US Elections Invite External Intervention, As They Well Might

The Robert Mueller indictment of thirteen Russians for ‘interfering’ in the American elections of 2016 confirms the bad news: those elections were ‘influenced’–in some shape or form–by non-Americans. The extent of this ‘influence’ is unclear–whether they decisively swung the election to Donald Trump or not–but be that as it may, one fact remains established: among the various forces aiming to influence American voters minds as they exercised their electoral franchise were non-American ones. It is unclear whether the Russian Internet Agency coordinated with the Kremlin or with the Trump campaign, but they did ‘participate’ in the American electoral process.

One might well ask: why not? The entire world looks on with bated breath as an American president is elected; some wonder whether their country will benefit from US largess, yet others whether they will need to scurry for cover as cruise missiles, drones, and aircraft carriers are sent their way. Russians are not immune to such concern; they, like many of the world’s citizens, are as keen to see their national interests protected by the new US administration. They too have favorites: they would rather see one candidate elected than another. This is as true for American ‘friends’ as it is for ‘foes,’ precisely because those nations too, have varied interests and inclinations, which line up in varied and interesting ways behind different American candidates. Those ‘interests and inclinations’ too, jostle for representation in the American elections.

The US involves and implicates itself in the affairs of many sovereign nations; it places conditions on the aid it sends them; it too, is interested in who gets elected and where (or who comes to power through a coup); the American record of influencing elections and the choice of political leaders and administrations the world over is well known. (Consider just Iraq and Iran as examples.) The US cannot reasonably expect that such involvement and implication will remain unilateral; it especially cannot expect that the rest of the world will not express its interest in American elections by attempting to influence American voters’ choices. For instance, it is not at all unreasonable to expect that leading newspapers like the Guardian or Der Spiegel might write editorials endorsing particular American candidates and expressing sentiments like “We hope the American people will elect X; X‘s polices speak to the establishment of world peace, something that we here in country Y are most eager for.”

American elections have, by virtue of their increased prominence in the American political calendar, also become worldwide entertainment events; they invite punters to lay bets; they drive up television ratings of many television stations and websites–worldwide–on the night of the presidential debates and the election results. Americans are proud of this: look, the whole world is watching as we elect our leaders. Well, those folks want to participate too; they know the folks getting elected could make them lose their jobs, or worse, their lives. American election campaigns are conducted on the Internet; a global platform for communication and information transfer. This invites participation of a kind not possible in yesteryear, when non-Americans could only look on from afar as Americans debated among themselves on who to vote for; now, on Facebook and Twitter and many other internet forums those same folks can converse with Americans and participate in the American electoral process. Americans are used to this kind of participation and influencing on an informal basis: our European and South American and Asian and African friends often exclaim loudly how they hope we will elect X, not Y.

A global player, one as powerful and important as the US, one used to ‘participating’ in the affairs of the world, invites a corresponding participation in its policies; the world has long thought it would be nice if they got a say in electing the American president because of the reach and extent of American power. With American elections now ‘opened’ to the world–thanks to the Internet, that participation has begun.

The 2010 Midterms And The 2016 Presidentials: The Lessons Not Learned

In the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama won 365 electoral college votes. He pulled this political feat off thanks to the Obama Coalition–a motley crew of Democratic faithful, independents, fired up progressives, disillusioned Republicans. Obama talked a good talk on the campaign trail; he spoke of moving on from the Bush legacy; he spoke of a new American attitude to power worldwide, one infected by a moral sensibility. The same passion which would be visible in the Bernie Sanders campaign of the 2016 election season was visible in the Obama campaign: young folks signed up in droves, disaffected and cynical older radicals, impressed by the passion and energy of the ‘young’ Obama, did so too.  Obama came to power with majorities in the House and Senate; the way was clear for him to implement the vision of the Dream he had sold to the American people. (It is worth remembering that Obama could once call on 58 Senators and two Independents who caucused with the Democrats.)

Shortly after the inauguration, the Democratic Party and the Obama administration decided they would and could do without their ‘progressive base’–that they would, instead, negotiate with intransigent Republicans, making concessions that had not yet become sticking points for their political opponents; they decided their ‘base’ was too ‘shrill,’ too ‘radical,’; they decided to tack to the ‘center’ instead, that same political destination which has long served as an excuse for the Democratic Party to not do its job and listen to its constituents. There would be no closing of Guantanamo Bay; bankers would not be prosecuted; nor would torturers; there would be no public option in the national healthcare plan; and so on. The Republican Party and the Tea Party stuck to their playbook and nurtured their ‘base’; the Democratic Party could not be bothered.

Predictably, there was depressed turnout in the 2010 elections; the Coalition had fallen apart. There would be no getting out the vote; no inspirational platform to get behind. Just more of the same.

The Republican Party swept back into power in the House:

Republicans regained control of the chamber they had lost in the 2006 midterm elections, picking up a net total of 63 seats and erasing the gains Democrats made in 2006 and 2008. Although the sitting U.S. President’s party usually loses seats in a midterm election, the 2010 election resulted in the highest loss of a party in a House midterm election since 1938, and the largest House swing since 1948.

And in the Senate:

Republicans won four seats held by retiring Democrats and Republicans defeated two incumbent Democrats, for a total gain of six seats. This was the largest number of Republicans gains since the 1994 elections and also the first time since that election that Republicans successfully defended all of their own seats.

In 2016, the lessons to be learned had not been: a deeply flawed ‘non-change’ candidate was nominated, one who could not command the vote of a post-Bush nation eight years previously; the passion and fervor of a progressive coalition was ignored; inspiration was discarded in favor of triangulation.

The first time as farce; the second time as tragedy.

The Campaign Trail: Where You Go To Say Dumb Things

Could there be a stupider foreign ‘policy’ decision than the one to strike Iran, ostensibly to disrupt its nuclear weapons program? (If the strike ‘succeeds’ it will: encourage Iran to build a nuclear weapon for, as its rulers are likely to notice, only nations with actual nuclear weapons don’t get attacked by the US; consolidate ‘mullah power’; unite the Iranians, current radicals and mullahs alike, against the US; destabilize the region even more as new, possibly more radical alliances than the current Hamas-Hizbollah ones are formed.)

That such a move is even being considered, is being lightly tossed around, by supposedly responsible statesmen, should be cause for some consternation. But viewed from another perspective, the casual trafficking in this threat is also unsurprising when we notice the venue of its proclamation: the election and campaign trail. Where else would something this stupid be said? The invocation of armed power as a solution, indeed, the only viable one, for dealing with a foreign policy problem that requires instead finesse, patience, and a great deal of nuanced, region-specific, historically and culturally sensitive knowledge is a reminder, once again, of how utterly divorced from reality the campaign season can make politicians. And it raises again the question, always worth keeping handy, of the pernicious effect on politics and democracy that the business of elections, electioneering and campaigning can have.

It is now April, the fourth month of the year, and Election Day is almost exactly twenty-eight weeks away. Till then, election-related material will blanket the air waves, newsprint, and the various physical media that bring us the Internet. There will be many more campaign gaffes and ‘gotcha’ moments (Etch-a-Sketch will be reincarnated in many forms; Obama will, in all probability, be asked to backpedal on ‘race issues’; and so on); and more often than not, candidates desperate to rouse the faithful will reach deep into the bag of Dumb Things and pull out one grand exhibit after another. (As it would only be honest to note my political biases, I should point out that I expect more Dumb Things to be said by the Republican candidate than by Obama; the latter seems less relatively inclined to shoot from the hip in these matters.) But none of these differences between candidates will obscure the central issue that the extended election season and the length of the campaign trail are increasingly conducive of the production of a coarsened discourse combined with the  technological efficiency, scope and reach of the modern election’s media apparatus. Sure, there is ‘airing of the issues’, but there is also time and space enough to air half-baked thoughts and pander relentlessly.

A persistent confusion about democracy arises in assigning elections disproportionate importance over and above the creation, maintenance and sustenance of the rest of its crucial economic and political infrastructure; the extended election season with the ample opportunities it provides for Quality Not Quantity, for the production of Things Better Left Unsaid, is the worst, most dispiriting instance of this misplaced priority. Here, the election, supposed centerpiece of democracy, seems more like a malign interruption, a gigantic roadblock to quality political discourse, which, I have been assured, is a rather crucial part of a dynamic polity.