21 March 17
“The F.B.I., as part of our counterintelligence effort, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 president [sic] election….”
– FBI Director James Comey, Congressional testimony, March 20, 2017
BI Director Comey let loose the mechanical rabbit of Russian interference and now all the political greyhounds are chasing it around a circular track is if it were a real quarry worth catching. That gives them all deniability for ignoring the bigger, fatter elephants in the room that actually need to be addressed.
The dominant narrative for the March 20 open hearing of the US House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence was set in the committee’s naming of “its investigation into Russian active measures during the 2016 election campaign.”
Committee chairman Devin Nunes, a California Republican who has resisted any investigation into Russian ties with the Trump campaign or administration, set a sharp anti-Russian tone with his opening statement that blames the Obama administration for ignoring the committee’s warnings. Nunes framed the hearing with his limited exoneration of the Trump operation: “Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said publicly he’s seen no evidence of collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign, and I can say that the Committee, too, has seen no evidence to date that officials from any campaign conspired with Russian agents.”
Ohio Republican Mike Turner had a darker view, saying, “There is now a cloud over our [election] system…. The goal of the Russians is to put a cloud on our system.”
Mike Rogers, Director of the National Security Agency, agreed that 2016 campaign activities were “calling into question our democratic process.” And Comey said Russian efforts “introduced chaos and discord and sowed doubt” and have worked to undermine and threaten our “wonderful free and fair election system.”
These sentiments, echoed over and over like a conventional wisdom mantra, are really ridiculous. Yes, the Russians interfered with the 2016 election, and maybe even influenced it. Yes, Trump operatives had contact with Russian operatives, and they may even have colluded. Yes, these are real problems, but it’s a groupthink deception, and self-deception, to treat them as if they comprise the entire problem with the American election system.
American elections went off the rails more than two decades ago and they’re been getting worse ever since. Everyone knows this, the government knows this, Congress knows this – and they do nothing to make it better, they work only to make it seem better. The history is in plain sight for anyone who wants to see it, starting well before the 2000 election.
Money in Politics
Corrupt fundraising from corporations and individuals was one of the major elements in Nixon’s 1972 Watergate scandal, in spite of reform attempted through the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971. Post-Watergate reforms that passed Congress were inadequate, leading to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (informally known as the McCain-Feingold Act), that also failed to control campaign spending in a rational, democratic way.
Florida’s efforts to take Democratic voters off the rolls and to intimidate them at the polls were state policy under Governor Jeb Bush, carried out by his secretary of state, Katherine Harris, both beneficiaries of great inherited wealth. Without that corrupt preparation of the state, George Bush likely would have lost it outright. The closeness of the vote led to the chaotic recount, also abetted by Bush and Harris, setting up the opportunity to win the presidency in the courts.
Bush v. Gore
The 2000 Supreme Court’s 5-4 partisan decision awarded the presidency to the loser of the popular vote. Al Gore, another beneficiary of great inherited wealth, and the wealthy leadership of the Democratic Party chose not to contest this all-American effort to undermine the American electoral system. The Supreme Court ruled, in effect, that elections could be fairly decided without counting all the votes. That continues to be a cloud over the election system.
In January 2010, another partisan 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court upheld the notion that somehow money is speech, and those who have the most money are entitled to the most speech, allowing an already corrupted system to spin out of control. Despite their control of both houses of Congress, Democrats responded impotently and went on to lose the House in the fall.
What Jeb Bush oversaw in Florida in 2000 looks almost benign when compared to more recent Republican voter-suppression efforts, and they continue to expand almost unchecked. Even when courts rule them illegal, Republican state legislatures bring them back in modified form. Republican election success depends on reducing the number of voters.
Already out of control in places like Texas, where Rep. Tom DeLay stage-managed the Texas legislature’s efforts to re-draw districts that increased Republican election winners. As early as 1998, DeLay was the beneficiary of contributions from Russian oil oligarchs. In 2011, DeLay was convicted (and acquitted on appeal) of conspiracy to violate election law in 2002. Gerrymandering has historically been a bipartisan corrupt activity, but the ruthlessness of recent gerrymandering across the country is a largely Republican phenomenon to which Democrats have responded limply if at all.
Partisan-controlled, privately-owned voting machines is a blatantly corrupt concept that we have lived with for a generation with little response. Why ANY government, from local to federal, ever tolerated election machines controlled by third parties is one of the abiding mysteries of American life. The impact of these machines cannot be good, although how bad they’ve been is disputed. They seem to be on the decline. At first Diebold and other voting machines were seen as righ-wing conspiracies. In 2016, George Soros was accused of owning voting machines in 16 states. Not that it mattered: Trump won eight of them, including Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Voter Registration Roles
Voter registration is another constant target of Republican voter suppression efforts, which aim at keeping minorities, poor people, and others off the rolls and ineligible to vote. Ruthless voter-roll purging is a common recent Republican technique. The vulnerability of voter rolls to cyber-attacks (by the Russians, for example) is uncertain and came up only briefly at the Intelligence Committee hearing.
Voting Rights Act
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a landmark of democratic expansion of the franchise to previously suppressed voting groups, especially black voters. According to legend, when President Johnson signed the act into law, he said that would lose the south for Democrats for a generation. That was optimistic. In 2013, the Supreme Court, in another 5-4 partisan vote, effectively declared that racism was over and gutted the Voting Rights Act. As Chief Justice John Roberts myopically stated: “Our country has changed. While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”
Roberts is not known to have commented publicly as to the current conditions of American bigotry as expressed by the Trump campaign and its followers, although his opinions in recent criminal cases are more sensitive to race than those of Justice Clarence Thomas. Once again, Democrats have taken the issue of voting rights and done little with it.
Given this history of the self-inflicted collapse of American democratic process, the Russians seem to be relatively minor players of recent vintage. The greater threats to American democracy by far have been the Republican Party and the Supreme Court, with little resistance from Democrats. Together our three branches of government have collaborated to create the corrupt conditions that spawned the Trump candidacy, an all-American target of opportunity the Russians were only too happy to work with.
The Supreme Court and the President seem unlikely to deal with any of this any time soon. That leaves Congress, a Republican-majority Congress, to figure out whether the country is worth saving at this point. The starting point should probably be keeping Americans from interfering with the American democratic process.
William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.