We should call it the summer of Helsinki: that time after Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin met in secret in Finland’s capital to express commitment to work together on many as yet undisclosed initiatives. Their cabal was hidden in plain sight in an outrageous press conference where Trump expressed preference for Putin’s denial of Russian interference with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. As evidence piles up that the Russians interfered in the election in a wide variety of ways including colluding with the Trump campaign, more and more people across the political spectrum in the U.S. are ironically expressing actual disdain for this issue as something needing urgent attention.
On the right, Trump supporters seem to be getting tutored by Trump and his minions that colluding with Russia to steal the election is not really bad, if it meant preventing the awful Hillary Clinton from becoming president. What’s a little undermining of democracy if it allows our tribe to win out over our enemies in the culture war!
On the left, however, there is also a movement to minimize the issue. There is a growing drumbeat to minimize concern about Russian meddling on the grounds that the U.S. interferes in other countries’ elections all the time. It is simply duplicitous for Americans to cry foul when our government has been guilty of doing the very same thing, for decades no less.
It seems more and more that people across the political continuum are responding to the scandal of Russian involvement in our elections with that sad slogan that was spotted on Melania Trump’s jacket when she went to visit children who have been ripped away from their parents at the border when seeking asylum: I Don’t Really Care, Do You?
Trump’s base of supporters don’t care about democracy anymore it seems because it is increasingly seen as something that allows nonwhites to have a say in a normally white-dominated political system. All you have to do is look at all the efforts to suppress the votes of nonwhites ever since Barack Obama became the first nonwhite president in the history of the country. Republicans have made it a big business to pass restriction after restriction in state after state since Obama got elected in 2008.
Those on the left who seek to minimize Russian meddling are not interested in suppressing the votes of nonwhites. They however do not seem all that enthusiastic in their support of promoting democratic elections either. This is true for several reasons. First, many Leftists see democracy itself as a distraction from the larger issue of realizing social justice. The means to that larger end are really just an instrumental concern and democracy does not have intrinsic value in that regard. In fact, the preoccupation with democratic procedures can be distracting and derail efforts to achieve social justice if people only focus on getting the process right and forget about the larger goal of creating a just society.
Second, there are Leftists who want to minimize the scandal of Russian undermining of the election because it is in their mind simple karma: what goes around, comes around, and the U.S. is now getting a taste of its own medicine. Maybe it will learn to behave more appropriately on the world stage.
I reject all these arguments, both those on the right as well as on the left. I reject the racism of the Right’s disdain for democracy and I reject their raw tribalism that puts their winning over the good of the country at all costs. Yet, I also reject the Left’s instrumentalism about democracy as a mere means to a larger end. Promoting a democratic process is a worthy cause because democracy is itself a noble end that will enrich our lives as people living in a country that respects democratic norms of fairness, equality and openness. I also reject the whataboutism of the karma complaint. Just because the U.S. government has done very bad things in other countries does not justify more bad things happening in the U.S. Simply put, two wrongs don’t make a right.
The conservative legal scholar Jack Goldsmith has written intelligently on this last issue. He notes that the U.S. might want to push for some international standard that would prohibit countries from intervening in each other’s elections. He notes however that this would apply to the U.S. along with everyone else and it would then would put pressure on the U.S. to admit to and apologize for its past misdeeds and to promise not to do it again. Goldsmith thinks that the U.S. would not then want to go down that road and it will be left in a world where there is no international prohibition.
Goldsmith knows a thing or two about the U.S.’s failure to adhere to international norms. He became a controversial figure for bravely resigning when opposing the Bush administration Torture Memos. On this issue of Russian meddling he seems less willing to insist the U.S. should push for and adhere to an international standard.
Personally, I would like to see such a standard put in place and the U.S. lead the way by publicly acknowledging its past wrongs and promising to mend its ways going forward. While it is not likely to happen, we should talk about it as a country. We should commit to realizing such a standard for the good of democracy everywhere.
In the end, the question of what to do about the Russian interference is existential. We, as citizens who aspire to participate in free and fair elections, need to make a raft of changes to ease access to the ballot, reduce the ridiculous amounts of wealthy people’s money dominating campaigns, and to make our elections more open and fair in a variety of other ways. We should do all that irrespective of whether our elections have ever been fair before, because we, those who get to have a say now, should want to insist on democratic elections as important end in itself. Regardless of the past, regardless of the wrongs, we should try to make our elections as democratic as possible starting right now. Banning foreign influence to undermine our democratic aspirations is part of that quest. We should really care about that. If we don’t, we will likely only get more Trumps. That can’t be a good thing, for either democracy or justice.
Sanford F. Schram is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College.