Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

13 December 2016

Russia’s Meddling in Our Elections: the Implications are Even Worse Than you Think


[For a recent post on how Trump thinks, click here. For a recently popular page on the coming transition in free-world leadership, click here. For a recent post on saving federalism in the EU and US, click here. For a recently updated page on Trump’s transition, with a new General Overview, click here.]

Today the politisphere was all agog with news about the CIA. Its analysts say that Russian hacking and related propaganda helped swing a very close Electoral-College race to Trump. The FBI demurs. It doesn’t dispute the “overwhelming circumstantial evidence” of Russian hacking. It just disputes the Russian motive and goal: to throw our election to Trump.

According to the New York Times (Mon., Dec. 12, 2016, at A11), the FBI’s demurral arose out of its stronger standard of proof. The CIA operates only abroad. It can act covertly and unilaterally, through black ops, black sites and even secret foreign prisons. So it can use the standard of proof that most of us use in daily life: more likely than not. In contrast, the FBI has the task of bringing criminals to our courts and convicting them under our laws. For that purpose, our legal system requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

OJ Simpson was acquitted of murder but later held liable civilly on the very same facts. The difference was the standard of proof in criminal and civil trials. For OJ and many others, that difference is decisive.

So the standard of proof does provide a plausible theory why the FBI and CIA differ on Russian motives. But let’s not ignore the obvious. James Comey, who still heads the FBI, is the same guy who violated all rules of professional discipline and prosecutorial restraint, plus written rules and policies at Justice, to bring us the the “October surprise” that probably threw the election to Trump. If he could step so far out of line as to break all the rules of his profession and destroy his reputation as a nonpartisan straight shooter, might he have put his thumb on the scales of the FBI’s analysis, too?

It would be hard, if not impossible, to disentangle the effects of Russian hacking from Comey’s October surprise. Political scientists would have to delve inside individual voters’ minds. So we will likely never know whether—perhaps for the first time in American history—a foreign power influenced an American presidential election. Yet we should check at least a few electronic precincts in key battleground states to make sure the Russians didn’t hack the election results directly. Probably the recounts now going on will shed some light on that question.

In any event, the real issue is not whether Russian hacking threw the election to Trump because he has a less hawkish attitude toward Russia than Hillary. If that were the sole result, it might actually be positive.

While gigantic geographically, Russia has less than half our population and an economy the size of Italy’s. It has plenty of oil, but it can’t even persuade or cajole OPEC. Its economy is a mess—far too dependent on natural resources, and far too concentrated in politicians’ hands. It’s making some trouble in Ukraine and plenty in Syria. But Iran and Assad himself are equally culpable. And North Korea’s Kim Jong Il is far more dangerous and unpredictable than Putin, who’s very smart and very cautious.

More important, as most Americans don’t know or don’t care, Russia’s Soviet Union, not we, won the Second World War in Europe. While we, the Brits and remnants of the free French were fighting ten Nazi divisions in the West, the Russians were fighting 200 on the Eastern Front. Russia lost more people than any European country in that war—an estimated 23 million, about one out of seven of its entire population. So Russians know the cost of war better than any other people on this planet.

Not only that. Although parts of our countries are near enough for Sarah Palin to see Russia’s foreign policy from her porch, Russia’s center of gravity is on the opposite side of the globe from ours. There is absolutely no reason for our two nations to pick fights with each other. The only plausible reason is psychological. We almost duked it out with nukes in 1962, but we both stopped for a very good reason: avoiding species self-extinction. Now some of us, on both sides, “reason” like testosterone-fueled teenage street fighters spoiling to see who’s tougher.

This is insane. No matter what the motive, including conflicts of interest, if Trump can get America and Russia to relate to each other more as normal countries, on a routine, businesslike basis, that would be a good thing. And Trump’s propensity to do that, rather than to blindly follow the deadly Cold War logic of perpetual enmity, is one of the very few respects in which his erratic and poorly-expressed policies beat Hillary’s hands down. We can cooperate—and we do routinely—on the International Space Station and in fighting IS, so why not more broadly?

So it’s not the policy result that matters. A less warlike relationship between Russia and America would be good for everybody and good for business. The problem with Russia’s hacking and selective revelations is something much deeper and much more sinister. They may have given us an incompetent president, but our own “democracy” made that possible.

Both Russia and America have the outward forms of a democracy. But neither is a real democracy. Russia never was. It tried to be for a decade or so after Gorbachev, but it lapsed back into a sort of monarchy, with Putin cleverly and resolutely taking all the reins of power into his hands and becoming the latest tsar.

Meanwhile, America has degenerated into oligarchy. It has minority rule in Congress, which has now hardened into custom and tradition. In the formation of real policy, business and corporate interests inevitably prevail, as a recent comprehensive academic study shows.

Yet despite their similarity as democracies in form but not substance, our two nations differ radically in stability. Russia has no term limits. Al least Putin has effectively circumvented them. So it looks as if he, as modern tsar, will rule until he becomes senile, dies, or retires. Therefore Russia’s policy will be a stable as Putin’s psyche, which, although apparently getting more provocative, so far has not made any major blunders. (Russia’s intervention in Syria may turn out to be as catastrophic as ours in Iraq, but it will take another decade at least to find out.)

If you look at us Yanks from outside, it’s hard to imagine a nation less stable. In about a month and a week the ultra-cautious, thoughtful, politically-correct, offend-no-one and take-few-or-no-risks approach of Barack Obama will morph into Donald Trump’s habits of offending everyone all the time and saying (if not doing) the first thing that comes into his mind. No one, not even his closest confidants, can predict what he will do.

So Russia-watching and China-watching are simple, compared to watching us Yanks! Our nation today is about as stable as were European nations in the epoch of monarchy, when a demented and self-obsessed hunchback like Richard III could succeed (after a brief interregnum of the doomed child Edward V) a capable purveyor of stability, law and order like Edward IV.

If you analyze causes, you can see two major reasons for this instability. The most immediate one was that our oligarchy was and remains split.

The term “oligarchy” implies a monolithic social class. But American’s business oligarchy is anything but monolithic. Our oligarchy includes people like George Soros, who uses his billions to support democracy around the globe, Bill Gates, who uses his money to cure disease and promote clean energy, and Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers, who just want government to get out of the way and, at best, disappear so they and their ilk can get richer. They describe all this as “freedom.”

Sometimes these diverse views among the oligarchy can create the appearance of a real democracy. The oligarchy rules through lobbying, extramural influence, special access to elected officials, campaign contributions and massive, expensive propaganda. When it can’t agree among its members, what looks like genuine discussions of public policy may take place.

But this is a sham, of course. The public—let alone the few percent who tuned in during the last week of the campaign and voted for Trump—can’t be bothered with nuances of policy. They’re much too complex for the average voter to digest, let alone to master. So demagoguery, from whatever source, decides the outcome.

This is the second reason for our national instability. Electoral campaigns inevitably degenerate into things that the general public can understand, like defects of character, gaffes, verbal inconsistencies, simplistic “red-meat” solutions to complex problems (like Trump’s wall), and conflicts of interest. If you replay the three Hillary-Donald presidential debates, you’ll find that less than an eighth of the discussion was about actual policy, on some of which the two candidates actually agreed. The rest—the vast majority—involved meaningless charges and countercharges and titillating trivia. Neither our own pundits nor foreign analysts can reliably predict how voters should or will respond to this nonsense.

The phenomenon of incessant negative campaigning focused on personalities is the culmination of something our Founders wanted to avoid: direct elections. They knew that ordinary people would be far too focused on their own busy lives and would lack the education, time and interest to follow and master nuances of public policy. So they bequeathed us a representative democracy, or at least they tried to. They envisaged a permanent political class of experienced, savvy leaders. We would elect these leaders through party apparatuses in close, local contact with the people they represented, and they in turn would select higher leaders all the way up to the president. (The Electoral College was supposed to work like that, but it has become a rubber-stamp for state-by-state direct elections.)

We Yanks used to have a simulacrum of this system, in which party conventions actually meant something. But slowly, gradually, since World War II, political parties atrophied and became vestigial organs, like the human appendix. Like the human appendix, they can become inflamed and offer us demagogues with minimal relevant experience, such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, or utter novices like Marco Rubio. None of these men any savvy, experienced pol would have thought of offering to the general electorate as little as a generation ago.

Once our direct primaries produced an incompetent candidate at the Republican Convention, our oligarchs were even more split. Those who don’t give a damn about anything other than lower taxes and repealing regulations went for Trump. No matter how much damage he might do in other respects, they thought, he would give them those things. (And so, if his Cabinet picks are any guide, he will.)

The rest of the oligarchs, many of whom are finely educated, intelligent and public-spirited, couldn’t abide Trump’s lack of experience, lack of self-restraint, and self-evident character defects. So they went for Hillary. They tried to gin up enthusiasm for her, despite the chain of failures and blunders in her long career—“Hillarycare,” Iraq, the 2008 racist campaign against Obama, and e-mailgate, a “scandal” of her own making that Comey’s October surprise exploited.

After some vacillation, the greatest propaganda machine in human history (Fox), which sells propaganda as entertainment and makes a fortune doing so, went with the first group of oligarchs, for Trump. It held its nose against the stench of character and went for the guy who promised lower taxes, less regulation, more fossil fuels, and a stronger oligarchy. Unbeknownst to the other group of oligarchs, which had a decisive advantage in oligarchic and popular campaign contributions, the Trumpets also had a secret weapon: Twitter and its use for 140-character lies. How could you do anything but lie when approaching complex, presidential-level issues in 140 characters?

So now we are nearing the final destruction of our Founders’ sensible plan. If elections depend on a tiny minority of voters in key states, who spend maybe two hours’ worth of total time making up their minds, and if they get most of their information from TV and the Internet, why not make it easy for them? Why not feed them lies in 140-character bites, which they can digest easily? Why not bank on their naïveté and echo-chamber online experience, which keep them from seeking, let alone finding, the truth? Why not wait to post your decisive lies until a few days before the election, when there is little time to respond?

Is there any better way to make the results of elections inscrutable and unpredictable? Is there any better way to give incompetents with zero relevant experience equal opportunity? Is there any better way to encourage late-campaign lies? And should we be surprised if foreigners join the fun?

As unlike as they are in so many things, including experience, Putin and Trump are two peas in a disinformation pod. They both got where they are by manipulating information and, where necessary, lying.

The two men only differ in methods. Putin uses the half-millennial lore of the Russian “special services” (once the KGB, now the FSB), honed for centuries under the tsars, then in Stalin’s Terror, the Cold War, and lately the rough and tumble of what passes for politics in Putin’s Russia. Trump has human history’s most effective single propaganda machine (Fox), which, after some hesitation, now works for him for free. And he has the Internet, including Twitter, to serve as both his watchdog and his echo-chamber central.

Putin’s government also resorts to violence. A number of journalists have been murdered in Russia, including several while investigating corruption and Russia’s subjugation of Chechnya. One of the most talented liberal pols in Russia, Boris Nemtsov, was shot down on the streets near the Kremlin like a mobster in Al Capone’s Chicago. A number of so-called Russian “oligarchs,” aka successful business tycoons, have been jailed and/or exiled. And Putin started a low-level rebellion in Eastern Ukraine that, so far, has killed thousands and displaced over a million, with purpose and outcome still unclear.

Not even China does stuff like that. It jails people after kangaroo “show trials.” It even abducts people, as it did four dissidents in Hong Kong recently. But it doesn’t kill them.

So a direct comparison between Putin and Trump is not appropriate, yet. After all, Putin is the professional, and Trump the amateur. When it comes to lies and disinformation, Putin has decades of KGB experience under his belt. His lies are subtle shading of the truth, or bolder lies not traceable back to him. In this case, his “disinformation” wasn’t even lies; it was real e-mails of real Dems, released and timed for the most potent effect.

Trump is a “natural” liar, to be sure, but he’s still learning. Will his lie that “millions” of fraudulent votes were counted for Hillary last as long as Dick Cheney’s lie that Saddam had a part in 9/11? Stay tuned.

As for Putin’s meddling and disinformation, we can and should fight them in his neighborhood with the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. They have been the most cost-effective antidote to lies and disinformation we Yanks ever devised. We initiated them as the Iron Curtain came down. But when I was on a Fulbright Fellowship in Moscow decades later, in 1993, they were still the most technically competent and professional news services anywhere on the air in Moscow. They succeeded precisely by avoiding bias and propaganda and sticking to facts and entertainment.

We need to keep them going and extend them into the Internet, Facebook and Twitter. Letting them languish would be about as prescient as our Supreme Court when it decided that the South no longer wanted to deprive black voters of their franchise. Just about three years after that decision, a federal appeals court ruled that a North Carolina voter ID law had been illegally designed to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”

Leopards do not change their spots so quickly, in any country. Willy nilly, our oligarchic American empire is now in a struggle with the Russian empire for control of the minds and hearts of our own and other nations. We are up against an experienced professional spook, with decades of deluding under his belt. We now have a president-elect who uses much the same techniques, less professionally and much more crudely, for much the same purposes.

We can be thankful that, in such a reality-free atmosphere, the competition has shifted to the information sphere, away from the nuclear arms race, with all its existential risks. We can be thankful that our president-elect, erratic and unqualified as he is, wants to reduce the risk of military conflict. But an almost equal danger lurks in this new competition: loss of the ability to see truth and even loss of belief in the existence of facts.

If Trump continues to play fast and loose with the facts, foreign leaders will lose confidence in us, too. China’s official comment, in its Global Times, that Trump showed the “ignorance of a child” in foreign affairs by calling up Taiwan’s leader on his own, does not bode well for respect for our government. If Trump cannot contain his lies to sources not traceable back to him, as Putin does with his many hidden sources of disinformation, our information war with Russia will be a lopsided and losing one. Foreign leaders are not nearly so credulous as our average voter surfing the Web.

The First Amendment is rife with danger, and the Internet is the First Amendment on steroids. It allows anyone and everyone to promote lies, which can “go viral,” reverberating in partisan echo chambers around the globe. Controlling lies and propaganda is almost impossible, as we have learned in trying to shut down IS’ recruitment for mayhem.

This is the darker meaning of Russia’s hacking and selective revelations, under Putin’s probable approval or direction. They have influenced, if not determined, the outcome of our presidential election, although Comey’s October surprise was probably more decisive. They have indeed helped give us an incompetent president. But the real fault lies in our own electoral system, which gave our untutored voters the choice of an incompetent, inexperienced man and somehow “normalized” him.

If other nations take advantage of the Internet that we invented to sway an election that our own system has badly botched, can we blame them? And can we do so when our own president-elect has achieved a similar status by similar, but much less subtle, lies?

The old saw that “truth is the first casualty of war” is accurate in essence. But untruth can also cause war. Or it can make wars much more bestial, as did demonizing and dehumanizing of Chinese by Japanese, of Jews and Eastern Europeans by Nazis, of the Japanese by us Yanks, and perhaps some day soon, of peaceful Muslims by Trump, Bannon and Flynn. The same techniques that the Russians and Trump used in the past election to reduce the risk of war can be used to start one, even a nuclear one.

Like an organism that is blind and deaf, a nation that cannot see the facts or the truth is destined for injury or death. Perhaps the greatest challenge of the twenty-first century is resurrecting the close connection with facts maintained abroad by the by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, and in our own nation by Walter Cronkite when he ruled the news and there were only three networks. If we let the Internet continue to dilute or deny facts—if we let partisans, interest groups, troublemakers like Steve Bannon, and even whole nations see the world quite differently and live on lies—our nation and our whole species is in for a world of hurt.

The danger is no less than that posed by the proliferation of nuclear weapons, for it is human hands, and possibly deluded human minds, that control them. So the primary challenge of the twenty-first century is finding a reliable way to get truth, or at least basic facts, to the masses, over the noise of the Internet and deliberate disinformation campaigns by the likes of Putin, Trump and his sidekick Steve Bannon. The alternative is to let democracy go completely vestigial, at least in the great empires, so the modern tsars, commissars and oligarchs can rely on their intelligence services or private, for-profit sources of accurate information and keep the people, like peasants in the Middle Ages, passing rumors impotently in the dark.

Footnote 1: The best place for skeptical or ill-informed Americans to learn who really won the war in Europe is Part 2 of Oliver Stone’s “Untold History of the United States," now available under “Documentaries” on Netflix. Long before viewing it, I wrote a post summarizing Russia’s mammoth sacrifices and losses in the war, including deaths in the siege of Leningrad alone that exceeded all our deaths on both fronts in the entire war.

Footnote 2: I may have a case of sour grapes, but I’m not terribly sorry that Hillary lost. She would have been a mediocre president at best. Although she might have brought some good people with her, she had a high risk, as president, of committing blunders as disastrous as those she made as a candidate. Now that she’s out of the picture, we progressives have a chance to groom a woman who’s a real leader and doesn’t make silly mistakes: Elizabeth Warren. Give her some heft in foreign and military policy, so she can be a credible commander-in-chief, and she could become a female blend of both Roosevelts: Teddy and FDR. And with Trump’s presidency shaping up to be a disastrous mess, she just might win in four years if she can acquire the necessary credibility in foreign affairs, and if she can attract a critical mass of oligarchs (outside of Wall Street!) to her side.

Footnote 3: If you want to feel in your gut, not just think in your mind, how much Putin is Russia’s latest tsar, watch the first seventeen minutes or so of this footage on Putin’s inauguration as president in 2012. You can also hear his inaugural speech, which has many moderate and conciliatory elements. (The year 2012 came well before he started to raise his risk profile.) But take the time to let the whole ceremony sink in, as presented on Russian Television. Only by doing so can you understand that Putin is not the leader of a free people, but a much smarter, slier, more decisive and ruthless successor to the Romanovs, with a military-industrial complex no tsar ever had. If you haven’t the patience to watch for the whole seventeen minutes, just watch from 12:20 to 16:42. You’ll soon have a good idea exactly who and what Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is, and how greatly his position in Russia differs from that of any Western democratic leader.

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