I have remarked on more than one occasion that Western perceptions of the Russian ‘threat’ have historically owed little to the real scale (or even existence) of that threat. Instead they have tended to be products of internal political debates within the West, with depictions of Russia as good or evil serving as tools to advance certain political agendas. Leo Strauss argued that underneath the surface meaning of any work of philosophy there is also a hidden meaning, discernible only by a select few. One could say much the same about analyses of Russia: there’s the surface story – Russian aggression, Russian disinformation, Russian collusion, and so on – but there’s also something going on under the surface which constitutes the true purpose of the analysis in question.
Quite why Russia is so often used to serve this purpose, rather than some other country, is hard to discern. I suspect that it’s because Russia is uniquely positioned both inside and outside of the West, making it a suitable ‘other’ while also being clearly connected to Western concerns in a way that a truly alien ‘other’, such as China, could not be. Regardless of the reason, depictions of Russia shouldn’t be taken entirely at face value. There’s a hidden reason why the writer is doing what he or she is doing which he is she isn’t telling you. (Which, if true, raises a whole host of questions: what’s my hidden purpose? And is there a hidden purpose to saying that there’s a hidden purpose? But for now we will put these to one side.)
What’s rare is for anybody to come straight out and admit it, which is what makes a recent article in The Washington Monthly by ‘contributing writer’ John Stoehr so remarkable. Stoehr takes the line that the Democratic Party in the United States has been far too soft in its struggles with its Republican opponents. The Democrats have tried to find common ground, and reach agreement, whereas the Republicans have regarded the Democrats as their enemies and so have waged relentless war against them. As a result, the Democrats have been trounced. To regain power, they need to start playing hardball too.
This leads Stoehr to a problem:
How can Democrats do this without abandoning what makes them a liberal party: its values, its pluralism, its privileging of liberty and justice for all, its historic goal of creating a more perfect union? How can they ask voters to vote Democrat by doing what the Republicans do?
Fortunately, Stoehr has worked out what to do about this. He writes:
These are difficult questions, but I think the Trump presidency offers a possible answer. The Democrats should do everything they can to tie the Republicans to something most sane people would agree, even if they are hopelessly polarized, is an indisputable threat to the United States—Russia.
So, here we have it. The Russian threat serves as a tool for the Democratic Party to win political points in its domestic battles with the Republicans. Stoehr continues:
I think Russia is a solution to political polarization. The Democrats should and must start using Russia as a way to break through the vicious cycle consuming the parties, Washington, and the whole country. Russia is our enemy. This is a fact. … In tying the Republicans to an enemy, the Democrats have the potential to break the Republicans. Do they stand with America or do they stand with Russia?
Stoehr cites NBC analyst John Heilemann asking Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut: ‘Is it possible that the Republican chairman of the House Intel Committee has been compromised by the Russians? Is it possible that we actually have a Russian agent running the House Intel Committee on the Republican side?’ This is quite an outrageous suggestion, for which there is, it has to be said, absolutely no evidence whatsoever. Stoehr is clear, however, that it’s the sort of smear which the Democrats ought to be spreading at every opportunity. He writes:
Murphy didn’t take the bait, which suggests to me that the Democrats are not ready to accuse the Republican Party of treasonous behavior. Perhaps it’s prudent to bide their time, to wait for the proper context. What I do know is that that context is rapidly taking shape. Pretty soon, it won’t sound extraordinary to wonder if the highest-ranking government officials have been comprised. It won’t sound outlandish to accuse the Republicans of abetting a foreign enemy. It will sound reasonable. At that point, real change can happen.
As a political strategy, I think this is dumb. If the Democrats want to take the gloves off in their fight against the Republicans, Trump has given them more than enough ammunition to do so: cuts in Medicaid, immigration policy, massive increases in defence spending, foreign policy mistakes, and so on. Instead, Stoehr wants the Democrats to double down on the Russian issue – an issue which 90% of Americans probably don’t care very much about. It’s bizarre to say the least. Nonetheless, Stoehr’s article lays bare the hidden purpose behind so many Russia-related stories. They’re a tool in an internal political struggle. They have very little to do with Russia itself.