What’s So Awful About Foreign Interference?


The idea that our “democracy” is under attack by foreign adversaries rings hollow to anyone who thinks about it for more than a second or two, or rather it should. The reason is obvious: we don’t have a democracy to attack.

What we have are more or less – generally less — democratic elections.

For the past five years or so, we have been told repeatedly that our “adversaries” – Russia and China, the enemies our military-industrial complex and our foreign policy establishment yearn for, along with “rogue” states like Iran — seek to demoralize us by interfering with those elections.

Good luck with that! Republicans especially, but Democrats too, can and do demoralize us far more effectively than Russian or Chinese trolls possibly could.

One has to wonder why foreigners with malign intent would even bother. The best explanation is: they do it because they can. The next best is: because they want to give us back some of our own medicine. Both could be, and probably are, true.

But what is in it for them? The original Cold War pitted two different, generally incompatible, political economic systems against one another. The Cold Wars that Democrats have been so keen on stirring up at least since 2014 are between rival capitalist states. Could they be interested in taking over America’s place as the leader of the pack?

Not very likely. Russia, with an economy smaller than Italy’s, would be in no position to jockey for geopolitical advantage, even if it wanted to. And, at this point, the Chinese and American economies are so intertwined that the Chinese would have to be fools to prefer conflict to cooperation. They are not fools; the American political class has a monopoly on that.

Meanwhile, we do not enjoy anything like government of, by, and for the people. Neither do we abide by procedural forms – like one person, one vote – that are indispensable for implementing (small-d) democratic notions of political equality and equality of political influence.

We do hold periodic elections that are not too egregiously unfree or unfair. However, in those elections, money talks, drowning out any and all semblances of deliberations aimed at discovering or implementing public goods of the kind that the great democratic theorists of the past envisioned. Their ideals survive, to some extent, in the work of contemporary political philosophers, but they have gone missing entirely from our politics.

There is no need, however, to turn to political philosophy to support my only slightly exaggerated claim that we have no democracy to attack. It is enough to point out that any set of institutional arrangements that would turn the nuclear codes over to the likes of a Donald Trump, or permit him and his co-thinkers to intensify the looming ecological catastrophes towards which the world is careening, or that make it ridiculously difficult to rid the body politic of him and them, is hardly worthy of the name.

What we do have is a generally liberal state or, more precisely, an imperfect “liberal democracy.” In other words, we have basic rights and liberties that are at least in theory equally distributed.

Struggles over basic rights and liberties have been going on since the earliest days of the republic. The intensity of the struggle waxes and wanes, but its urgency never disappears.

Liberal democracies are, without exception, more liberal than democratic. Ours is such an extreme case that calling it a “democracy” at all is misleading, at best.

The description is useful, however, for sustaining belief in the legitimacy of prevailing institutional arrangements. It was not always so; “democracy” was once a term of derision, much like “anarchy” now is. But everybody is, or claims to be, a democrat now. This has been the case nearly everywhere in the world, at least since the end of World War II.

The United States is just one of many examples of this phenomenon. All sorts of regimes have appropriated the word in their quest for political legitimacy; many of them are far less democratic than our own.

The rights that define “liberalism” in its philosophical sense limit rightful interference by governments with individuals’ lives and behaviors. Liberal rights are always under assault to one degree or another by governments and by citizens with illiberal inclinations.

The assault escalated mightily after 9/11, but now, some two decades later, America’s liberal institutions are still proving themselves sufficiently robust to survive not too badly damaged. They have even managed to withstand the depredations leveled against them by Donald Trump.

Liberalism’s most dangerous enemies are generally, like Trump, home-grown. It would be fair to say too that attacks on liberalism are most likely to succeed when executed from within, not outside, vulnerable political communities.

Thus, it is plain that foreigners generally lack the means, motives, and opportunities to do anything nearly as damaging to American “democracy” as Republican governors and secretaries of state hellbent on voter suppression. Also, Russian “public diplomacy” is no match for rightwing propaganda outlets like Fox News.

Nevertheless, blather abounds about, for example, the efficacy of Russian trolls in getting Trump elected in 2016. It hardly matters that no one can point to anything that they actually did that had any demonstrable effect

The truth, of course, is that it was the sheer ineptitude of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party leadership that put Trump in the White House. No matter how much they scapegoat Russians or demonize Vladimir Putin, that is beyond serious dispute.

Relations between our duopoly political parties seem to become more polarized by the minute, but Democrats and Republicans and nearly everyone else agree on this: that American citizens, no matter how odious, have a right to participate in American elections. The only exceptions, in many states, are individuals serving time in prisons, and convicted felons back out in the world.

With the arguable exception of the current president and the toadies around him in the Trump Party, formerly known as the GOP, it is similarly agreed that even the most virtuous and law-abiding foreigners have no right to interfere, in any way at all, with our elections.

This is, for all intents and purposes, a dogma of the American civil religion. It is, to say the least, a curious claim. How, if at all, could it be defended?


Its corollary — that there is nothing wrong in, say, Russian or Chinese or Iranian interests being promoted in American elections if, but only if, the people doing the actual work are bona fide American citizens – seems even more arbitrary.

However, when the country in question is not demonized, but is instead, for whatever reason, considered a friend, even those who notice don’t seem to care.

This is how Israel gets away with meddling in American politics to a degree that less favored or actively disdained nations, like Russia, China, and Iran, could never hope to achieve.

It would not be at all surprising to learn that there are Israeli trolls that routinely meddle in American elections. Israeli intelligence services meddle all over the world, after all; surely America is not that “exceptional.” Moreover, it is beyond dispute that they spy on the United States. Sometimes they even get caught at it; witness, Jonathan Pollard.

But these sorts of shenanigans, if and when they occur and are found out, don’t get Americans’ “patriotic” hackles up.

Neither are they all that consequential. It is the Israel lobby — comprised of Americans, operating openly and legally within the political system – that is mainly responsible for keeping Washington on course as Israel’s first and foremost military and diplomatic defender.

It is seldom clear, however, how or where to draw the line between foreign and domestic. Why, after all, is AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the crown jewel of the Israel lobby, not deemed an agent of a foreign government? No doubt, scrupulously observed legal technicalities play a role. But the main factor is the good will of the American political class.

This raises a question that has become increasingly pertinent as opposition to the injustices the Israeli ethnocracy levels upon Palestinians grows, and as the Israeli state continues along its increasingly unsavory track: why are American politicians, elected ones especially, so pro-Israel? Why are they so way out ahead of the public they purport to represent?

A few of them are ardent Zionists; that explains the positions they take. But most toe the line because of where their money comes from, and because of the constituencies they depend upon for votes.

There are, of course, more than a few Trump-friendly Jewish plutocrats of the Sheldon Adelson type, besotted with the ethnocratic settler state and eager to support it. But increasingly many American Jews are falling out of love with Israel, and with the Zionist project generally. This is especially the case among younger Jews from secular backgrounds, but the disaffection is more than merely generational.

Thus, it is mainly Christian Zionists nowadays who are keeping the American political class in line. They could care less about Jews, except insofar as they think that Jews need to “return” to the Promised Land – either to accept Jesus or to be damned for all eternity — for the “end times” to come.

The sad and chilling fact is that there are at least as many Christian Zionists in America as there are Jews; they constitute the most important and reliable segment of the Trump base.

In theory at least, those who would have everyone think that Russian, Chinese, and Iranian meddling in American elections is vileness incarnate, that it is tantamount to an act of war, should have no problem with those nations or any others if only they would follow the Israeli model. Then they would just be doing American politics the normal way – or, rather, the way that mainstream political science considers normal.

There was a time, not long ago, when one or another version of “pluralism” reigned supreme within the academic political science community. For pluralists, there are no inherent, structural divisions within “democratic” (actually, liberal) states, in which, by definition, all citizens enjoy basic rights and liberties equally and to the greatest possible extent.

On this view, politics is and ought to be competitive, not conflictual. Marxists and others who see history as the history of class struggles of course think otherwise.

The competition pluralists speak of is not so much between individuals as between groups of individuals, “interest groups,” that can in principle coalesce around any interests whatsoever.

Therefore, people who care about Russian or Chinese or Iranian – or Israeli—national interests have as much right, as it were, to form interest groups as people who care about global warming or the particular economic interests of workers and bosses or, for that matter, anything at all.

Interest groups are like points in physical space, pulled upon in various directions by different force vectors. Where a point goes depends upon the nature and strength of the forces pulling upon it. As students of high school physics will recall, the process can be represented formally – in a way that has both explanatory and predictive value – by the so-called parallelogram of forces.

Interest-group pluralist theory has both a descriptive and a normative aspect. It is supposed to represent how the electoral system works, and it presents a picture of how it ought to work in ideal cases.

In that picture, the outcome is fair because it is a function of the relative strengths of the interest groups involved. This is not just a matter of how many people care about, say, one or another state’s national interests, but also about the intensity of their concerns, and, in America where money talks, about how much money they deploy to advance the concerns that move them.

Even if most Americans, and most American Jews, care little or not at all about Israel, enough do, and enough care with sufficient intensity, and enough of them are able and willing to put their money where their mouths are, to enable Israel to influence American politics to a considerable degree.

Palestinians, on the other hand, have almost no influence. Neither do the Russians, Chinese, Iranians, and others. They are therefore not in a position to follow Israel’s lead.

It is the same even with friendly Western allies. Long ago, most of them sent many of their citizens, not just their tired and poor, America’s way. But their descendants’ attachment to the countries from which their ancestors came is weak, sentimental, and largely folkloristic. This does not make for interest group material.

Americans of Russian, Chinese, and Iranian origin are more likely to oppose than support, much less identify with, the governments of the countries from which they or their ancestors came. Much the same is true of the descendants of immigrants from nearly everywhere else on the planet.

Thus, the idea that countries that want something from Uncle Sam ought to work within the normal ambit of American politics, like Israel does, is basically a non-starter.

Interest-group pluralist theory is a tad antiquated nowadays. The consensus view is edging closer to more conflictual accounts of the political scene. Nevertheless, pluralist ideas survive, in one form or another, and, like the tail of a comet, from time to time come back into plain sight.

When they do, it makes the oddness of the prevailing view – that for citizens anything goes, for non-citizens nothing at all – seem all the more salient.

These are the rules of the game, but the rules are more appropriate for a club or voluntary association within civil society than for the government of a super-power that tries, and often succeeds, in calling the shots for the entire world.


In the sixties and seventies, left-leaning radicals — especially, but not only, in academic quarters — advocated for “participatory democracy,” the idea that people ought to participate in making collective decisions that affect their lives.

This was a normative theory only, an account of what ought to be, and was therefore never exactly a rival of pluralist accounts of how actually existing “democracies” operate. As such, it was compatible with those accounts, notwithstanding the fact that advocates of participatory democracy were generally more attuned to Marxist or other conflict, not consensus, driven accounts of the political scene.

This is hardly surprising inasmuch as participatory democratic theory was largely a creature of the “student power” movement of the time. Universities were already among the most liberal institutions of the larger society; calls to democratize them – by including students and campus workers and others in their governance – therefore came naturally.

There was also the lingering influence of radical strains of working-class politics, especially calls for self-management and worker control.

The Zeitgeist may now be edging back towards where it was in those days, but the pressing concerns of a half century ago no longer resonate like they used to; they have been largely replaced or superseded. Participatory democracy is therefore no longer topical. But the unresolved problems of vagueness that theory raised continue to be timely.

That everyone should be involved, one way or another, in making decisions that affect their lives is a fine and inspiring idea. It is far from clear, however, what its implementation would involve at the level of institutional design.

The problem is not just that everything affects everything – in the way that, according to popular accounts of chaos theory, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can cause a tornado weeks later half a world away – but in the more direct ways that university students are affected by decisions made by faculty members and administrators, or that workers are affected by decisions made in corporate boardrooms.

Over the years, it has been suggested from time to time that since what the American government does affects nearly everybody on earth to some extent, the peoples of the world should have some say over what it does or at least play some role in selecting its leaders.

These suggestions are seldom, if ever, taken seriously, not because there is anything wrong with the theory behind them, but because it is fatally unclear how they could be implemented.

Let us therefore stipulate that in our world, a world in which the state form of political organization is in place and secure, states ought not to become involved in elections in other states; that elections are for citizens only.

When our politicians and their media flacks self-righteously berate other countries for interfering in our elections, they are therefore not wrong, just monumentally hypocritical, inasmuch as the United States is the world’s foremost interferer in the political affairs of other nations – Russia, China and Iran above all.

But two (or two dozen or two hundred) wrongs don’t make a right. If countries do unto us what we do unto them, that is still a badness on their part.

But whatever, if anything, they did in 2016 or plan to do in 2020 is hardly the worst thing on the docket now; it isn’t even close. Trump and the Republicans under his thumb do far worse, many times over, nearly every day.

So do those mainstream, “moderate” Democrats who have lately taken it upon themselves to revive old and stir up new, potentially catastrophic, Cold Wars; and who have become, with the even more odious Trump Party in disarray, the best friends forever of the core institutions of America’s national security and 24/7 surveillance state, and the principal enablers of the perpetual war regime upon which our overripe capitalist economy depends.

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ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

What’s So Awful About Foreign Interference?

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