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Blaming Russia Is Irresistible to the Democrats

Paul Street
Contributor
Paul Street holds a doctorate in U.S. history from Binghamton University. He is former vice president for research and planning of the Chicago Urban League. Street is also the author of numerous books,…
Paul Street

Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

It has been remarkable to behold masses of American liberals and progressives become convinced—or claim to be convinced—that Russian hackers under the command of Vladimir Putin attacked “our great democracy” to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and hand it to Donald Trump. This extraordinary, supposedly CIA- and New York Times-certified claim has garnered wide currency in liberal and Democratic Party circles despite the lack of smoking-gun substantiation on Putin’s involvement, not to mention the election’s outcome.

Did the probably Russian “Guccifer 2.0” and Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks obtain and advance embarrassing hacked emails and other documents showing the Hillary Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee’s underhanded machinations against Bernie Sanders, including corrupt dealings with the corporate media? Sure.

Did this happen on orders from the Kremlin? None of the Times-citing liberals who have spoken or written as if that is the case know it to be conclusively true. The proof has not been given, and they seem to have an almost childish faith in the notion that the CIA must know more than it can publicly say.

Did these leaks cause Clinton to lose to Trump? The top folks advancing the Democratic Party hacking narrative don’t have the gall to make that full assertion. Clinton, other top Democrats and the Times editorial board seem content to leave it as a suggestion for lesser Democrats—including Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman—to run wild with. I have spoken with many less-well-placed Democrats eager to do precisely that. But the most that Clinton’s campaign chief and top target of the leaks, John Podesta, can say for sure is that Russian interference “distorted the election.”

What Great Democracy?

I am struck by six telling aspects of the liberal and Democratic Russia hacking narrative. First, there’s its rapidly disseminated pervasiveness alongside a dearth of proof. It’s eerily reminiscent of the Donald Rumsfeld argument that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

Second, there’s liberals’ curious embrace of the CIA as a great organ of truth. So what if the CIA is one of the leading (if not the leading) institutional agents of systematic political deception, with a long history of falsifying intelligence to suit political purposes?

Third, there’s the hypocritical chutzpah of being outraged at outside interference in American elections when the U.S. and its CIA have long subverted elections and otherwise meddled in the political processes of other “sovereign” nations around the world, which Uncle Sam and his intelligence agencies continue to do. As secretary of state, Clinton herself helped subvert democratic election results in Honduras in 2009.

Fourth, there’s the real or pretend cluelessness on why Russian intelligence agencies would have wanted to encourage the defeat of Clinton. It wasn’t just because Putin had some strange personal “beef with Hillary.” The real historical meat of the matter is that candidate Clinton was a militantly anti-Russian New Cold War warrior and dedicated NATO-expansionist who promised to instigate dangerous conflicts with Moscow over Syria, Ukraine, internal Russian affairs and Eastern Europe more broadly.

Fifth, there’s the avoidance of any serious engagement with—or (as goes almost without saying) guilt about—the dreadful stuff that Hillary and Bill Clinton and the DNC did to candidate Bernie Sanders, the Democrats’ best chance to defeat Trump. It’s as if we’re all supposed to forget that terrible story, which might be considered a way in which establishment Democrats rigged the election for Trump. Clinton Democrats don’t deny or question the accuracy of what the WikiLeaks/Guccifer 2.0 document dumps showed on this score. But they seem to want us to wipe it from our memories in the name of outrage against Russia and its nefarious attack on the supposed grand “integrity of our elections” in what is supposedly the world’s greatest “democracy.”

Last but not least, there’s the brazen falsehood of the widespread belief that the U.S. is a “great democracy” in the first place, to be subverted by Russia (or anyone else). Over the past three-plus decades, leading academic researchers Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern), both establishment, liberal political scientists, have concluded, the U.S. political system has functioned as “an oligarchy,” ruled by the few wealthy elites and their corporations. Examining data from more than 1,800 different policy initiatives in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Gilens and Page found that wealthy and well-connected elites consistently steer the direction of the country, regardless and against the will of the U.S. majority and irrespective of which major party holds the White House and/or Congress. “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” Gilens and Page write, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” As Gilens explained to the liberal online journal Talking Points Memo two years ago, “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States.”

Such is the harsh reality of “really existing capitalist democracy” in the U.S., what Noam Chomsky has called “RECD” — “pronounced ‘wrecked’ by accident.”

The Inauthentic Opposition

The late Princeton political theorist Sheldon Wolin considered U.S.-style RECD a form of “corporate-managed fake-democracy” and “inverted totalitarianism.” He called it “democracy incorporated.” It’s a “democracy” in which the only two officially viable and corporate-captive political organizations, the Democratic and Republican parties, both stand well to the right of majority progressive-populist public opinion. The right-wing leadership of these two corporate and militarist parties skews the game against those in their party who would campaign and perhaps govern in accord with that public opinion.

Few thinkers have written about the deeply conservative essence of the Democratic Party more perceptively than Wolin. Near the end of the George W. Bush presidency, Wolin, in his book “Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitariansim,” captured the shady, dollar-drenched nothingness of the “dismal Dems” (journalist Doug Henwood’s phrase) in the neoliberal era:

The Democrats’ politics might be described as inauthentic opposition in the era of Superpower. Having fended off its reformist elements and disclaimed the label of liberal, it is trapped by new rules of the game which dictate that a party exists to win elections rather than to promote a vision of the good society. … Should Democrats somehow be elected, corporate sponsors make it politically impossible for the new officeholders to alter significantly the direction of society. At best Democrats might repair some of the damage done to environmental safeguards or to Medicare without substantially reversing the drift rightwards. By fostering an illusion among the powerless classes that the party can make their interests a priority, it pacifies and thereby defines the style of an opposition party in an inverted totalitarian system. … While the Republican Party is ever vigilant about the care and feeding of its zealots, the Democratic Party is equally concerned to discourage its democrats. … The timidity of a Democratic Party mesmerized by centrist precepts points to the crucial fact that for the poor, minorities, the working class, anticorporatists there is no opposition party working on their behalf. … By ignoring dissent and assuming that the dissenters have no alternative, the party serves an important … stabilizing function and in effect marginalizes any possible threat to the corporate allies of the Republicans.

Wolin’s dark reflections seem more than a little prophetic eight years later. Yes, milquetoast center Democrats were “somehow elected” in 2006 (the House) and 2008 (Barack Obama in the White House and a slight new Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate). George W. Bush’s fiasco in Iraq and the onset of the financial crisis saw to that. But so what?

What followed under Obama (as under his Democratic presidential and neoliberal-era predecessors Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton) was the by-now standard corporate-neoliberal manipulations of campaign populism and identity politics in service to the usual big-money bankrollers and global empire—to capitalism and its evil twin, imperialism, with underlying white supremacism and sexism essentially unchallenged. There were some mild repairs, at best, as “the rightward direction of society” continued unabated. The Wall Street takeover of Washington and the related aggressive military and imperial agenda of the Pentagon was advanced more effectively and extensively by the nation’s first black president than they could have been by stiff and wealthy white Republicans like John McCain or Mitt Romney. Reformist Democrats with their lingering “vision of the good society” were kept in check as the Democrats depressed and demobilized their own purported popular base.

Peak Neoliberalism

The vapid 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign epitomized Wolin’s notion of a “timid … Democratic Party mesmerized by centrist precepts.” It defeated a progressive-reformist uprising within its own party—that of the Bernie Sandernistas. Having made sure that the party remained one of “inauthentic opposition” devoid of any remotely serious “vision of the good society,” the Democratic National Committee (DNC) helped the party resume its normal neoliberal-era role as an out-of-power junior partner to the in-power and more radically reactionary and regressive Republicans. Sanders, after all, would have stood a far better chance of defeating Trump than Clinton did; and a more sincerely reformist and progressive Sanders presidency (mild and hedged in as it would have been) would not have pleased the corporate, finance-led sponsors.

As Conor Lynch noted at Salon last month:

The Clinton campaign tried to make this election all about Trump’s hatefulness (“Love Trumps Hate”) and his “basket of deplorables,” while offering no real vision of progressive and populist change. And when those on the left raised legitimate concerns about Clinton’s uninspiring message or her political baggage during and after the primaries, they were ridiculously labeled sexist or racist “bros” by establishment figures (even though some of Clinton’s harshest progressive critics were in fact women and people of color).

Earlier in the year, journalist Daniel Denvir described Clinton’s strategy as “peak neoliberalism, where a distorted version of identity politics is used to defend an oligarchy and a national security state, celebrating diversity in the management of exploitation and warfare.”

The predictable consequence of all this is that the “inauthentic opposition” hands power over to the more openly right-wing major party.

No Serious Soul-Searching Yet

Recently on CNN, Daily Beast columnist Patricia Murphy reported on interviews she’d conducted with Democrats across the country. She found no soul-searching or critical self-reflection among the Clinton voters with whom she spoke. To the contrary, they told her that “we won” because their candidate bested Trump in the popular vote—as if the Electoral College is just an irrelevant technicality. Murphy also reported that the Democratic voters she spoke with seemed absurdly content to write off a huge part of the U.S. electorate—the white working class—as a mass of appalling racist and sexist brutes (“deplorables”) whom they’d rather keep at a distance.

Will the Democrats’ 2016 “peak neoliberal” humiliation show them that they have no choice but to make themselves over as a progressive champion of all working people against the wealthy few?

Don’t hold your breath.

The recently installed new Senate minority leader isn’t a liberal or progressive Democrat like Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders or even Sherrod Brown. It’s the neoliberal Wall Street Democrat Chuck Schumer. The House minority leader is still the San Francisco pro-war corporate Democrat Nancy Pelosi, idiotically endorsed by the supine AFL-CIO over the pro-union, heartland progressive Democrat Tim Ryan.

(Yes, the Bernie Sanders-affiliated Congressman Keith Ellison is considered a top contender for the chairmanship of the DNC. But don’t be surprised if that falls through. He’s getting bashed for past association with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and for making some “anti-Israel” comments as a law student in the 1980s. Ellison’s ascendancy to the job of party chairman could cost the Democrats big money. CNN recently quoted one of the party’s biggest donors, Haim Saban, as saying that Ellison is “clearly an anti-Semite and anti-Israel individual.”)

It’s all pretty pathetic, like Hillary Clinton’s failure to set foot in Wisconsin after the Democratic National Convention even once.

Three Calculations

If Russia “stole the election,” shouldn’t President Obama consult with Congress, the Supreme Court, Homeland Security and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then go on national television to explain that a new national election would take place ? That’s not going to happen, of course.

If the point of the Russia hacking narrative was to recruit “faithless” Electoral College electors to throw the election over to the House of Representatives, that logic died Monday. Republican electors predictably refused to block the Trump ascendancy. And, besides, the House is controlled by the Republicans.

But expect the “Putin did it” Russia hacking narrative to live on in Democratic circles for some time. It’s not about keeping Trump out of office—an impossibility. It’s about shaping the political and policy environment in coming months and years.

Understood that way, the narrative is just too irresistible for the Democrats to drop, for three reasons.

First, top Democrats and their media allies obviously want to delegitimize the incoming administration. Painting Trump as a Kremlin puppet and beneficiary of Moscow’s nefarious meddling is useful in that regard.

Second, elite NATO-expansionist, Russia-hating New Cold War warriors in high places in both the Democratic and Republican Parties (e.g., John McCain) want to keep the heat on Moscow during the Trump presidency. Candidate Trump promised a Putin-friendly stand-down from Obama and Hillary Clinton’s reckless Brzezinski-esque provocation of the Kremlin in Eastern Europe and Syria. The hacking charge is a way for New Cold War camp to hedge in Trump’s promises of rapprochement with Russia.

Third, the hacking charge seems designed in part to help the DNC and the neoliberal Democratic Party elite more broadly avoid responsibility for blowing the election. The Democrats went with a wooden, Wall Street-captive, and corruption-tainted candidate and campaign that couldn’t mobilize enough working- and lower-class voters to recreate the Obama coalition and defeat the hyper-noxious, highly unpopular Trump in key states like Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan and Ohio. The “Moscow stole it” narrative is a fancy version of “The dog ate my homework” for a dismal dollar-drenched Democratic Party that abandoned the working class and the causes of peace, social justice and environmental sustainability long ago.

The “inauthentic opposition” party would rather not take a long, hard and honest look at what it has become. It does not want to concede anything to those who dream of turning it into an authentic opposition party with a progressive “vision of the good society.” The “Russia did it” charge works for establishment Democrats hoping to stave off demands from leftish-progressive-populist types in their own party.

So much better to blame external others—like the Green Party (which barely reached 1 percent in the national elections); the mythical big, white racist-sexist-nativist “rust-belt rebellion” of the “deplorable” white working class; FBI Director James Comey (whose creepy intervention probably did matter); or, of course, the Kremlin.

Thanks to these three great benefits, we can expect the “Russia elected Trump” storyline to have a long life in Democratic hands. It is more proof — as if we needed it — that we cannot expect much from elite Democrats when it comes to building a serious resistance movement against the coming racist, sexist, militarist, nativist, arch-plutocratic, quasi-fascist and ecocidal Trump administration.

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