Most people have focused attention at Donald Trump, who potentially benefited greatly from the Russian efforts, but few people have as yet given serious thought to what Russia’s support for Bernie Sanders actually means.
Democrats Need To Rethink Our Post-Mortems
After the '16 election, most narratives suggested that Donald Trump triumphed because his brand of populist politics resonated with a huge portion of the electorate in several key purple states. Hillary Clinton, although she won the popular vote, was thought to be too much of a centrist “establishment” candidate to appeal to economically-stressed voters whom our culture left behind.
Hearkening back to the nomination process, people bemoaned that the party did not nominate Bernie Sanders, whose populist politics were thought to appeal to the same voters who preferred Donald Trump.
However, now we must consider how much Bernie Sanders’s campaign might have been propped up by the Russians.
Ever since the’16 defeat, the DNC has been swinging leftward on the potentially mistaken belief that Bernie's support represented a genuine grass roots sway leftward. If Bernie's support was artificially ginned up by Russian meddling however, the party could be walking into a trap of sorts. Is a leftward/populist lurch wise given that we now know at least some of Bernie’s online support derived from Russian bots rather than real live American voters?
Getting Rid of Party Elites and Super Delegate Rules Might Not be Wise
In supporting two anti-establishment indie candidates (Trump & Sanders), the Russians chose to wage war on our nation’s major political parties. They backed the biggest wildcards possible and reveled in the disruption they caused.
For better or worse, the DNC was able to resist this Russian meddling. The weak RNC however allowed itself to be fully coopted by the Russians.
A couple of thoughts:
- For much of the last decade, the RNC gradually became more vulnerable to outside activists. The Tea Party and alt-right may never have succeeded in overturning Obamacare but they sure succeeded in weakening RNC elites. In attempting to harness the energy of Tea Party activists, the RNC gradually ceded control of the party’s message to activists operating outside of a strictly fact-based reality. Activists turned to unreliable news sources and fell prey to conspiracy theories propagated by Drudge, Breitbart and InfoWars. Lacking strong party gatekeepers, an interloper like Donald Trump smashed through the doors and wrested control of the party.
- Bernie Sanders might very well have won the Democratic nomination had not been for the role of unelected Super Delegates in the party nomination process. “Super Delegates” (comprised of party elites) cast about 15% of the total votes at the party’s 2016 convention. An overwhelming portion of these Super Delegates broke in favor of Hillary Clinton.
Because Super Delegates are appointed by the DNC itself (rather than from voters in state primaries and caucuses), many question their legitimacy. In the wake of Hillary Clinton’s 2016, moves have been made to lessen the importance of Super Delegates at the 2020 Democratic National Convention.
However, I’d argue that Super Delegates are essential as a party safeguard against the type of wildcard candidates that may be vulnerable to undue foreign influence. Although Super Delegates had a role in the 2016 Republican Convention, there were not as many of them, nor were they as influential, as the Super Delegates at the Democratic Convention.
Were the “Bernie Bros” largely a Russian Bot Thing?
Many women have told me that they were loathe to discuss their support of Hillary Clinton online for fear that Bernie Bros would retaliate with abusive and threatening messages. Because the most abusive behavior was conducted behind the scenes and through private messages, its impact on female voters is hard to gauge—but certainly any coordinated effort to disparage and threaten women for their support of one candidate or another can impact the vote.
Now, in light of the indictments that revealed Russian bots’ role in the last campaign, I seriously wonder how many of these abusive Bernie Bros were really just Russian bots trolling for discord. I suspect that, in modeling abusive and misogynistic behavior, these Russian bots pushed real-life “Bernie Bros” to become more abusive. Neither party can afford to be held hostage by abusive behavior. While I don’t have an antidote to inoculate from this kind of behavior in the future, I hope someone within the DNC is tasked to study this.
As a side-bar: I can’t help but think that the #MeToo movement owes some of its energy to the pent-up resentment caused by abusive Bernie Bros twitterbots. Unintended consequences can be much greater than intended consequences.
Don’t Be Smug—Be Wise!
I suspect many Democrats have been privately gloating that it wasn’t their party who fell victim to a foreign adversary’s bot campaign. However, really, Democrats must be on guard. Within the last few days (i.e., ever since Friday’s indictments) several suspect Twitter accounts have tried to follow me. Some of these accounts blatantly emanated from Russia. Others were recently created and mostly re-tweeted lefty-ish stories from really suspect sources. A couple of weeks ago, whacky sources circulated long Twitter threads with outlandish claims that Carter Page was a double-agent working for the FBI. I saw another story alleging that Erik & Donald Trump Jr were involved in a plot to steal credit card numbers from Trump Hotel guests to give to the Russians.
Sometimes, it’s fairly easy to spot a bot. For example, on Twitter, a recently created account that carries no profile picture or description may be suspect. However, I’m also going to guess that Russian bots will become much more sophisticated in the near future. They’ll mimic real people, display richly-drawn profiles. And they’ll interact more—instead of merely retweeting some burst of propaganda, they might start tweeting pictures of their kids or the shells they gathered at their last beachside visit. Perhaps they’re already doing this.