One litmus test for a great artist is whether he can capture the jagged contours of his contemporary world. Few other professions are up to such a Sisyphean task. The journalist continually loses the forests for the trees. The historian—who makes his living mocking the wisdom of pundits from past generations—is often reluctant to pass comment on what is still unfolding. The politician is…well the less said about him in this respect the better it is.
Indeed the artist is well suited to record our world because our world is absurd. Only a fount of creative genius can conceive of the contortions that circumstances present. But there are times when even the idiocies and irregularities of American politics exceed the imagination of our literary giants. Speaking of our body polity in a famous essay for Commentary magazine, Philip Roth wrote that the “American reality…stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates and finally it is even an embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”
Though Roth was writing more than fifty years ago, it’s hard to imagine any two characters that force us to question our perceptive senses more than Donald J. Trump and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Yet in this most bizarre of presidential elections—trust me, kids, my memory goes all the way back to 2004—their eerily parallel personas have partnered up. This weekend, Wikileaks leaked DNC emails that revealed a party apparatus that tilted heavly towards Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, denigrated its donors, and revealed the unsavory face of machine politics.
Much of the media attention has unsurprisingly focused on the fall-out. Soap operas are too tempting to pass up and this leak was timed to coincide with this week’s DNC convention. DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz stepped down after the convention and it has reinforced a narrative that the Democratic Party had rigged the primaries to ensure Senator Bernie Sanders never had a chance.
But there are two problems with this narrative.
First, it’s unclear what exactly the DNC did wrong. As Jonathan Rauch points out in a magnificent piece for The Atlantic, the U.S. democratic system has been compromised in part with the breakdown of machine politics. Intermediary institutions such as the DNC and RNC prevented our body politics from descending into chaos. Wasserman-Schultz was simply doing her job. The DNC emails that have been leaked largely came in the spring of 2016 after the primaries were all but over. It was virtually impossible for Sanders to defeat Hillary Clinton. Hillary didn’t just win because of her unassailable lead in the super-delegate tally. She won because she was better equipped to mobilize the full spectrum of the Democratic coalition. By the time the DNC emails came out, Sanders was only hurting his own cause — it was clear Hillary would adopt Sanders’ policies. There are obviously sticking points that warrant criticism The mercenary nature of party politics, the grotesque peddling of influence for cash, and the coarse language with which strategists described Hispanic voters—“the most brand loyal customers in the world: Known fact”—should all be interrogated and chastised. But it’s unclear what Wasserman-Schultz did that was outside her bailiwick. She is meant to speak with Joe Scarborough’s bosses when he is deliberately fomenting party instability in the pursuit of TV ratings and a celebrity following. Furthermore, even if we assume that the DNC had been coordinating against Sanders from the outset, my next question is, “so what?” Sanders was never a Democrat; he was a socialist who had never helped the Democratic Party in Vermont. He was simply hijacking the party for his own ideology. There’s plenty to criticize about Wasserman-Schultz. She’s burnt too many bridges and gained too few allies as her swift downfall shows. But in this instance, we can safely say that Wasserman-Schultz lost her job but nominated an electable candidate. Reince Priebus kept his job but he lost the Party of Lincoln.
The second problem is far more disquieting. The Russians brazenly interfered with our democratic process. Whether you’re a Trumpista or a Sanders insurgent, we should all be concerned that an adversary abroad has the gall to try and tinker with our most sacred processes. We often debate about what constitutes our national interest. In this case, there can be no doubt. There is little we should value higher than liberty and democracy at home. Foreign interference of any kind is a far more dangerous threat.
The more developed and digitalized actor is likely the more vulnerable target in cyberwarfare. This counterintuitive logic especially applies to our electoral system. We have a messy and decentralized democracy. No matter your opinion on Citizens United, it’s an empirical fact that with more money in our political system and a 24/7 constellation of news channels and Twitter accounts, our discourse is inherently more chaotic. As we’ve seen during the Rise of Trump, the United States is also full of craven opportunists such as Sean Hannity, Roger Ailes, and Chris Christie who will serve as “useful idiots” for foreign powers. The United States will similarly never be as good at interfering with Russian elections. It’s not because we’re simply more ethical—although we certainly are—but it’s also because their democracy is a sham and their population is more tribalistic, atavistic, and homogenous. Any concrete sign of U.S. interference in a Russian election would produce an unimaginable backlash that’ll only embolden the revanchist right in the Kremlin. We’re so polarized, however, that I’m alarmed at the number of conservatives who have missed Russian interference to point out with glee that Wasserman-Schultz wanted the primaries to end after it became clear that Hillary Clinton had won through legitimate means.
In a subsequent post I’ll write about ways in which the United States should respond to the DNC hack. I’m sure more hacks will be leaked. There will be embarrassing revelations about the Democratic Party and when it is appropriate, the public and the media should digest legitimate news and let it inform their judgment. But for now, I just want to point out that we’re opening a dangerous door for myopic reasons when conservatives and the media let the story of Russian interference and involvement slip into the background. I don’t think the RNC or the Trump campaign should be discouraged from pointing out embarrassing vignettes that’ll inevitably find their way to Wikileaks. But I do think conservatives should urge and support the White House in finding the most punitive ways to respond to Putin.