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Who's the real threat to US democracy, Russia or homegrown oligarchy?


At the n+1 website, Sophie Pinkham deconstructs the accusation that Kremlin-backed Russian hackers infiltrated the computer network of the Democratic National Committee with the intention of influencing the US election in favor of Trump. While being careful not to minimize the dangers posed by illicit hacking, Pinkham suggests that the hubbub around the alleged Russian hack—including a lengthy and breathless investigative report by the New York Times—serves to distract attention from the real threats to US democracy: systematic voter disenfranchisement and a governing elite beholden to corporations. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

This is not to argue that cybersecurity isn’t a major concern. Cyberattacks on dams, for example, can be genuinely lethal, while attacks on financial systems can be enormously costly. But the current panic uses a definition of hacking that rates very low on the scale of cyberattacks, and blurs the line between actual security breaches and the dissemination of political propaganda. In an interview with Russian media expert Vasily Gatov, a Vox interviewer pled for confirmation of Russia’s decisive, strategic interference in the election. Gatov refused to comply, but the interviewer’s attempts to elicit the desired response were instructive: “To be clear, by ‘hack’ I don’t mean tampering with voting machines or rigging the process. I’m referring to the more insidious business of distorting discourse and influencing public opinion.” By this definition, “hack” encompasses the creation and distribution of invented news, as well as the theft and leak of real emails. But this confuses two distinct issues. Fake news is about invention, about promoting lies; email leaks are about giving wider access to truthful information, or at least to real documents that expose truths about our political system. You can oppose both, but the two should not be conflated. Propagandists are fundamentally different from whistleblowers, even if both act with political motives. And the US is about to give the President the right to appoint the chief executive responsible for Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and other government-sponsored international news outlets; this was the judicious response, under Obama, to the proliferation of Russian-sponsored political propaganda.

If we accept even the more limited definition of election “hacking” as “rigging the process,” we could say with great certainty that the US election was “hacked” by the repeal of the Voting Rights Act, or by America’s longstanding failure to eliminate antiquated voting technology, make Election Day a holiday, make voter registration automatic, or stop disenfranchising large swathes of the population through mass incarceration. These are well-documented, longstanding problems that are vastly more serious than an email leak. (A real conspiracy between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign would be a major crime, of course, but would demand an indictment and a trial rather than moral panic.) America’s deeply flawed election process is a disgrace and should have been dealt with a long time ago, if fair elections were truly a priority in American politics. But no one seems to consider old-fashioned American voter suppression to be “hacking.” Maybe it’s too familiar.

As Trump makes his appointments, it has become clear (if it wasn’t already) that he will be the puppet of mega-corporations, particularly the fossil fuel industry, not Vladimir Putin. If Putin were a nice person, would it then be acceptable to have as secretary of state the former CEO of ExxonMobil, which operates as a de facto state, making its own deals with foreign leaders, regardless of their political persuasions, and hastening the destruction of the only ecosystem capable of sustaining human life? Rex Tillerson’s relationship with Putin is only a symptom of Tillerson’s fundamental unfitness for the position.

Image: Rex Tillerson and Vladimir Putin, 2012. Via n+1.