As the New York Times has extensively reported yesterday, Russian president Vladimir Putin is about to complete a coup. One where the Russian government used cyber-warfare middlemen to influence the views of the American electorate. And one where vast numbers of Americans became unwitting proxies in electing the favored candidate of a geopolitical enemy. This was a coup carried out at a rival’s insistence, but by ourselves and against ourselves.
A bipartisan set of congressional leaders have stated that the Congress will (eventually) investigate. That investigation is paramount, and should be conducted free of partisan confusion. But the questions it aims to investigate—whether the RNC was hacked alongside the DNC; if so, why or why not; can we determine Russia’s intent definitively; and, why was the public not made more aware of the reality of this threat sooner; to name a few—are questions about aftereffects, about symptoms.
What we need to consider is how did it get this bad? How did the American political system reach a point where it took only a slight push to descend into madness?
Our democracy, we are told, is fragile. It survives only as long as the sinews that bind us together remain stronger than the strains that fracture us. But decades of disinvestment, growing inequality, and threadbare promises of assistance have frayed these bonds. Policy and political failures in the face of economic headwinds set the stage, and propagandists and charlatans (like future White House Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon) set fire to latent race, class, and geographic divisions that we had fought hard to overcome. Today, Americans have lower levels of social trust—that is, trust our institutions and, more importantly, in each other—than at any point since we began keeping measurements.
This is not a soft data point. We need to fix this. This is an existential threat the United States, and the world. Low levels of trust in our country ripple throughout the world, defining the geopolitical environment by allowing China and Russia to fill the vacuum as the United States stands against itself; limiting the global economy by sowing uncertainty into the marketplace; and actively threatening the continued habitability of our planet by stymieing long-needed action on anthropocene global warming. We cannot afford to lead the world divided, selling the State Department to an oil tycoon who plays by Putin’s kleptocratic rules, ceding the Treasury to Goldman Sachs, and allowing a climate change denier to head the Environmental Protection Agency. The world cannot afford these distrust-fueled missteps down the road to oligarchy.
The first step is to support a full-throated Congressional investigation into these Russian machinations. Every American should call their senator and congressperson to demand an independent review of these cyber-invasions. This demands more than review by the ordinary intelligence committees; we need an independent commission, nothing less. We cannot allow the Congress to brush this away through “regular order,” as Senator McConnell has asserted. And we cannot permit the administration to continue to maintain a cloak of silence in the face of threat. We need to examine in the full light of day the cracks our enemies have used to undermine us. Our elites in government need to set the example, trusting the American people to handle serious matters.
But we need to also look at the root problems. We lost social trust long before the Russian state took advantage of our disunity. The best research shows that declining social trust is a function of failed education, failed economics, failed social and racial integration, and failed democratic norms.
We lost social trust long before the Russian state took advantage of our disunity.
First, we need an educated populace taught about the underpinnings of our democratic system. Individuals with higher rates of education are better able to survive changes in circumstance, and so have high rates of trust in the social fabric. Moreover, education opens doors of experience that allow for greater levels of cross-demographic trust. We need to commit to rebuilding civic and social education in our country.
Second, we need to address failed economic systems that have brought low vast swaths of our country. That people who are threatened economically do not trust the economic system should not be surprised. We need to focus on how to rebuild the ladder of social mobility in this country, and that depends on two factors: increasing growth and, more importantly, decreasing economic inequality. Increasing growth makes a bigger pie for all, but over the past decades those gains have almost exclusively gone to the already-highest income brackets. And so, those left behind distrust the economic system. Only by pairing growth with policies to dramatically reduce income inequality will repair this imbalance.
Third, we need to address systemic and (as recently renewed by the white nationalist movement) overt racism. While the United States had made marked progress on racial issues, it never fundamentally addressed the systematic biases in its society. And now we face the prospect of an attorney general such as Jeff Sessions, a man who 30 years ago was considered too racist to be a federal judge. We need to push back vociferously against the rising tide of racism, and we need to move to full racial equality. To do so, civil society organizations, the government, and private enterprise must commit to addressing these concerns head on, with openness, candor, and positive action. Because, that is the only method that can disassemble these biases, on an individual and organizational level.
Finally, we must rebuild the basic norms that used to police our democratic systems. The period from the mid-1970s (post-Watergate reforms) to 2013 (the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance system) may be the high watermark of ‘clean politics.’ In that period, robust voter protection efforts helped stamp out racial discrimination from the franchise, campaign disclosure was paired with limits on campaign contributions and expenditures, and the lingering stigma of Watergate set the outer ethical bounds of political conduct. But, during the same period those very laws, rules, and norms were misinterpreted, disregarded, and cast away. We need to revitalize these norms, reestablish these laws, and reinvigorate these rules. The strongest avenue to do this is through a progressive federalism, focusing on states and cities as the first steps to national reform.
This is a major task. And it will take new leadership committed to its success. But it is essential.
Most importantly, we are not starting from scratch. There are already concerted efforts underway to rebuild these pathways to ourselves. One of which is New Leaders Council, a national network of local leaders committed to rebuilding America from the ground up. NLC trains its fellows on how to bridge these trust fissures, and present a cohesive vision of progressive success. Moreover, it has hundreds of local leaders working on a comprehensive Compact with America to address each of these fundamental flaws—economic stratification, social and racial injustice, and rebuilding our democratic norms.
As a first step, we all should contact our senators and representatives and demand a full investigation though an independent commission. An attack on democratic infrastructure and norms is an existential threat to any republic, and we need to respond seriously. An independent commission is the best model for a truly comprehensive inquiry, free of partisan taint.
And at a larger level, we need to do all that we can to rebuild our democratic norms from the bottom up. We need to reinvigorate our civic organization, establish the discourse that is the lifeblood of a functioning democracy, and we need to rebuild the trust between and among our citizens—regardless of party affiliation. To do this, we need to come together not to unify behind a government or political figure; we need to come together to understand ourselves and build a representative government that responds to the needs of every citizen.
To address this threat, we all need to act. We need to act together. We can’t afford to fail.