Personal Choice and Structural Forces: Both Real

A Donald Trump voter in Texas, frustrated that the Russian influence operation during the 2016 election makes his candidate’s victory less legitimate, went and rented himself a billboard in order to tell ABC News, “The Russians Didn’t Elect Trump. I did.” That the gentleman made the choice on an individual level to vote for Donald Trump cannot be disputed. However, most reasonable observers have concluded that the manipulation of national media coverage of the presidential race via the planting of undesireable stories by the Russian government agents and proxies moved the needle on the vote totals. By controlling the ideasphere, they damaged Hillary Clinton’s image and her ability to make her own message heard, causing fewer people to vote for her.

The funny thing is, both the Trumpie Texan’s argument (the “I Did” part, anyway) and the Russian interference claim are simultaneously true; individuals who voted exercised free will in their decisions, and a powerful institution with a covert rooting interest influenced that decision for some number of voters.

Hillary Clinton supporters are the most motivated people on the planet to point out that the Russian government and Wikileaks influenced some voters’ decisions; why you may have even seen them make that very claim on various blogs. It is usually done to make the case that Clinton is rightfully aggrieved, that the election result is illegitimate, and that many non-Hillary voters were therefore duped, their choice itself meaningless except as an expression of Russian policy.

But what of the Democratic primary, and the various ways, fair and foul, that the DNC and D.C.-based party leaders in general – by far the most powerful institution involved in the primary – worked to influence perceptions? In that case, the same Clintonite voices often adopt the position that, since they decided  to support Clinton, that claims of DNC interference are disproved. But the one simply does not disprove the other.

Now, there is one major difference that needs to be noted. What the Russians did in stealing the emails was clearly worse than what the Democratic leadership did. But if we move our focus from the moral standing of the institutional actors to the voters’ choice, a similarity emerges. The claim of individual choice (Nobody made me vote for Trump; I chose to) does not refute the claim that the institutional incolvement made a difference. In primaries and general elections alike, the one simply does not preclude the other.

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Republican Complicity Addendum

In my last post, I discussed Hillary Clinton’s observation that the Russian propaganda operation during the 2016 election demonstrated knowledge of the American electorate and how to “weaponize” hacked information in an effective manner, suggesting help from some American political personnel. I went a step further, raising the clumsiness and poor targeting of the propaganda aimed at progressives compared to their very effective targeting of the right wing in to argue that assistance the Russians received came from conservatives, who were skilled at talking to the right but not the left.

On further reflection, I’ve decided that it’s more complicated than that. The propaganda effort targeting progressives consisted of two parts – one broadcast-scale and effective at speaking to progressives, and one targeted and borderline ridiculous. Starting just before the Democratic convention, the national media began to run story after story based on the hacked DNC and Podesta emails. This operations demonstrated a knowledge of progressives’ grievances and political norms. It was the other end, the fake news targeting progressive web sites, that was amateurish and poorly targeted. This distinction is noteworthy because the distribution ends of the two operations – the presentation of propaganda to American audiences – were run by different groups. The release of the email stories in the mainstream media was a Wikileaks operation, and we know that there are politially-knowledgeable left-wing Americans involved with them. The fake news operation, on the other hand, was run out of Eastern Europe, probably by Russian military intelligence itself. It is this end of things that displays a lack of understanding of their target audience.

Republican Complicity

Hillary Clinton raises an interesting point about the Russian meddling during the 2016 election in her interview about at the Code 2017 tech conference:

Clinton: …and so the Russians — in my opinion and based on the intel and the counterintel people I’ve talked to — could not have known how best to weaponize that information unless they had been guided.

Mossberg: Guided by Americans.

Clinton: Guided by Americans and guided by people who had polling and data information.

Hillary posits that the presentation and spin and internet targeting in the release of the hacked Democratic emails and the planting of fake news demonstrates a knowledge of American politics – what button to push for what groups you want to move – that suggests Americans who have been around campaigns helped to design the operation. I want to go one step further; the execution suggests right-wing or Republican campaign operatives.

As has been previously reported, web sites for Bernie Sanders were, starting in June of 2016, subjected to a “fake news tsunami.” I remember this; I was there at the time. What hasn’t been widely appreciated is just how hackish, unconvincing, and poorly-designed that tsunami was. Instead of attacks on Clinton for being too cozy with billionaires or overly-hawkish in her foreign policy, the sites were spammed with Vince Foster stories (I actually saw reference to the Rose Law Firm!), the Seth Rich story, and other InfoWars-caliber fare. The stories about the Bernie sites all point out that the webmeisters found the material ridiculous and realized what was going on right away. They were neither fooled by the stories nor approved of them. As effective as the operation was at targeting the right, they had no idea what they were doing when it came to progressive Democrats. Even in the release of the DNC and Podesta emails, they were able to score with the low-hanging fruit of publishing personal insults and Clinton’s “Public position/private position” comments in one of her speeches. They never put together an effective story that had an ideological dimension that could have appealed to progressives; it was all personal about Clinton herself. The similarity of the attacks to those from Republicans in the 1990s actually served to turn off progressives, who never liked those attacks in the first place.

This stands in sharp contrast to the much more effective message-crafting towards the right. There are certainly left-wing sources who have been friendly towards the Russian point of view and helped spread their messaging during the campaign, and who might be looked at as suspects, but they would have known how to talk to progressives. They certainly wouldn’t have tried to sell us on Whitewater and Mena Airport. Whoever was helping the Russians design their election hacking operation knew American politics all right, but knew how to speak the language of the center and the right much more than that of the left. Sound like anyone we know?