One might imagine that the release of the Mueller report would have silenced everybody on the subject of Russian ‘interference’ in American democracy. Unfortunately, so much has been invested in the idea of Russian election meddling that some people just can’t give up. And so it is that Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has produced an 8 page briefing entitled Russian Meddling in the United States: The Historical Context of the Mueller Report. According to Jones,
Moscow’s actions need to be understood as part of a long-term campaign to weaken the United States—Russia’s main strategic competitor—and Washington’s relationship with key allies. During the Cold War, Moscow conducted a similarly aggressive campaign of “active measures” in the United States, not just overseas, including repeated attempts to influence U.S. elections.
To back up this claim, Jones provides a list of episodes from the Cold War era in which the Soviet Union tried in various ways to influence US politics. For instance, ‘Soviet and Czechoslovak agencies orchestrated a disinformation campaign labeling [1964 presidential candidate Barry] Goldwater as a racist and a KKK sympathizer.’ And prior to the 1968 presidential election, ‘Soviet leaders took an extraordinary step, unprecedented in the history of Soviet-American relations, by secretly offering [Democratic presidential candidate Hubert] Humphrey any conceivable help in his election campaign— including financial aid.’ Finally, ‘On February 25, 1983, KGB headquarters instructed agents in the United States to start planning activities to defeat Reagan in the 1984 presidential election. … the KGB worked with front groups and agents of influence. … Inside the United States, the KGB active measures campaign alleged that Reagan discriminated against minorities, that his administration was corrupt, and that he was too closely tied to the military-industrial complex.’
No doubt this is all true (as indeed were some of the accusations the Soviets made about their American enemies!). But in the first place, the modern Russian Federation is not the Soviet Union. And second, what these examples of Soviet ‘meddling’ all have in common is that none of them had any notable effect. Goldwater lost, but for very good domestic reasons, which had nothing to do with the Soviets. Meanwhile, Soviet attempts to elect Humphrey and defeat Reagan failed dismally. When one looks at the net impact of these ‘active measures’ one has to conclude that it was next to zero. Like a lot of sneaky-beaky Cold War spy stuff, it was completely pointless.
This doesn’t stop Jones from commenting that contemporary Russian ‘meddling’, like its Soviet counterpart, ‘represents a serious threat to U.S. national security.’ ‘U.S. enemies are not just at the gate, they are inside it. Americans need to put aside party policies and confront these threats to freedom and democracy,’ he concludes.
But as it happens, while reading the New York Times book review section this Sunday, I learnt something rather interesting about American democracy in the Cold War. This appeared in a review of the latest book by Robert Caro, the author of an as yet uncompleted multi-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ). Johnson was the man who walloped Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election and he was able to rise to the position where he could compete against Goldwater due to having earlier won election to the US Senate, and then having become John Kennedy’s Vice President. LBJ’s first Senate victory came in 1948 when he defeated Texas governor Coke Stevenson by a mere 87 votes. The election was very controversial, however, because of allegations of ballot stuffing. The New York Times reports how 40 years later Robert Caro tracked down Luis Salas, ‘the election judge who, under oath, had certified 200 disputed votes for Johnson in the notorious Ballot Box 13.’ As the Times says:
He [Caro] knocked on the door of a mobile home near Houston, and the frail old man of 84 who answered was only too pleased to fish out from a trunk a 94-page history titled “Box 13,” which described how he had switched votes from Stevenson to Johnson. He was proud of deceiving everyone. “We put L. B. Johnson as senator for Texas, and this position opened the road to reach the presidency.”
Never again would Caro have to equivocate, “No one will ever be sure if Lyndon Johnson stole it.” Now, in [his book] “Working,” he writes yet another definitive sentence: He stole it.
Electoral corruption takes rather different forms nowadays. Corporate lobbying, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the like are far more common than ballot stuffing LBJ-style. But regardless of the form these abuses take, the idea that we have some type of pristine process which is pure and ‘democratic’ until defiled by ‘foreign meddling’ is rather naïve. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t be doing all we can to make matters better, or that we shouldn’t be wary of things which might make them worse. But in doing the latter, we need to keep a sense of proportion and not to over-idealize existing systems or over-exaggerate the scale of the dangers. The likes of Timothy Snyder would have us believe that democracy is on the verge of collapsing into tyranny. In reality, the choices are between various forms of democratic imperfection. Some are better than others, but all are inevitably flawed. A little bit more imperfection here and there isn’t the end of the world.