Cross-Border Election Meddling and ‘Whataboutism’

The Russian government intervened, overtly and covertly, in the 2016 U.S. elections to damage Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump. Whether the primary goal of that activity was actually to elect Trump, or instead merely to weaken Clinton in the event of her expected victory, isn’t really an answerable question.

The obvious things to say about this are:

  1. That was a wicked thing for Putin & Co. to do.
  2. Encouraging that help, accepting it, exploiting it, and subsequently covering it up was and is a wicked thing for Trump & Co. to do. It should mark everyone who engages in it and defends it as profoundly disloyal, and make all of them political pariahs.

The defenders of Putin and Trump make four responses:

  1. “What elephant?” The meddling never happened, and if you think it did you’re a neocon (or neoliberal) McCarthyite Russophobic warmonger. That’s roughly the Trump line, but also the line of the Greenwald/TYT/BernieBro/Stein dirtbag left. (This needs no response other than a reference to already-published facts and the not-yet-published facts the intelligence community and the Mueller investigation have gathered and are now gathering, plus the frantic efforts of Trump & Co. and their friends in Congress and in the Fox/Breitbart wing of the alt-news business to cover things up.)
  2. “Nothin’ wrong with a little collusion.” Since there’s no crime in the United States Code called “collusion,” it’s perfectly OK for U.S. politicians to accept Russian help. That’s the secondary Trump line, most loudly echoed by Alan Dershowitz. (The answer is twofold: It is in fact a crime for a foreign entity to give anything of value to a U.S. political campaign, and accepting such help constitutes criminal conspiracy, which is the name of a crime. And even if it could be done without crossing any legal lines, it’s still deeply discreditable.)
  3. “So What? Let’s talk about how rotten the Democrats are and how Bernie woulda won.” This is the secondary, more recent, Glenn Greenwald line, for those who no longer believe his blanket denial that anything actually happened.  “Some Russians wanted to help Trump win the election, and certain people connected to the Trump campaign were receptive to receiving that help. Who the fuck cares about that?” (One answer to Greenwald’s question might be “patriots,” but I suppose that would be rude.)
  4. “Whatabout Mossadeq?” The United States has often meddled in elections elsewhere, often in support of bad guys. So we have no standing to complain when the tables get turned on us. This is the alternative dirtbag-left line. (All you can say to this is “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”)

There’s a fifth response, this one made by fierce critics of Trump and Putin. “Yes, cross-border election meddling is bad. We should relentlessly prosecute this case, but we should also resolve never again to intervene in elections abroad.”

It’s that fifth response I want to criticize, and in doing so justify the “two obvious things to say” cited above.

“Meddling is bad!!!” seems like a truism until you think about it. Then it looks obviously false.  Sometimes an election pits a party committed to maintaining democracy against a party which intends it to be the last free election ever.  Sometimes it pits a party committed to internationally recognized human rights against a party committed to persecuting national, religious, or sexual minorities. Sometimes it pits a party favoring peace against a party favoring aggression. In all of those cases, why shouldn’t governments as well as individuals and NGOs around the world want the good guys to win and the bad guys to lose? And why is it always wrong to act on those preferences?

I would say that what’s true here is just what’s obvious:

  • “Meddling” by authoritarian states to support authoritarian parties in other countries is undesirable, simply because authoritarianism is bad.
  • “Meddling” by rich countries in the politics of poor countries for the purposes of exacting economic advantage is wrong, simply because neo-colonialism is wrong.
  • “Meddling” by for the purpose of disrupting democratic political processes or installing unstable, incompetent, and corrupt regimes is bad because democratic processes are good and instability, incompetence, and corruption are bad.
  • “Meddling” by a hostile power for the purpose of either damaging the target country or subordinating it is, from the point of the perpetrator, no more or less legitimate than any other form of international hostility. But accepting help from such a power on the part of political forces in the target country is disloyalty (at least) and should permanently discredit any individual or party that engages in it.

Of course election “meddling,” like any foreign-policy activity, is even more likely than domestic policy to go wrong because the party doing the meddling misunderstands the situation in the target country. That’s a good argument for principle over “realism” in the foreign-policy debate, but it’s not specific to election meddling.

In the case under discussion, an ethno-nationalist authoritarian regime hostile to the United States intervened to damage us by disrupting our democratic processes, and wound up installing a corrupt and incompetent ethno-nationalist faction in power. That was no more or less legitimate, from the Russian viewpoint, than any other act of hostility: e.g., no less legitimate than U.S. sanctions against Russia for its aggressions in Ukraine. But the Americans who accepted that help, and those who are now covering it up, acted and are acting disloyally, and have disqualified themselves as legitimate participants in American politics.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.