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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

20 thoughts on “Cross-border election meddling and “whataboutism””

  1. Thank you, Mark, for this clear-headed piece. Seems ever so obvious to me, but — as we see — there are plenty of folks who can't quite grasp the basics. They are often quick to brand others as "traitors," but in reality have no clear sense of what that really means and will cheerfully defend overt treason when it's "their guys" who did it. Maybe you're a little too harsh on the Bernie faction here (or maybe not; I've not kept up with what those people are chattering about lately), but the rest of it strikes me as just about right. (I should add that Dershowitz bewilders me. He once was, mostly, a pretty decent guy. And Greenwald, once upon a time, was a delight to read; but for some years now he's been a complete cretin using his alleged love of the Constitution to justify the most horrific attacks on the Constitution by the most depraved factions out there).

  2. > “Meddling is bad!!!” seems like a truism until you think about it. […]

    On just this specific point, one has to recognize that meddling is extremely likely to go wrong — certain to, if the goal is a stable and friendly democracy. "Democracy" means free and fair elections, and when there's significant foreign meddling you don't have that. The party commited to maintaining democracy is now a party that relies on foreign support to win elections, and so on down the list. It's an act of destruction that is oh so easy to frame as an act of adjustment.

    In law there's a notion of evidence with a prejudicial effect that outweighs its probative value. Not that it has no probative value, but the debate will go better if you stop that evidence at the door. I think a similar notion applies here.

    Otherwise this seems right to me (and I voted for Bernie, so there's that).

    1. Strongly agree with third and disagree with Mark K on this point. There is a process value to democracy that is of benefit both to that country and to the world (the democratic peace theorem has lots of support). Sabotaging democracy to achieve a particular end is a bad idea. I'm sure that in many cases where the Cold War US sabotaged other countries' democracies, the Americans told themselves they were acting for good.

  3. "..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.."
    Let me pose a Number Six: the Rooskies are generally attempting to throw sand in the gears of the US society. Neither they nor anyone else expected that Trump could win this thing, but it was very plausibly their view that a weakened and delegitimized Hillary presidency was better for them than would have been a clean and triumphant Hillary victory. The actual outcome – it's kind of like the dog which has been chasing The Goddamn Buick From Down The Street for years, and finally it catches it. I personally think identity politics is hugely damaging to our society, and the wild excesses of political correctness/right not to be offended on campus, and dumbing down curricula in the education system. So I would look for malign Rooskie conspiracies/influencers there, too.

  4. i concede all points made. i've believed clinton won ever since greg palast submitted a long list of cross check purged voters to the doj before the inauguration.


    if these fundamental democratic issues got as much media (including blogs apparently) coverage as russian intervention, dems would never lose federal control.

    …and american policy would be more like scandinavian states.

    do i even have to ask what the motivation (interests) behind the focus on russiagate is (are) ? somehow i know you know better than me mark …you just have to be honest with yourself. she said it on the trail mark, "…we are not Denmark" …i know you got one party against you mark …i. got. two.

  5. All of which (like all of everything) is beside the point. The point is the commonality between the pseudophilosophies of the current Russian regime and the current American regime. The goal must be to eliminate that pseudophilosophy — call it "conservatism"; you will leave some ragged edges, but not so many as to make a critical difference — from the public discourse for all future time. That goal is necessary and sufficient and no other goal is worth pursuing.

  6. Meh. The meddling wouldn't have been effective unless we suffered from a much deeper societal rot than Russians trying to undermine our next president. Hillary or any monkey in a penguin suit would have won by 30 points were America not a deeply racist sexist classist society willing to believe any fucking shit peddled at the market check-out counter or on Fox News. We've had two shitstains on our culture from the get-go, racism and classism. The two greatest moments in American literature are when Huck says "fine then, I'll go to Hell" rather than turn Jim in, and when Rose of Sharon gives Tom Joad her breast milk that her dead baby no longer needs. We hate black people and we hate poor people, regardless of Russia.

    1. Who's "we", kemosabe? The large majority of Americans are decent people. The problem is that so few of you vote by the standards of other democracies (USA 2016 59% of eligible voters, New Zealand 2017 79%). This is largely by design, as Republicans have succeeded in making voting an obstacle course for the poor and minorities. Real voting reform (making registration a duty of government, removing redistricting from political control, enfranchising most ex-convicts, etc) would allow a government that approximately reflected the actual opinions of the American people. Nancy Pelosi is roughly the median citizen.

      1. Why enfranchise only most ex-convicts? Why not all, and also allow voting in prisons? Incarcerated people have interests in public affairs, such as prison conditions. The only reason that we deny prisoners and ex-convicts the right to vote is to get around the 15th Amendment. Lock up black people and then you have an excuse to deny them the vote.

        1. I've never understood why citizen inmates can't vote.

          To be clear, I'm not saying it's unconstitutional–on a plain reading the 14th appears to allow the practice of denying the vote to convicted criminals. But it seems to me to fall in that broad category of things that are permitted by the constitution but still look like bad/unjustifiable policy.

          It seems like an obviously bad idea for the same reason that, say, a law preventing a convict from standing for office would be a bad idea. It further incentivizes abuses from an already abuse-prone legal system.

          1. Neither the 14th nor the 15th Amendment (nor any other provision of the Constitution) addresses denying the vote to convicted criminals. I agree that doing so is constitutional, but I don't understand what "plain reading" you mean.

          2. I'm thinking of the bit in section 2 where it says the right to vote shall not be abridged "except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, …" That's the bit that, on a plain reading, implies that it is permissible to suspend a criminal's right to vote.

          3. You're right; thanks. Here is what the Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, in "The Constitution of the United States: Analysis and Interpretation," says about section 2: "With subsequent constitutional amendments adopted and the utilization of federal coercive powers to enfranchise persons, the section is little more than an historical curiosity. However, in Richardson v. Ramirez, 418 U.S. 24 (1974), the Court relied upon the implied approval of disqualification upon conviction of crime to uphold a state law disqualifying convicted felons for the franchise even after the service of their terms."

          4. The following was posted today at the Balkinization blog:

            Wednesday, January 24, 2018

            A Question for the Next Census

            Gerard N. Magliocca

            There is a controversy brewing about the Justice Department's request that the next census ask about citizenship status. The concern is that this question may discourage noncitizens from answering the census and thus lead to an undercount of that population that would affect all sorts of government programs, including representation in the House of Representatives.

            I have a separate suggestion. If we are going to add new questions to the census about citizenship, then I would propose reviving one that was asked in the 1870 census. The modern version would ask all citizens above the age of 18 whether their right to vote has ever been "denied . . . or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion or other crime." This is language from of Section Two of the Fourteenth Amendment, which states that if states deny or abridge suffrage to presumptively eligible voters to excess then their representation in Congress shall be reduced.

            In a paper forthcoming in George Washington Law Review, I argue that the current reapportionment system for the House of Representatives violates Section Two of the Fourteenth Amendment. Adding a voting rights question to the census would not cure that problem, but it would help.

            Posted 11:27 AM by Gerard N. Magliocca [link] (7) comments

          5. It was color-blind state legislators after Reconstruction who thought that disenfranchising felons would disproportionately deny the right to vote to African-Americans. Wait, you say, they were color-blind yet came up with a policy that somehow, along with literacy tests and poll taxes, just happened to keep blacks from voting? Yes, we know they were color-blind, even though at the time they mostly claimed otherwise because they were proud segregationists who were busy erecting memorials to traitors who made war on the US for some reason other than preserving slavery. How do we know? Because their descendants, who defend the memorials and want to preserve felon disenfranchisement and enact other policies to prevent blacks and poor folks from voting are color-blind. How do we know they're color-blind, then, since a whole lot of evidence points in the opposite direction? Because they say so. "They're not racists, but …." Case closed.

            Here's a brief write-up about the origins of Florida's felon disenfranchisement: "This particular historical evil began after the Civil War, when white-supremacist legislatures were resisting efforts to treat blacks as fellow humans with equal rights and dignity.
            Though attempts to block the 14th Amendment failed, and though the Reconstruction Act of 1867 forced Florida to add an article to its state constitution granting suffrage to all men, creative racists kept many blacks from the ballot box with educational requirements and a lifetime voting ban for convicted felons, knowing blacks had been and would be abused by the criminal-justice system." <a href="…” target=”_blank”>…

            I hope this clears things up. False charges of racism are very serious, more serious than actual racism, so please don't go reading racial motives into everything!

          6. I'm with you and Jarndyce on this. I only made the restriction to ex-convicts on grounds of practical acceptability. It would be awkward if the result of a very close election (as recently in the Virginia House of Delegates) hung on the votes of murderers. But yes, prisoners are flawed citizens, not outcasts.

          7. Many prisoners are not flawed citizens. Many of them preferred marijuana or other drugs to alcohol. Many of them suffer from mental illness. Many of them are innocent, but prosecutors unconstitutionally concealed exculpatory evidence or were able to coerce them into pleading guilty because they were too poor to afford bail or by piling on criminal charges so that they'd plea bargain for a lesser sentence.

          8. All true, but largely beside the point in this particular context. The point is that even if the wrongfully convicted were rightfully convicted, it'd still be improper to strip them of their voting rights.

          9. Historically, granting or denying the franchise has been subject to at least two different approaches.

            Under the first approach, the franchise is meritocratic (with income, wealth, the ability to pay taxes, or social class historically being used as proxies for merit; see 19th century Britain, pre-WW1 Prussia, or ancient Rome). Even today, many people will agree that prisoners or convict are undeserving of the franchise. (See the uproar in the British media over the European Court of Human Rights finding that withholding the franchise from prisoners in general is in violation of Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights.)

            The second (and more recent) approach views voting as the effective control of the government by the governed, and that control is undermined if the government has the power to shape the voting behavior of the governed. A prominent example here is Germany, which dumped most such restrictions on the franchise after WW2 (during Weimar, prisoners couldn't vote), inter alia after the experiences with a politically skewed criminal justice system during Weimar. Under that approach, denying a person the franchise is something that needs to happen only in exceptional and justified circumstances. As the ECtHR put it in Hirst v. UK: "In particular, any conditions imposed must not thwart the free expression of the people in the choice of the legislature – in other words, they must reflect, or not run counter to, the concern to maintain the integrity and effectiveness of an electoral procedure aimed at identifying the will of the people through universal suffrage."

            America, for better or worse, has a constitution that (even with amendments) is still rooted in 18th-19th century thinking. Initially, the franchise in many states was only held by white male property owners, for example. And poll taxes were still held to be constitutional by the Supreme Court in 1937 (Breedlove v. Suttles) and were only ended for federal elections by the 24th Amendment in 1964, at which time five US states still had them and retained them for state elections (a practice that was finally killed off by the Supreme Court in 1966 in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, and that only in a 6:3 vote).

  7. I accept your general argument, but note that it would be hard to meddle if nobody in the target country accepted any form of foreign assistance for fear of being labelled disloyal. In this sense, meddling presupposes some faction willing to work with foreign parties.

    I also find it hard to recall any instance where US meddling followed the benign precepts outlined.

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