Looking for villains everywhere but the mirror

Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History, looks at what the Democrats have been doing--and not doing--in the lead-up to the new Trump administration.

Clockwise from top right: Democrats Dianne Feinstein, Cory Booker, Nancy Pelosi and John LewisClockwise from top right: Democrats Dianne Feinstein, Cory Booker, Nancy Pelosi and John Lewis

IF SOME politically minded Rip Van Winkle had fallen asleep in the Washington, D.C., of the 1980s and woke up in January 2017, they might think that very little had changed. After all, the political press's articles and the politicians' speeches were full of talk about an existential threat to the U.S. coming from Russia.

Yet one thing our Rip Van Winkle might find strange is that most of the talk about Russian evil isn't coming from conservative Republican circles, like in the 1980s, but from the supposedly more sophisticated precincts of liberal Democrats.

Beyond the Russia question, though, Rip would see some other telling similarities with three decades ago--particularly the Democrats' meek and submissive attitude within Congress, where they could, if they wanted, try to challenge the nominees and initiatives of a right-wing Republican administration.

Instead, what liberals were single-mindedly up in arms about was the release of a report in which all 17 U.S. intelligence agencies stated with "high confidence" that the Russian government had carried out a concerted effort to influence the 2016 U.S. election. Specifically, the report charged that Russian intelligence hacked the e-mail accounts of officials from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and laundered stolen information through WikiLeaks that "denigrated" Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

A few days later, the online news site BuzzFeed published a 35-page dossier, allegedly compiled by an "opposition research" firm, that included a number of explosive allegations against Trump.

Although the dossier has been kicking around the Washington media since last summer, reporters have not been able to verify its claims that Russia holds multiple points of leverage over Trump. The dossier even suggested that Trump's campaign collaborated with Russian intelligence on the hacking operation.

As a result of all this, liberals contend that Donald Trump's victory is tainted--not because it was only made possible by the Electoral College, since he lost the popular vote, but because the Russians aided his candidacy.

"I don't see this President-elect as a legitimate president," said Georgia Rep. and civil rights movement icon John Lewis. "I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected. And they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California--who, truth be told, barely qualifies as a liberal--said:

I've had all of the major classified briefings. I have been astonished at what has been a two-year effort at Russia to spearfish, to hack, to provide disinformation, propaganda wherever it really could. And I think this has been a very sophisticated effort.

I'm certainly not going to leave this in limbo, because this is the future of America, it's the future of democracy. And if we can't carry out an election without disinformation being pumped into it by another country, we've got a huge destruction of our system going on so we have to--we have to be full and robust in this look.

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IT'S UNCLEAR what will come of all of this. Trump is the most unpopular president-elect since public opinion polling was invented, and it's possible that some of the scandalous allegations could stick to him. If pressure keeps up, Congress could be forced to conduct an investigation that would damage him even further.

At this stage, the evidence is questionable that Russian intervened in the U.S. election by hacking the e-mail accounts of DNC officials. Investigative journalists like Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi have raised serious question about the Russian hacking story.

No one who has read SocialistWorker.org will think that we have a soft spot for the Russian state or for its strongman president Vladimir Putin. We have written extensively against Russia's intervention on the side of the Assad regime to aid the Syrian counterrevolution and criticized those on the left with a "campist" view of the world order that sympathizes with Russia as an opponent of U.S. imperialism.

So when we cast a skeptical eye at the liberals' hue and cry over Russian intervention in the election, it's not because we have any illusions in Russia or Putin.

It's quite possible--even likely--that the Russian state would try to influence the U.S. election if it was able to. But if Putin, the one-time KGB's man in Germany, did attempt some spycraft in this case, he would have been following in the footsteps of what the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies have done in elections in countries like Italy, Iran, Haiti, Chile, Nicaragua and dozens of others, including Russia!

But the larger point for the left should be this: The revelations from the hacked DNC e-mails didn't lose the election for the Democrats. The triangulating, pro-corporate, anti-worker attitudes of the DNC and its chosen presidential candidate Hillary Clinton did.

Even if Putin's cyber-spies were responsible for leaking the e-mails to WikiLeaks, what Russia did to win the election for Trump mattered far less than what Clinton and the Democratic Party did to lose it.

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CLINTON'S LOSS in the Electoral College hinged on about 77,000 votes concentrated in three states, out of more than 135 million cast.

Given a loss that narrow, there are plenty of explanations for the unlikely outcome. Let's list them: FBI Director Comey's last-minute intervention about Clinton's e-mail server. Russian hacking. Fake news. Voter suppression. A slight shift to Trump among union households. A higher than expected turnout of rural and exurban whites in a few states. And so on and so on.

What all these explanations miss, though, is the assumption that "but for" these unexpected events, Clinton would have been a shoo-in. The real failure of Clinton and the Democrats is that the election got close enough--at least in some critical states--for Trump to win. To explain that, the Democrats would have to explain why they lost any sense of enthusiasm among the party's traditional base, particularly in former industrial strongholds like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

But instead of questioning their commitment to neoliberal orthodoxy--of which Clinton was the prime exemplar--it's easier for Democrats to blame Trump's election on the Russians.

There may be a bit of payback for liberals to delegitimize Trump as a Russian puppet, given that the Republicans and their supporters promoted the racist "birther" lie against Obama, who actually won the popular vote twice. But they shouldn't be too obsessed about the Russian connection.

For one thing, this puts them in the camp of Republican hawks like Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who want to use the hacking story and other allegations to promote more military and economic confrontations with Russia, by pressuring the incoming Trump administration to take a tougher line.

Second, they end up singing the praises of U.S. intelligence agencies for their integrity and professionalism.

How short can liberals' memories be if they can forget then-CIA Director George Tenet declaring in 2002 that Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction was a "slam dunk"? The CIA's seal of approval on the invasion--which, of course, found no such weapons--abetted the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and one of the biggest foreign policy disasters in U.S. history.

Third, the liberals' Russia obsession is taking the focus away from what should really delegitimize Trump in the public's eyes: The fact that he lost the popular vote to Clinton by almost 3 million votes.

But challenging Trump's "victory" in this way takes them in directions that the status quo Democrats don't want to go--challenging the undemocratic constitutional order that has cost them two national elections in the last 16 years alone.

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THE STORY of the "Russian connection" blew up in the media at the same time that the Republican-led Congress started to push through its reactionary program and hold hearings to confirm Trump's cabinet picks.

For the Democrats, the focus on Russia filled up media space that could have been devoted to exposing the truly horrific nature of the incoming Trump administration, with its collection of plutocrats and right-wing cranks. Liberals are worried about the undue influence of Putin-connected Russian oligarchs on Trump. But it might have made more sense to point out how his cabinet is filled with made-in-the-USA oligarchs.

If that seems like a missed opportunity, it also served to help the Democrats avoid confronting some inconvenient truths.

That, for example, the Commerce Department is being passed from a one billionaire (Hyatt Hotels magnate Penny Pritzker) to another (corporate raider Wilbur Ross).

And that the liberal case against Trump's pick of right-wing billionaire Betsy DeVos as education secretary is weakened because DeVos stands for many of the pro-privatization, anti-union and pro-charter school policies that the Obama administration supported. In fact, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker--whose well-publicized testimony against Trump attorney general choice Jeff Sessions was clearly an attempt to build his profile for an expected 2020 campaign for president--once served with DeVos on the board of directors of the Alliance for School Choice.

And that given the opportunity to actually take a stand on an issue that might benefit working people, the Democrats would rather curry favor with their corporate backers. Witness the disgrace of 13 Democratic senators--including Booker--voting with Republicans to ban the import of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada. Even arch-right-wing Sen. Ted Cruz voted to support that measure, co-authored by Vermont's Bernie Sanders.

In another parliamentary move, Sanders proposed an amendment to a budget resolution that would forbid Congress from cutting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The vote in the Senate deadlocked at 49-49.

But Vice President Joe Biden was nowhere to be found to break the tie, so the amendment died--and Biden preserved his perfect record of never casting a tie-breaking vote in eight years.

Given the choice between trying to mount a real opposition to the Trump agenda and fuming about Trump being Moscow's man in Washington, it appears that Democrats have opted for the latter--and so have the liberals who tail them.