Russian influence is a problem. But it’s also a distraction.

I often get pushback — sometimes quite angrily — when I express skepticism about the danger of Russian influence in the United States. So I want to explain why I do that.

These days you need caveats, so I’ll start with this: There’s no question that Putin opposes liberal democracy, the success of which represents the strongest possible rebuke of his corrupt authoritarian model. I don’t dispute that the Kremlin at least tried to influence the U.S. election, I think it’s quite likely that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians, and I hope Mueller’s investigation gets to the bottom of it.

But I think that, at least in some circles, #KremlinGate has become somewhat of an obsession. Attention is a finite resource. And there’s a real danger, for Trump’s opponents in particular, that this narrative may become a distraction.

Putin’s meddling is a serious danger to the United States only to the extent that it exploits and exacerbates the problems that already plague our democracy. These problem are homegrown, as the last week has made perfectly clear.

Take this piece in War on the Rocks, which describes some of the end goals of Putin’s “social media” warfare: undermining citizens’ confidence in democratic governance; fomenting divisive political fractures; eroding trust in democratic institutions; and blurring the line between fact and fiction.

These may indeed be Putin’s most fervent wishes — but the problems they represent are not his doing. They are ours. We can solve them only at home. The best way to protect ourselves against the Kremlin’s pathogens is to strengthen America’s democratic immune system.

This means, in the first place, recognizing the source of the afflictions Putin exploits: Why is Americans’ trust in their institutions at historic lows? Why are we beset with gridlock in Washington? Why is our media no longer able to hold the line against the onslaught of conspirological bullshit? (Yes, there’s a lot of “fake news” that can be traced to the Kremlin. But I’d say the likes of Alex Jones have done far more to harm America’s media landscape than any of Putin’s cleverest propagandists.)

It is these structural problems, and not the Kremlin, that made for a political environment in which someone like Donald Trump can become president. These problems, of course, in addition to the others besetting 21st century America: The legacy of white supremacy, ruinous health care costs, rising income inequality, the opioid epidemic, and meaningless, low-quality jobs.

Not one word of the millions spent railing against Russia will do a thing to address any of this. And Democrats who hope that they can defeat Trump by lashing him to Putin are deluding themselves.

Here’s something Putin would really hate to hear: That Americans’ decades-long trend of increasing mistrust in their institutions has been reversed. That the American press is flourishing, not pumping out clickbait just to survive. That American young people are engaging with mainstream democracy and turning away from extremism on the left and the right. That the nation’s class and racial inequalities are being addressed, rather than being left to languish. If all of this were the case, even in part, there’s not a thing the Kremlin could do to touch us.

Americans should focus on what’s wrong with America, and leave the conspirology to Putin. There’s nothing stronger than a nation that has the self-confidence to hold itself responsible for its own problems — to face them squarely, to analyze them honestly, and to address them with boldness and imagination. An America like that would have nothing to fear from any foreign power.

Shaming Trump supporters won’t work.

When former Trump supporters – both politicians and ordinary people – start to break away from him, I predict that, for liberals, it will feel profoundly unsatisfying. They’re going to say things like:

“I loved Trump as a candidate. I agreed with everything he said. I just wish he would govern like he campaigned.”

“I don’t regret my vote – at least we stopped Hillary. And he did his best. But he couldn’t work with those people. We need someone craftier.”

“The Democrats aren’t any better. I’m never voting again.”

“I thought he was a real conservative. Turns out he’s basically a regular Democrat.”

It won’t feel like a moral victory. But the more sentiment like this you see, the more it means Trump is in trouble.

The instinctive response will be to scold: “You were okay with everything about him until now?! Shame on you.” I viscerally empathize with that.

But we have to face the country as we find it. Even now, Trump’s approval rating is almost 40%. You’re not going to shame almost half of Americans into reversing everything they believe in. The more you try, the more they’re going to dig in. What you can do, instead, is to give them room. Expand the available space for people to reject Trump while reinforcing their identities instead of rejecting them. Let them say: “I’m against Trump because I’m a real conservative.”

In the long term, the fact that 40% of Americans are fine with a candidate like Trump says something very troubling about our country. It says we have a lot of work to do in civic education, media literacy, and a host of other areas. It says we need to fix our broken institutions. It says our democracy is in real trouble.

But those are longer term issues. In the short term, to get him out, it’s going to take some moral humility – which is going to hurt.

On “Radically Inclusive” Feminism

This article by Jamie Peck (“Stop trying to change feminism to suit your own personal ideology“) is emblematic of a kind of thinking on the left that’s become all but dominant. And, I think, seriously destructive.

What the author is doing is attacking my friend Marisa for daring to call herself a feminist while not holding a slew of far-left positions.
(Ironic, since the very title of the piece criticizes feminists who try to bend the movement to fit into their personal ideologies.)

The author insists that feminism must be “radically inclusive.” What she means is that it must emphasize the participation of, and advocacy for, marginalized women. Fair enough.

But what this appears to mean in practice is that feminism is only real if it also includes anti-Israel activism, specific views on sex work, opposition to capitalism, support for a $15/hr minimum wage, and so on. Feminism “ceases to function as a movement,” the author writes, if it doesn’t identify Hillary Clinton as an “oppressor.”

This is not only creepy. It’s politically impotent.

A huge part of successful politics is building coalitions. If you’re engaging people who are, perhaps, not entirely on board with your platform, you’re doing something right. Conversely, there’s no surer way of weakening a movement than excommunicating everyone who doesn’t adhere to rigid ideological standards.

Just as an example, your “radically inclusive” feminism is going to have a tough time if it excludes both Zionists and pro-life women. How many Palestinian women does the author think are “pro-choice”? I guess they’re out, too.*

This whole thing is nothing new, of course. It was brilliantly parodied in The Life of Brian.

“Whatever happened to the Popular Front?”
“He’s over there.”


*  A commenter on Facebook rightly pointed out that most Palestinians don’t live in Palestine, so I want to clarify that, in this sentence, I meant to refer to Palestinian women who live in Palestine. I have no idea what the prevailing opinions on abortion are in the Palestinian diaspora, but I assume they are varied.

So the DNC was biased for Hillary. What does that mean for U.S. democracy?

As everyone must have heard by now, thousands of emails from the Democratic National Committee were leaked and posted on Wikileaks over the weekend. The big news — which forced the committee’s head to resign and threatened to overshadow the convention this week — was that top party officials had clearly favored Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in the nomination contest, despite the committee’s public protestations of neutrality.

A friend asks:

I was a Sanders supporter, but not fanatical, and definitely plan on voting for Clinton. Do you think this whole thing is a big deal? Does it mean we are not living in a democracy, or is that an overreaction?

Maybe others are having similar thoughts, so I thought I’d contribute my own.

First of all, no, this doesn’t mean we’re not living in a democracy. It’s often helpful to consider these things from a comparative perspective — how does the U.S. system compare to what other countries do? And if you make a habit of doing that, one of the first things you’ll notice is that asking that question as a binary — “Are we a democracy, yes or no?” — isn’t quite the right approach. There are 196 countries in the world, and that means 196 different political systems. And democracy depends on so much more than just elections. There’s also the media environment, the role of special interests, the influence of money, the independence of the legal system, the nature of local governance, the inclusion of women and minorities, and many other factors.

That’s why the answer to “Is country X a democracy?” should be more of a sliding scale than a yes or no. Some — China, North Korea — aren’t even in the ballpark. Other governments are authoritarian but, with varying degrees of seriousness, employ some democratic mechanisms, which do make a difference (Russia or Iran). Some are democratic, but with major flaws (Mexico, Turkey).

And then, even within the clearly democratic world, there’s still plenty of variation. In many countries with parliamentary systems (unlike ours), voters never get to vote for a head of government at all — they just vote for the party that best represents their interests, and the winning party selects a leader. Germany is a good example of this system (though the details are a bit more complicated.) So German voters get way less choice than Americans about who, specifically, will lead them — and yet, in some respects, German governance is probably “better” (i.e. more democratic) than the United States’.

So, the fact that the Democrats’ official governing body preferred one candidate over another doesn’t exactly take us into non-democratic territory.

If you think about it, it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. Hillary has been the consummate insider since the mid ’90s. She’s been in the White House, espouses mainstream, moderately liberal views, is well known for her willingness to cut deals, and has deep relationships with basically all the major players. So it’s not exactly a shocker that the DNC — the very definition of “democratic establishment” — preferred her to Bernie, who didn’t even join the party until last year. And, strictly speaking, it’s not clear why the DNC shouldn’t have a preference. It’s a political party, not an independent judiciary.

Secondly, it’s not obvious that any of this made much of a difference in the race. As Nate Silver never tired of pointing out, Hillary won because she got more votes than Bernie, and it wasn’t super close: 15.8 million vs. 12 million. It’s hard to imagine that anything the DNC did or did not do could have closed a gap this large. Even Bernie’s former press secretary says so:

Here’s the but — and it’s a big one. For whatever reason (there is lots of debate about this, but that’s for another time), citizens of the major Western democracies are losing faith — not just in their particular leaders, but in liberal democracy itself. One of the most obvious symptoms of this is the rise of extremist populism. In France you’ve got Marine Le Pen and her National Front. In Germany there’s Alternative für Deutschland. In the United States — well, this one’s obvious. (And here’s a very good piece by David Brooks, arguing that Trump is only the culmination of many years of Republican rejection of ordinary democratic politics.)

The connection to the DNC scandal is that a non-trivial segment of Bernie voters feel this way too. Now, of course, Bernie himself and the vast majority of his fans have been absolutely clear that they’re fully onboard with democracy. But there’s no doubt that a sizable contingent feels that the system is no longer working. And to the extent that Bernie voters feel rejected, cheated, and lied to by the Democratic party, it’s going to push them towards more extremist viewpoints: that the established order is rotten to the core, and that America needs something completely new. In the short term, their disillusionment makes it harder to defeat Trump. In the longer term, it feeds into the rejection of democracy itself. That, in my view, is the main effect of the DNC scandal. And it’s very bad news.

I’ve argued before, and will almost certainly argue again, that the answer to disillusionment with democracy must be better democracy. If we liberals believe that our system really is best, we’ve got to make it work. The millions of Bernie voters who made a passionate, healthy contribution to the democratic process should be celebrated, and the party had better take their platform into account. Any legitimate problems with the nomination process must be addressed. And of course, in the broader scheme of things, American democracy only deserves to survive if it can address the many pathologies this country still has. So, no complacency, and no tuning out. In the immortal words of Chief Wiggum, this is going to get worse before it gets better.