Sunday, February 18, 2018

Election Meddling and the Future of Democracy

Americans are in something of an uproar about Russian meddling in the last presidential election. You would think that the Russian bear had violated the vestal virgin of American democracy. An unthinkable inexcusable horror, don’t you think?

If you believe that all American elections since the beginning of the Republic have been completely fair and never subjected to meddling, you are suffering from terminal naïveté. One does know that the results of the Illinois vote in the 1960 presidential election were rigged, by organized crime and local labor unions. Richard Nixon chose not to contest the results, but the people who are crying most loudly now, would never have uttered a peep in 1960.

To their mind, the issue was not really meddling, or even the purity of American democracy, but who won. It’s not the same issue.

Of course, the people who are bowing down to the goddess of democracy are the first to run to the courts when a referendum—nothing is quite as democratic as a referendum—yields a result that they do not like. Think, referenda on same-sex marriage.

The rule of law, the virtue of democracy, has been yielding to the rule of lawyers and the rule of judges. Executive orders by one president are strokes of brilliance advancing the cause of justice. Executive orders by another duly elected president are unconstitutional and must be overturned by a court somewhere.

At the least, we know that ours is not a pure democracy. We do not vote directly for policies or for legislation. We vote for people to represent us. These people exercise discretion. They feel bound to advance a political philosophy, but they are not forced to do so. They can always be replaced at the next election. And yet, outside of the referenda that so many people disparage, ours is not exactly a direct democracy.

And yet, we love our democracy. It warms our hearts. We imagine that if votes are cast fairly the results will be wondrous to behold. We believe that we must export democracy, make the world safe for democracy, allow everyone a vote… regardless of the results.

This simply says that we think like naïve young idealists. Because if you look around the world today, as I have mentioned, whatever America is selling, the world is not buying. One needs to emphasize the point. Many major nations in the world are moving toward authoritarian rule, toward undemocratic rule, way from contested elections. Whether in China or Egypt or Saudi Arabia or even Turkey… the world’s nations are turning away from liberal democracy, away from human rights, away from free expression.

Egypt had an election and empowered the Muslim Brotherhood. It took a military coup to return that nation to a better path. And, lest we forget, the people of China are perfectly happy with the leaders of China, not one of whom won an election. All of China’s leaders are experienced and highly competent. The same applies in Russia… among other nations. These leaders are doing what they believe is best for their countries… to make them great again.

Authoritarian nations do not elect celebrities. And they do not elect presidents who look good on television. They do not elect presidents who have a demagogic facility with glib soundbites. They elect people who have worked their way up the ranks, who know how their governments work and who can make them work.

No one is going to buy American democracy if we cannot find leaders who have unimpeachable competence and if our leaders cannot make the government work. America’s Congress looks increasing like a ship of fools. Other nations are watching, and are saying that they do not want that.

In the news today we remark that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Bieber, a man who owes his office to his pedigree and his looks, just landed in India to promote trade and good diplomatic relations. When leaders from other nations come to India, whether they be from America or even Israel, the prime minister Narendra Modi greets them at the airport. When Justin Bieber arrived, the Indian government sent a junior agriculture minister.

Were they signaling disrespect? Of course, they were. It was not as disrespectful as the time when the government of China not only did not send anyone to greet President Obama on his last trip to Beijing. It refused even to send out a rolling staircase which would have allowed Obama to descend the plane in a dignified posture.

Western European democracies are being destroyed by an invasion of refugees who have no interest in assimilating, but are happy to import a new culture, to live off the dole and to initiate a crime wave. Eastern Europe, through elections, it is fair to say, has been moving in a more authoritarian direction, building walls to keep the marauding invading armies out of their countries. The West is practicing open borders. The East is moving away from it. We might love our democracy, but if we cannot make it work any better than it has, its days are numbered.

America’s greatest political problem is not election meddling. It’s the inability to make the system function. America’s government is too entertaining, too dramatic, to get very much of anything done.

Except, as it happens, meddling in the elections of other countries. The New York Times has the story this morning. America has long meddled in the elections of other people, though, apparently, experts in these matters insist that we are doing it for a noble cause—to advance democracy—while Russia, among others, does it to undermine democracy.

As it happens, the Times story, by Scott Shane, fails to mention the Obama administration effort to meddle with elections in Israel. The goal was not to enhance democracy but to remove a prime minister who opposed the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal, a deal that, as U. N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said yesterday in a New York Times op-ed, is failing:

Last week, the United Nations published a report with news a lot of people don’t want to hear. A panel of experts found that Iran is violating a United Nations weapons embargo — specifically, that missiles fired by Yemen’s Houthi rebels into Saudi Arabia last year were made in Iran.

The mullahs in Iran don’t want to hear this news, because it proves Iran is violating its international agreement. Die-hard defenders of the Iran nuclear deal don’t want to hear it because it proves, once again, that the Iranian regime can’t be trusted. And some members of the United Nations don’t want to hear it because it is further proof that Iran is defying Security Council resolutions, and the pressure will be on the U.N. to do something about it.

Thus, in some cases American governments have meddled in elections to advance democracy. In other cases it has done so to advance its own political agenda and to undermine allies.

In the meantime, Scott Shane explains American meddling: 

Loch K. Johnson, the dean of American intelligence scholars, who began his career in the 1970s investigating the C.I.A. as a staff member of the Senate’s Church Committee, says Russia’s 2016 operation was simply the cyber-age version of standard United States practice for decades, whenever American officials were worried about a foreign vote.

“We’ve been doing this kind of thing since the C.I.A. was created in 1947,” said Mr. Johnson, now at the University of Georgia. “We’ve used posters, pamphlets, mailers, banners — you name it. We’ve planted false information in foreign newspapers. We’ve used what the British call ‘King George’s cavalry’: suitcases of cash.”

The United States’ departure from democratic ideals sometimes went much further. The C.I.A. helped overthrow elected leaders in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s and backed violent coups in several other countries in the 1960s. It plotted assassinations and supported brutal anti-Communist governments in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

He continues that all meddling is not created equal:

But in recent decades, both Mr. Hall and Mr. Johnson argued, Russian and American interferences in elections have not been morally equivalent. American interventions have generally been aimed at helping non-authoritarian candidates challenge dictators or otherwise promoting democracy. Russia has more often intervened to disrupt democracy or promote authoritarian rule, they said.

It ought to be clear, but Russian election meddling has a single goal: to enhance Russian importance on the world stage, to keep Russia in the game, as a major player. We are wrong if we consider this to be ideological warfare over different forms of government. True enough, civilizations are clashing. They are competing for influence and dominance. And yet, if democracies cannot compete against better-run, better-managed authoritarian governments, they will become historical also-rans.


Redacted said...

Excellent post, Schneiderman. But you neglected to mention the herds of lawyers that occupy international trade arbitration organizations. To wit:

"The [WTO] Secretariat is a multicultural team of highly-qualified individuals who possess the wide range of skills, knowledge and experience required to handle the Secretariat's responsibilities and to work together as an efficient and diligent international civil service.

Who votes for them? Yet they oversee economic activities for the global economy.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

“It ought to be clear, but Russian election meddling has a single goal: to enhance Russian importance on the world stage, to keep Russia in the game, as a major player.”

Of course. Russia got an excellent return on a minuscule investment in information warfare. They spent an estimated $1.25 million in Facebook ads, along with the salaries and meager IT resources required by a 13-man team in St. Petersburg. If that’s meddling worthy of a Special Counsel and billions in counterintelligence resources (not to mention countless investigations), then we are doomed. Let’s be honest: this isn’t because of an acute national security issue or risk to our democracy. It’s because Democrats cannot come to grips with the fact that their lousy, corrupt and disingenuous candidate lost an “inevitable” election.

“And yet, if democracies cannot compete against better-run, better-managed authoritarian governments, they will become historical also-rans.”

Don’t jump too fast. Tom Friedman and the Silicon Valley Titans think this, too. What they see is technocratic government that matches their own technocratic biases. Yes, China has grown its economy quickly, but they had to do it with free market reforms. The command-and-control centralized approach ran out of gas after millions starved, died or were executed. Authoritarianism has its limits. Many economists will tell you China’s economy is a bubble. What will the authoritarians do when they encounter popular restlessness and/or revolt? There is no consent of the governed in China. The system is rife with corruption. Sure, their economy is growing fast. But they have 4 times the people we do, and they spent much of the past three decades catching up from third world status.

Don’t fall for the centralized control model. It’s rooted in fear. Fear is a short-term motivator, but it loses its efficacy after awhile. These authoritarian regimes may look “better run, better managed” in the short term, but as prosperity meets complexity, command-and-control can’t evolve fast enough and becomes a burden on society’s mist productive people — the Innovators and entrepreneurs. Technocrats are not innovators, nor entrepreneurs.

David Foster said...

China has also had the advantage that technological changed....container freight and much cheaper electronic communications, including the Internet...greatly assisted in developing an export economy and playing labor arbitrage on a very large scale.

With increased economic freedom, they would have been able to accelerate their economic development in any case, but it would have been much less rapid absent the foregoing.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

They had to be able to use the advantages that modern technology presented. Not all countries or all leaders have been able to do so.

Sam L. said...

"As it happens, the Times story, by Scott Shane, fails to mention the Obama administration effort to meddle with elections in Israel." Well, of course! It's the NYT!

"And, lest we forget, the people of China are perfectly happy with the leaders of China, not one of whom won an election." Really?? The Chinese are happy with the leaders? I will accept "resigned" to them, but "happy"?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Apparently, they approve of the way their government is being run.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Stuart Schneiderman @February 18, 2018 at 7:53 AM:

“Apparently, they approve of the way their government is being run.“

How would this be “apparent” in a society with so many authoritarian controls? Do we have reliable polling data on the satisfaction of China’s citizenry? Is satisfaction measured by the lack of insurrection or public protests? We’ve vividly seen how China deals with protesters.

I doubt there’s a lot of civil upset in a country with an economy growing as fast as China’s is. However, we know the system is rife with corruption. When upwardly mobile entrepreneurs start getting up against state controls, or the economy falters, people will blame it on the government. Who knows what happens then? Also, we know the human tendency is to want more, more, more. Authoritarian regimes have the same insatiable desires, until there is insurrection. The only way to prevent or hold off revolt is to impose fear strategies/tactics, and that kind of approach negatively impacts government approval ratings — if the people feel safe speaking their mind at all.

Lastly, they could “approve of how their government is being run” because they don’t know any different. China is still riding on a Confucian cultural legacy that favors social stability, respect for authority and subordination of the individual. The Western tradition of individualism drives democracy, which probably appears chaotic to Chinese sensibilities.

Ares Olympus said...

Apparently it is more than elections, but a general goal to stir up strife of all sorts.
The bots’ behavior follows a pattern, said Mr. Morgan, one of the researchers who worked with the German Marshall Fund to create Hamilton 68, the website that monitors Russian bot and fake Twitter activity. The bots target a contentious issue like race relations or guns. They stir the pot, often animating both sides and creating public doubt in institutions like the police or media. Any issue associated with extremist views is a ripe target.

In the world of protests, this is called "agent provocateurs" and the goal isn't just to speak or act badly, but to encourage other real people to speak or act badly.

And they say the purpose isn't just troll-status of being able to screw with people, but to the degree they can stir up conspiratory hatreds (anti-corporations for the sheep on the left, and anti-government for the sheep on the right), they strength a general distrust of all organizations and institutions.

And the more scared we are, the more vulnerable we are to the next round of conspiracy in a vicious cycle of confusion. AND finally, a country that is is chaos will leave the rest of the world alone (hopefully), and the spoils can be divided between China and Russia and anyone else playing the world power game.