This is an opinion article written by a left-leaning contributor and represents one view in the debate over how to act on Special Counsel Mueller’s findings in the Russia probe.
Since the 2016 Presidential Election, commentators on both the left and the right have argued that the investigation of Russian interference in the electoral process is a dangerous distraction. Examining the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, or pursuing impeachment means that “we’re not talking about health care and raising the minimum wage to a living wage,” as Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said in a CNN town hall. Voters, Sanders and others believe, aren’t particularly concerned about an election that’s already over; they’d rather have a campaign focused on issues that affect them directly. And sure enough, a poll in April by Public Policy Polling found that voters believed health care was a more important issue than the Russia investigation by an overwhelming majority: 80% to 8%.
Polls like this one don’t really capture the importance of Russiagate. Yes, voters may see health care as more directly relevant to their everyday lives. But if either major party in our democracy abandons its commitment to fair elections and the rule of law, that will have a negative impact on people’s health care, on their wages, and on their freedom and well-being. Russia’s authoritarian leader Vladimir Putin is not interested in delivering better health care to the American people. He is not interested in working-class Americans earning a living wage. Russian interference in US elections, if ignored, will prevent Sanders, Warren, or any other Democrats from passing progressive legislation that they hope will improve people’s lives.
Following the release of the Mueller report, even Trump admitted that Russia interfered in the 2016 election on his behalf. It’s difficult to know whether that interference swung the contest or not. We do know, though, that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee, and that those leaks were widely disseminated in US media. We also know that the 2016 election was extremely close – Trump’s victory came down to 77,000 votes in 3 states. It’s likely that Russian interference made a difference.
Mueller was unable to prove that Trump coordinated with Russia directly. But Congressional Republicans seem to be expanding their defense of Trump to a defense of Russia. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell illustrated this when he refused to allow the Senate to vote on stronger election security measures for 2020.
McConnell may not want stronger security, because he believes that Russian interference helped the Republicans in 2016, and wants the benefit of their help in 2020. Or, more likely, he worries that a debate of new election security measures would embarrass and annoy Trump.
Either way, the refusal to take seriously this proven threat to election integrity is consistent with the GOP’s growing antipathy to the electoral system. Before the 2016 election, for example, Trump said he would not accept the vote as legitimate if he did not win. After his victory in the electoral college, he still claimed with no evidence that he was denied the popular vote by illegitimate votes from undocumented immigrants.
Republicans have used these kinds of false claims about voter fraud to justify tough voter ID laws and other measures that disproportionately restrict the votes of black people, Hispanics, and the poor. In Florida, Republicans even passed a new poll tax, requiring people who have served time for felonies to pay all court fees and costs before they are allowed to vote. This again targets poor people and people of color, who are more likely to vote Democrat.
Whether Trump’s campaign actually coordinated with Russia, his cavalier public encouragement of Russian interference in 2016 shows a disturbing indifference to the integrity of US elections. That indifference is in line with trends in the Republican party more broadly, which has over the last decade or two increasingly treated voting as a barrier to power, rather than a path to it. Republicans these days try to win elections by restricting the votes of those who oppose them, rather than by adopting policies that will appeal to more voters.
People want a functioning health care system; they want to be able to go to college without being crushed under massive debt; they want to be able to find jobs, and to get paid a living wage when they work those jobs. In a democracy, the government would try to make people’s lives better. But when you erode democracy for political expediency, it becomes impossible to pass popular and necessary policies. Our constitution envisioned a system of elected officials obligated to represent the interests of their constituents. Increasingly, however, Republicans are succeeding in warping the system to do away with this obligation.
Nothing shows this more clearly than the election of Donald Trump. Trump lost the popular vote and appears to have only squeaked into office with the help of a foreign authoritarian. Once in office, he in fact behaved like someone who was not indebted to the public. He has spent his presidency trying to destroy the ACA, the health care law that expanded insurance coverage to more than 20 million people in the United States. He passed a massive tax cut that disproportionately benefited millionaires and corporations (including Trump himself.) His administration has rolled back consumer protections, making Americans more vulnerable to fraud. Trump got into power in part through subversion of democracy, and he governs as if he isn’t democratically accountable to the entire populace.
The Russia investigation is important because democracy can’t work if elections are subverted by a foreign power and it can’t work if major political parties welcome such subversion. Democracy isn’t a distraction from good policy. Democracy is the way we get good policy. Russiagate is tedious and technical and messy, and candidates and the public understandably would rather talk about something else. But grappling with the issue is of vital importance. It doesn’t matter how many Americans want better health care if our elections are decided by Vladimir Putin, or corrupted by forces closer to home.