By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion
We’ve heard a lot about threats to democracy from Donald Trump and his allies. But even if the worst doesn’t happen and the nation muddles through, the damage to the constitutional system from these threats is potentially quite real.
The latest phony scandal stirred up by the Republican Party and its aligned media — about what special counsel John Durham is finding in his investigation of the investigations of the 2016 campaign — is a good example.
What makes U.S. democracy work? It’s not generally voters dispassionately studying the issues and supporting candidates they agree with, in the process pushing toward more popular and effective public policy. Almost none of us actually act that way; we choose sides, but on the margins shift toward the incumbents when things are going well and against them when they aren’t.
So how does public policy improve? In a lot of cases, because politicians and parties look around for something that appears to be broken and then propose fixes. They try to make sure that the problems and solutions they talk about are at least plausible, because they’re afraid of looking silly or stupid otherwise. That leads them to anticipate criticisms and refine their plans; and that, in turn, helps produce good policy ideas, some of which actually are implemented.
Sometimes this happens on the merits, but there are also strong incentives built into the system. Parties feel they need something to campaign on, and traditionally that has entailed pointing out problems and proposing remedies. Individual politicians, lawmakers and governors and candidates for office, engage in this process to attract publicity and win supporters. One strength of the U.S. system is that there are thousands of politicians — 535 in Congress alone — who have a broad ability to initiate such policy changes.
That brings us back to Durham, who was appointed in 2019 to review the government’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election for possible misconduct. The latest news — and it’s a stretch to call it news — was a filing made last week, which after a series of misinterpretations and embellishments wound up getting falsely trumpeted by Republicans as evidence of a conspiracy between Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the FBI and who knows who else to illegally spy on Donald Trump. In an epic Twitter thread, privacy expert Julian Sanchez reads Durham’s contribution and notes that “nothing in the filing supports breathless claims technically illiterate cable hosts are making. It does not allege anyone ‘hacked’ Trump computers, or was paid to ‘infiltrate’ networks, or that anyone ‘intercepted e-mails and text messages.’”
What Sanchez does conclude is that the 2016 episode points to some problems with how the U.S. government deals with security and privacy issues. In a healthy political party, some politicians would take the real policy issue here and propose solutions. Of course, they might accompany this effort with plenty of over-the-top rhetoric about the dystopian possibilities opened up by feckless Democrats and bureaucrats. But the hook would be a real policy problem and a real proposed fix.
Instead, we have leading Republican politicians talking about imprisoning various Democrats for malfeasance that appears to be entirely imaginary (and at any rate certainly isn’t found in the court filing that they claim to be discussing). There’s no chance that they’ll propose any plausible reforms, because nothing they’re talking about has any basis in reality. Worse, there’s very little chance that anyone else will address what Sanchez considers a “legitimate policy issue” because, as he points out, the “coverage from right-wing media is a technically illiterate conspiracy corkboard covered in yarn, and the mainstream coverage thus far has mostly been about pointing out why that’s silly and wrong.”
Again, this is how good policy is often generated when the system is working. Even if it’s theoretically possible for neutral experts to sit back and carefully assess which problems are most important and neutrally formulate solutions — and I’d challenge that notion — the U.S. political system is particularly badly suited to encouraging such a process. Instead, the policy problems that generate interest and therefore solutions are the ones that politicians come to care about. Often this starts when some organized group in the party puts such issues on the agenda. Sometimes it’s because party actors come to care about them. But one very reliable way to get politicians to care about something is when it affects them personally. Thus Democrats after 2000 got upset about poor voting mechanics, and wound up generating a lot of ideas (some great, some not so great) for reforming the electoral process. Even in 2004, when many Democrats believed false conspiracy theories about voting machines, they wound up proposing some good ideas about paper trails for electronic ballots; partly because a healthy political party ignores the crazies and focuses on reality.
That’s not what’s happening here or, as Sanchez details, in several other recent overblown scandals generated within Republican party-aligned media. And while it may not be as dramatic as the Jan. 6 attack or some of Trump’s more gruesome assaults on the rule of law, it still erodes the ability of the U.S. political system to muddle through in the way that has always been its hidden strength. That’s bad for everyone.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.