The framers of the U.S. Constitution famously warned against America getting involved in foreign entanglements, understood in George Washington’s farewell address to mean that the young nation should avoid getting bogged down in foreign conflicts. Less known, but equally critical, was their fear that foreign powers would attempt to influence the elections of their fledgling democratic republic. Indeed, James Madison quoted Alexander Hamilton as warning that: “Foreign powers also will not be idle spectators. They will interpose, the confusion will increase, and a dissolution of the Union will ensue.”
Numerous quotes from the various Founders offer similar warnings. Elbridge Gerry, a delegate to the Constitutional convention and James Madison’s vice president, expressed similar concerns: “Foreign powers will intermeddle in our affairs, and spare no expense to influence them. Persons having foreign attachments will be sent among us, and insinuated into our councils, in order to be made instruments for their purposes.” The Federalist Papers are replete with references to foreign powers nefariously injecting themselves into U.S. elections.
Centuries later, the framers’ fears are manifested like never before in the form of technology that they could not possibly have imagined. In her 2009 essay titled “Extraterritorial Electioneering and the Globalization of American Elections,” Fordham University law professor and former Democratic Congressional candidate (not to mention Bernie Sanders supporter) Zephyr Teachout warned: “because of the Internet, governments, corporations, and citizens of other countries can now meaningfully participate in United States elections. They can phone bank, editorialize, and organize in ways that impact a candidate’s image, the narrative structure of a campaign, and the mobilization of base support.” Although she did not explicitly mention hacking, Teachout’s point was quite prescient.
Given the intensely private content of their own letters (many of which betrayed evidence of differing public and private views), the Founders would likely be appalled by a foreign power’s use of 21st-century technology to influence a U.S. election. Men of the 18th century, they were primarily concerned with meddling on the part of England and France, but their warnings apply just as well to Vladimir Putin, someone with a history of undermining liberal democracies to further Russia’s geopolitical interests.
It is tempting to view the alleged (at this point, highly likely) Russian hacking of the DNC and John Podesta’s emails, as well as the Obama administration’s belated response, through the lens of contemporary domestic politics. It is not surprising that Republicans, Trump supporters in particular, would seek to play down the significance of a cyber attack that further deprives their candidate, who lost the popular vote by almost 3 million, of a mandate.
More surprising is the apathy on the other end of the political spectrum.. Some on the left view the Russian hacks—to the extent that they acknowledge their occurrence—with skepticism, if not outright hostility. Rather than focusing on the bigger picture, in which a foreign power likely stole private information from one of America’s two major parties to use as ammunition against a candidate it didn’t like, they quibble over semantics, seizing upon minor discrepancies or word choices among 19 largely concurring intelligence agencies to cast doubt on their assessment. This, in spite of a 13-page joint report by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI last week explicitly linking groups affiliated with Russian intelligence agencies to the DNC and Podesta hacks. The report described: “an ongoing campaign of cyber-enabled operations directed at the U.S. government and its citizens… In some cases, (the Russian intelligence services’) actors masqueraded as third parties, hiding behind false online personas designed to cause the victim to misattribute the source of the attack.”
Despite attempts by some on the right and the left to muddy the waters, the only real uncertainty surrounding the Russian hacks is whether they were explicitly conducted on Trump’s behalf or just benefited him by coincidence (Occam’s razor, for its part, supports the former conclusion, especially considering the Trump administration’s ties to Russia). In the grand scheme of things, this is a relatively meaningless distinction. Whether the Russians intended to hurt Hillary Clinton, boost Donald Trump, discredit U.S. democracy in general or some combination of the three, their actions constitute an unacceptable assault on an electoral system expressly designed to discourage foreign interference. Allowing a politically motivated cyber attack to go unpunished, regardless of what it revealed, opens up a perilous Pandora’s box in which foreign powers can feel free to meddle in U.S. elections with impunity.
This is not to say greater government transparency is a worthy goal (although it is one that must be weighed against the prerogative of public figures to enjoy some degree of privacy). However, the necessary reforms should derive from the American people and their chosen representatives, not hostile foreign powers selectively leaking damaging information about particular candidates while leaving the reputations of others untouched. It’s not just about Hillary Clinton. In a political environment in which norms against foreign interference are weak, all public figures are at the mercy of states equipped with the capacity to launch cyber attacks. Which begs the questions: Would Trump supporters have been so quick to “move on” had it been their candidate targeted? Would the far left be so quick to downplay the significance of a cyber attack on, say, Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein?
The dangerous precedent set by the Russian hacks far outweighs any public benefit. A small portion of the hacked emails are problematic in that they suggest inappropriate coordination between the DNC and the Clinton campaign. The vast majority of the emails, however, provide a glimpse under the hood of politics as usual, with all the accompanying warts and tumors. The fact is, opposition research and trash talking of the kind contained in the Clinton emails, while not pretty, represents the political process as it currently and has long existed. The same goes for frank conversations with wealthy donors and even attempts to obtain favorable media coverage.
The Clinton campaign’s conduct was not commendable, but it wasn’t singularly awful either. In fact, much of it was rather mundane. There is nothing remotely shocking, for instance, about the notion expressed by Hillary Clinton that politicians must maintain both a “public and private” negotiating position. This is Politics 101, applying to such beloved figures as the framers of the Constitution, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan and even Bernie Sanders. Many politicians with private and public positions achieved great things precisely because they were willing to court multiple constituencies with different, even contradictory rhetoric and policy proposals.
And yet, in the heat of a presidential campaign, such quotes, taken out of context, furthered an unflattering narrative about Hillary Clinton. The hacks, in the broader context of the 2016 election, distorted the public view of the race far more than they illuminated it. They encouraged the media, with its tendency toward false equivalency, to cover relatively mundane examples of Clinton malfeasance as if they ascended to the same level of egregiousness as Trump’s truly unprecedented scandals. Real transparency on the part of Russia and Wikileaks would have revealed that Donald Trump was worse than Hillary Clinton according to every conceivable progressive standard: Wall Street regulation, climate change, universal healthcare, corruption, etc. And yet, the Russian hacks shined a black light on Clinton at a crucial moment of the 2016 campaign and helped Trump to avoid accountability for scandals that made Hillary Clinton look like a paragon of ethics by comparison. The Russian did not offer “transparency” by any honest definition of the term; rather, they were likely attempting to weaponize information for the sake of boosting Donald Trump, a candidate with pro-Russian sympathies.
It is difficult to determine the extent to which the leaked DNC and Podesta emails discouraged support for Hillary Clinton among key demographics; perhaps they never would have voted for her anyway. Democrats would be foolish to use the Russian hacks as an excuse to ignore other factors that led to Clinton’s defeat: poor messaging, insufficient attention to key states and demographics and, of course, Hillary Clinton’s impressive collection of baggage amassed over decades in the public eye. By the same token, leftists should not dismiss the impact or implications of Russian hacking simply because they would prefer a more ideologically convenient explanation (likely revolving around the failures of neoliberalism) for what went wrong. If anything, reforming the electoral primary process and protecting U.S. elections against foreign interference serve the same end of restoring faith in the democratic process. Progressives need not choose between acknowledging the reality of Russian hacks and moving the country in a more progressive direction. We can and should do both.
In the meantime, President Obama was absolutely justified in mounting a proportional response to Russia’s hacks, which included the imposition of sanctions and the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats, for the purpose of deterring future interference in our elections. Defending American democracy, currently under assault on multiple fronts from within (in the form of voter suppression) and without, should be a priority for the American people. If we allow our partisan and ideological enmities to shift the focus away from external threats to our most sacred civic traditions, America could be well on the road to becoming a democratic republic in name only, an illiberal democracy presided over by foreign-backed authoritarian demagogues like Donald Trump.