. 15th concern Russian intervention in the election. If you were to examine the Twitter feed of Neera Tanden, head of the Center for American Progress (one of the left’s major think tanks) you would mostly find comments about Russian hacking and the Wikileaks-Putin-Trump axis. And if you were to look at the news generally, you would see coverage absolutely dominated by the question of Vladimir Putin’s role in the November election.

Indeed, some progressives seem to think that this is the only issue that ought to be discussed at the moment. Esquire’s Charles Pierce was quite direct about this, saying “I honestly believe that this should be the only story dominating the news right now.” In fact, things seem to be getting somewhat out of hand. People are talking about new Cold Wars; John McCain thinks war has already been declared. The hand of the Russians is being seen everywhere, from popular financial blogs to the Vermont electric grid. Though one risks being called a Putin apologist for saying it, one suspects a bit of paranoia may be setting in…

It’s fundamentally understandable to be concerned by the reports about Russian hacking activity. After all, elections should be fair. If they aren’t fair, the entire system’s legitimacy is thrown into doubt. And foreign tampering makes them unfair. But separate from the questions of evidence (which are considerable) are questions of proportion. And there is good reason to believe that progressives and Democrats, confused and terrified at the result of the election, and unsure what to do next, have blown up the issue beyond all reason, and in doing so distracted themselves from talking about things that matter and dedicating themselves to the work of formulating a compelling political agenda and rebuilding power.

Before anything else, let’s remember what Russia’s “hacking the election” (a bizarre term) is actually supposed to have entailed to begin with. If we assume all the facts as alleged, Vladimir Putin did not actually change the result of the election by throwing away ballots or hacking voting machines (even though many Democrats evidently believe this to be the case). He did not send Russian agents to pose as voters, or exercise some form of sophisticated mind-control. The allegation, instead, is that the Russian government embarrassed the Democratic Party by releasing a series of documents from the Democratic National Committee and the email account of John Podesta.

Now, the documents in question are not alleged to be fabricated. The Clinton team made some noises suggesting this was the case early on, but there is now almost complete consensus that they were real. So the allegation here is that the Russian government embarrassed the Democrats by exposing things about the party that were perfectly true. These included the biases of Debbie Wasserman Schultz in the primaries, the leaking of debate questions to the Clinton campaign by CNN contributor Donna Brazile, and Hillary Clinton’s speeches to Goldman Sachs. (Another part of the strategy, according to the recently-released intelligence report, involved broadcasting a documentary on Russian television favorably depicting the Occupy Wall Street movement. One might observe that running a program on Russian state TV is an unusual way to attempt to influence voters in Michigan and Wisconsin.)

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All of this is pretty thin as election manipulation. First, the only plausible theory for how it “manipulated” the election to begin with is that voters didn’t actually like what the documents revealed about Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, so they decided not to vote for her. Democrats are therefore arguing that voters shouldn’t have been able to take into account their feelings about the DNC’s biases in the primary, or Donna Brazile’s unethical coordination, in casting their ballots. This information, i.e. the unseemly truth about the inner workings of the party, should rightfully have remained secret.

But did this information even really have much of an effect? The DNC stories led to Wasserman Schultz’s resignation. But they also mostly confirmed what people knew already. Same with the Goldman Sachs transcripts, which were actually mostly notable for not nearly being as bad as anyone expected them to be. How many people’s decision-making was actually altered as a result of these few news stories? And if this made the necessary marginal difference, was it the bulk of the reason Trump won? (Since we’re in the habit of deferring absolutely to intelligence agencies’ judgments these days, the head of the NSA thinks the DNC stories didn’t make a difference.)

Now, note what I am not arguing: I am not arguing that Russia did not leak the embarrassing DNC information. Nor am I arguing that there should be no consequences for a government trying to aid one candidate over another in a foreign election. But it is important to remember that the “interference” in question did not involve telling lies or changing votes. It involved releasing true information, of genuine public interest, that made people less inclined to vote for one party over another.

I am sure this line of reasoning is not persuasive to many Democrats, who fundamentally believe they lost in an unfair fight. But as a voter, I was extremely glad to know the information that came out of the leaks. I felt it was important. I voted for Hillary anyway, but I felt more informed about how the party worked, and I’m pleased the facts came out. Leaks are often useful in shining light on secretive and undemocratic institutions.

It’s also true that by focusing so intensively on the leaking of DNC information, Democrats are failing to conduct the necessary critical self-reflection on other reasons why they may have lost the election. The DNC leaks would not have mattered at all had the election not been close, and it’s important to understand why the election was close. This requires a serious appraisal of the strategic mistakes the Democrats made, such as failing to focus on blue collar voters in key swing states and failing to craft a compelling message. It requires considering why the Clinton campaign decided to send Lena Dunham to North Carolina rather than sending Hillary Clinton to Wisconsin. It would require some humility, and some consideration of whether some voters’ rejection of the Democrats might have been, in part, an explicable and rational response to factors like major spikes in their health care premiums. Ultimately, single-minded focus on Putin entirely exonerates the Democratic Party from any responsibility for their own loss. And that’s dangerous, because it means they’re not actually trying to figure out how to improve their electoral fortunes in the future.

Even worse, every moment spent talking about Putin is a moment not spent talking about mass incarceration, policing, Social Security, Medicaid, public schooling, Chelsea Manning, gun violence, climate change, and war. It’s true that one can care about many things at once. But it’s also true that political messaging is somewhat zero-sum: you can’t talk about everything, you have to allocate your resources and energy. And if you’re spending all of your time trying to cheerlead the next Cold War (and, by the way, almost making Trump appear sane for being seemingly the only politician disinclined to start such a war), then you’re not pushing the progressive agenda forward. You’re definitely not giving anyone a sense of your major priorities, and you’re also not giving anyone a convincing reason to return to the Democratic Party. Trump is giving press conferences in front of factories whose jobs he has supposedly preserved, while Democrats are frantically calling Trump a Kremlin agent. Who is speaking most to people’s real life material interests?

Sadly, it doesn’t have to be this way. Trump is unpopular, and it wouldn’t take much effort for Democrats to build a serious opposition movement that excited the country and effectively challenged the Republican agenda. But when the media is absolutely dominated by Russia stories, this is going to be impossible. Just consider two hypothetical headlines:

  •  “Democrats Vow To Defend Social Security and Medicare, Fight Trump’s ‘Anti-Working Class’ Agenda”
  • “Democrats Vow To Investigate Russian Hacks, Fight Trump’s ‘Pro-Putin’ Agenda”

Which of these is going to rebuild the party’s political fortunes? Which is going to get politically apathetic people to join our side? And which do we care about most? Yet which are we seeing instead, over and over and over?

It’s difficult to escape the cynical conclusion that a lot of the Democrats’ noise-making on Russia is somewhat opportunistic. Consider what would happen if the roles were reversed. If Trump lost the election, and the intelligence agencies said it was because Putin pulled for Clinton by releasing the Billy Bush tape, what would Democrats say? Would they make the same arguments? Would they say that the Billy Bush tape should never have been heard? Would they say that Clinton’s victory was illegitimate? Would they spend the bulk of their time insisting that the election was compromised?

Of course they wouldn’t. We know exactly what they would do. They would insist that Trump was a sore loser, and would mock him. They would say that the tape had been of public interest, and was genuine, and that focusing on the source of the tape ignores the fact that it was the content that made the difference. And they would say that since there was no allegation that the vote itself was compromised, it was ludicrous and dangerous to delegitimize the election result. (Remember that before the election, it was Democrats warning about the consequences of the losing candidate refusing to accept the election result.) Fundamentally, they would want the country to move on.

So it’s difficult to take the Democrats’ high-minded invocations of patriotism and principle very seriously. Unless we think they would all be doing the same thing if they had won the election rather than lost it, then it is not really about foreign intervention, but entirely about the fact that they still don’t want to believe Trump is really the President-elect.

But they need to accept that, or at least massively dial down their level of concentration on the Russia issue. For one thing, this Putin stuff is a dead-end. We are stuck with Trump, and instead of complaining about all the ways in which his victory was unfair, we need to be figuring out how to make him a one-term president. That’s going to involve the kind of thinking that Democrats really don’t want to do: a deep critical inquiry into their own screw-ups, and (hopefully) an overhaul of their entire way of doing business. It’s harder, and requires more humility, than agitating against the Kremlin. But it’s the only way to win.

It’s also the right thing to do. The people who sit in America’s prisons, the people who work in America’s hotels and orange groves, and the people who clean America’s bathrooms, all need progressivism to work for them. That means they fundamentally need Democrats to keep things in proportion, and to remember how much the DNC email leaks matter, versus how much the needs of the American working class matter.

Author: Nathan J. Robinson

is the editor of Current Affairs.