Stephen Cohen Explains Who Is Really Undermining American Democracy
Who’s Really ‘Undermining’ American Democracy?
Allegations that Russia is still “attacking” US elections, now again in November, could delegitimize our democratic institutions.
By Stephen F. Cohen
OCTOBER 31, 2018
Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at NYU and Princeton, and John Batchelor continue their (usually) weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fifth year, are at TheNation.com.)
Summarizing one of the themes in his new book, War with Russia? From Putin and Ukraine To Trump and Russiagate, Cohen argues that Russiagate allegations of Kremlin attempts to “undermine American democracy” may themselves erode confidence in those institutions.
Ever since Russiagate allegations began to appear more than two years ago, their core narrative has revolved around purported Kremlin attempts to “interfere” in the 2016 US presidential election on behalf of then-candidate Donald Trump. In recent months, a number of leading American media outlets have taken that argument even further, suggesting that Putin’s Kremlin actually put Trump in the White House and now is similarly trying to affect the November 6 midterm elections, particularly House contests, on behalf of Trump and the Republican Party. According to a page-one New York Times “report,” for example, Putin’s agents “are engaging in an elaborate campaign of ‘information warfare’ to interfere with the American midterm elections.”
Despite well-documented articles by Gareth Porter and Aaron Maté effectively dismantling these allegations about 2016 and 2018, the mainstream media continues to promote them. The occasionally acknowledged lack of “public evidence” is sometimes cited as itself evidence of a deep Russian conspiracy, of the Kremlin’s “arsenal of disruption capabilities . . . to sow havoc on election day.” (See the examples cited by Alan MacLeod at FAIR.org.)
Lost in these reckless allegations is the long-term damage they may themselves do to American democracy. Consider the following possibilities:
Even though still unproven, charges that the Kremlin put Trump in the White House have cast a large shadow of illegitimacy over his presidency and thus over the institution of the presidency itself. This is unlikely to end entirely with Trump. If the Kremlin had the power to affect the outcome of one presidential election, why not another one, whether won by a Republican or a Democrat? The 2016 presidential election was the first time such an allegation became widespread in American political history, but it may not be the last.
Now the same shadow looms over the November 6 elections and thus over the next Congress. If so, in barely two years, the legitimacy of two fundamental institutions of American representative democracy will have been challenged, also for the first time in history.
And if US elections are really so vulnerable to Russian “meddling,” what does this say about faith in American elections more generally? How many losing candidates on November 6 will resist blaming the Kremlin? Two years after the last presidential election, Hillary Clinton and her adamant supporters still have not been able to do so.
We know from critical reporting and from recent opinion surveys that the origins and continuing fixation on the Russiagate scandal since 2016 have been primarily a product of US political-intelligence-media elites. It did not spring from the American people—from voters themselves. Thus a Gallup poll recently showed that 57 percent of those surveyed wanted improved relations with Russia. And other surveys have shown that Russiagate is scarcely an issue at all for likely voters on November 6. Nonetheless, it remains a front-page issue for US elites.
Indeed, Russiagate has revealed the low esteem that many US political-media elites have for American voters—for their ability to make discerning, rational electoral decisions, which is the bedrock assumption of representative democracy. It is worth noting that this disdain for rank-and-file citizens echoes a longstanding attitude of the Russian political intelligentsia, as recently expressed in the argument by a prominent Moscow policy intellectual that Russian authoritarianism springs not from the nation’s elites but from the “genetic code” of its people.
US elites seem to have a similar skepticism about—or contempt for—American voters’ capacity to make discerning electoral choices. Presumably this is a factor behind the current proliferation of programs—official, corporate, and private—to introduce elements of censorship in the nation’s “media space” in order to filter out “Kremlin propaganda.” Here, it also seems, elites will decide what constitutes such “propaganda.”
The Washington Post recently gave such an example: “portraying Russian and Syrian government forces favorably as they battled ‘terrorists’ in what U.S. officials for years have portrayed as a legitimate uprising against the authoritarian government of President Bashar al-Assad.” That is, thinking that the forces of Putin and Assad were fighting terrorists, even if closer to the truth, is “Kremlin propaganda” because it is at variance with “what U.S. officials for years have” been saying. This was the guiding principle of Soviet censorship as well.
If the American electoral process, presidency, legislature, and voter cannot be fully trusted, what is left of American democracy? Admittedly, this is still only a trend, a foreboding, but one with no end in sight. If it portends the “undermining of American democracy,” our elites will blame the Kremlin. But they best recall the discovery of Walt Kelly’s legendary cartoon figure Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”