Some Notes on the Left’s Russia Debate

Unhelpful tics threaten our ability to think clearly about a complicated problem.

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged Donald TrumpLeftRussia

Perhaps it was the latest Mueller indictments, or the spectacle of Trump in Helsinki, or the realization that the midterms are approaching, or something else altogether (who can keep up?), but recent events seem to have re-energized the intra-left debate over how to respond to the question of Russia and Trump.

These are not the arguments any of us wanted to be having in 2018. Under better circumstances, there might have been productive debates about how to shape the most effective legislative agenda for a Democratic President facing a Republican Congress, or how to push for exciting nominees to important positions, or how to pursue an aggressive agenda at, say, the EPA. Lurching from one absurd national catastrophe to another is an exhausting experience, and I suspect that that exhaustion is affecting the way people think and argue. (How could it not?) Nonetheless, I think it’s important to stay on guard against certain argumentative tendencies that are probably unhelpful in the long run.

One of these tendencies is the suggestion that Russia is a kind of shiny distraction for people who are missing what’s really going on. This positions the speaker as more perceptive than the headline-chasers whose obsession with What Mueller Knows is causing them to ignore Trump’s massively consequential policy moves:

To be sure, there is an eminently reasonable warning here: We should not let curiosity about the bad things that might have happened in secret distract us from the bad things that are definitely happening in plain sight. (And to be clear, I’d be thrilled if people were as scandalized by bad EPA policy as they are by Russian interference.) But there are problems, too—and not just the suggestion that we already know enough of the Russia story to determine which policies are “infinitely worse” and “matter infinitely more” than the questions of interference and collusion. This reflects a casual confidence about what the investigation will uncover that is ironically similar to attitudes many of these writers have elsewhere criticized. More important, and left unaddressed in this critique, is the possibility that Russian interference and disastrous Republican policies are two sides of the same coin. It is, at the least, possible that Donald Trump’s election owes something significant to Russian interference; that Republicans’ performance in the 2018 midterms may as well; and that America’s election infrastructure is still insecure in ways that benefit the GOP. People are capable of caring about more than one thing at a time, and caring about Russian efforts to boost Trump’s party may well have beneficial downstream effects on policy.

So much for the idea that caring about Russia means you can’t, or don’t, care about other things. What about another persistent suggestion—that caring about Russia is a short step from aggressive nationalism and warmongering? The Nation’s Stephen F. Cohen is the leading exponent of this theory. As he wrote a few weeks ago: “Considering today’s perilous geopolitical situation, it is hard not to conclude that much of the American political establishment, particularly the Democratic Party, would prefer trying to impeach Trump to averting war with Russia, the other nuclear superpower.” The repetition of arguments like this has doubtlessly left some readers with the impression that objections to Russian interference cannot but lead to belligerence and, ultimately, war. The premise here seems to be that certain kinds of talk necessarily produce certain results, but of course, they might not.

Yes, ideas sometimes exist in a chain of necessity, such that to affirm one thing necessarily commits a person to affirm something else. But people can also exhibit surprising ideological creativity, mixing and matching different beliefs in endless combinations. Unless those combinations are incoherent, there’s no reason to dismiss them as impossible in principle. It flattens political argument, and limits the universe of what we can say, to insist that all who affirm X must necessarily affirm Y and Z. Why should that be the case? There’s nothing inconsistent about saying: Russian interference in the 2016 election, if it occurred, was a serious attack on American democracy, but it absolutely should not lead to a shooting war. Or, to take another example, there’s nothing inconsistent in the statement: “Hillary Clinton’s campaign was harmed by Russia, but it was also a poorly run campaign led by a weak candidate, and Democrats should choose a different kind of standard-bearer and a different kind of strategy in the future.” Suspicion of Russian interference doesn’t have to amount to excuse-making for the failures of Democratic Party elites.

The point here is not that concerns about Russia couldn’t possibly distract from other important issues, or that they couldn’t possibly lead to belligerence and aggression. Of course they could, and it’s important to guard against those risks. But it’s also crucial, at a moment when so many different crises are unfolding and overlapping in complicated and sometimes contradictory ways, to engage good-faith interlocutors without insisting that there is only one way to react to the avalanche of interference and collusion-related revelations. The world is complicated enough without imposing distorting simplicity on ourselves.

Read more about Donald TrumpLeftRussia

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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