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PANISH: Voters influenced elections, not Russia

It is no slur, nor do I believe that it is too much of a generalization, to say that avid consumers of The New York Times, The Washington Post and other organs of the liberal, cosmopolitan consensus tend to make up a large part of the managerial class that formulates and enacts policy in our nation. Ideally, these periodicals can serve as valuable tools for educating a governing class in public policy issues of the day. Unfortunately, our fonts of elite journalism have increasingly become the sights of elite conspiracy-theorizing, where respected journalists and political analysts debase themselves daily in pursuit of a narrative balm to soothe the scars that President Donald J. Trump’s election has inflicted on the managerial class’s psyche. I am talking, of course, about the Russian Meddling story.

The narrative goes something like this: A kleptocratic former superpower has captured our political system, successfully rammed a Trojan Horse candidate into the White House and stands to go on compromising our elections for the foreseeable future — quite a heady series of assertions. Yet if one searches for measured, well-sourced investigations into the topic, they will be disappointed. The Times and the Post have spearheaded a coverage that can only be described as tabloid sensationalism, wherein innuendos from anonymous intelligence officials and “experts” get front page write-ups with bombastic headlines suggesting that they have found the smoking Kalashnikov, belying articles that provide no such evidence. Like Fox News and Breitbart, the media of the #Resistance knows what its audience wants, and it gives it to them. Its exclusive pedigree ensures only that its hearsay and speculation are more plausible, and its falsehoods more artfully concealed than its Right-wing competitors. 

After weathering this deluge of insinuation for over two years, the average American could be forgiven for erroneously believing that Russia hacked into voting machines, altered voter rolls and deleted voter registration data. But perhaps more alarming has been the zeal with which our managerial class — ostensibly a collection of the nation’s best and brightest — has taken up these poorly-sourced claims and wielded them as incontrovertible facts. This odd phenomenon highlights the degree to which idolatry of experts and officials has robbed otherwise intelligent people of their ability to view unsubstantiated testimony with skepticism when it flatters their politics. The enthusiasm with which even the most Left-wing members of this cohort have sought to rehabilitate former Director John Brennan’s CIA — the very same one that was caught spying on the Senate four years ago whilst it investigated the agency’s use of torture — on the basis of its usefulness as a cudgel against the election’s legitimacy is a particularly baffling example. We seem to have forgotten that our intelligence community boasts a history of malfeasance and perjury so vast that most American liberals regarded it with suspicion until recently — that is, until the moment that they found a common enemy in Trump.

It is worth pointing out exactly what the Russians did do in 2016 and why, despite their very real and extensive attempts to influence American politics, Trump’s victory cannot be attributed to such efforts. In addition to probing our digital infrastructure to no avail, they operated thousands of fake social media accounts and tricked former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta into handing over his Gmail password, subsequently airing the Democratic Party’s dirty laundry. Thus, once we shear away the fog of hysteria promulgated by the media, a comparatively anodyne picture emerges: the sum total of Russia’s “meddling” consisted of releasing information — some false and some true — to the American public. That some have construed this as an attack upon our democracy is not only alarmist, but it reveals, in the case of the Podesta emails, an illiberal consecration of secrecy within our political parties about which many voters were rightly outraged, and in the case of the social media campaigns, a misunderstanding of how voters process information and make political decisions. 

Where proponents of the “Russian influence” theory tend to characterize American voters as blank slates ready to be won over by the side with the most ingenious marketers, actual human beings are highly tribal and rarely change their initial political impressions. Instead, we tend to deploy our ability to argue and reason as a means of convincing others of what we have already decided is true on the basis of intuition. More to the point, people share and consume “fake news” precisely because they already agree with its implications. It is not meant to convince skeptics, nor does it, but rather to signal to allies that the sharer can be trusted. The Russians simply contributed echoes of affirmation to already well-insulated political bubbles. 

The degree to which these fake pieces of political affirmation were picked up and shared by Americans speaks to the profound and ancient problem of tribalism in Democratic politics. But we should not allow ourselves to confuse a symptom with a cause. The currents within American society that led to Trump’s election began long before “Russiagate.” If our managerial class wants to address them, they would do well to substitute introspection, though uncomfortable, for the cozy simplicity of conspiracy theories. 

Adam Panish is a School of Arts and Sciences senior double majoring in political science and history. His column, "Leaving the Left," runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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