Political News

Wikileaks hits gap in the trust and transparency armor of American democracy

Posted October 31

A series of emails released via Wikileaks but apparently hacked directly or indirectly by the Russian state have cast a pall over a number of key American political actors and institutions in recent months.

Beyond the mere fun of sowing chaos, some observers are suggesting that the Kremlin's real goal is to undermine democracy per se.

"After all," argues John Daniel Davidson at The Federalist, "if Putin can convince Americans that liberal democracy is nothing but a sham, he will accomplish what no leader of the Soviet Union ever could. Decades after we thought it was over, Russia will have finally won the Cold War."

But Americans seem to be doing a pretty good job of this without help. Opinion poll data show deep cynicism about major government institutions, the trustworthiness of the news media, and even the democratic process itself.

The research firm PRRI released a survey this week showing that only 43 percent of Americans have a great deal of confidence their vote will be counted accurately.

But even if the count is right, the Pew Research Center finds that just 34 percent of Americans have at least a "good deal of confidence in the wisdom of the American people when it comes to making political decisions, while 63 percent have little or no confidence."

Pew notes that as recently as 2007 the numbers were more than reversed: 57 percent had at least confidence, while 41 percent did not. That reversal was felt equally among both Democrats and Republicans.

It's not surprising, then, that American voters have so little enthusiasm for their choices this November. As Gallup has noted, Clinton and Trump have among the worst favorability ratings in the past 60 years, when tracking began. Trump is the worst, and Clinton stands as fourth worst, edging out only Goldwater in 1964 and McGovern in 1972.

Given Hillary Clinton's evasions on her email scandal, recurring conflicts of interest at the Clinton Foundation, complete with apparent pay to play conflicts while she was secretary of state, it is not surprising that just 11 percent of voters view the likely next president as "honest and trustworthy," according to NBC.

Trust in government has also fallen sharply. As recently as 2001, the Pew Research Center reports, 54 percent of Americans trusted government to at least most of the time do the right thing. Today, just 19 percent share that trust. The last time trust dipped that low was 1994, just before congressional Republicans swept into power.

Some of the distrust undoubtedly stems from the crash of 2009 and the bailouts of major banks that followed, which left many voters on both ends of the spectrum disillusioned at the competence and honesty of the complacent experts who had whistled past the graveyard before the crash. Disillusionment helped breed the Occupy Wall Street movement on the left and the tea party on the right, which indirectly spawned the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump insurgencies of 2016.

Vital institutions

But trust is a two-way street, and voters may have some grounds for concern.

Taxes and law enforcement, for example, are institutions that, in any stable democracy, must be scrupulously held above politics. But now the IRS and arguably the FBI have now been compromised by politics.

There is a widespread perception with the FBI that a political fix was in on the investigation of Hillary Clinton's mishandling of classified information with her homebrew email server.

FOX News reported sources inside the agency who said that agents who were part of the investigation "unanimously" favored prosecution, and were devastated by the decision.

The New York Post spoke to several retired FBI officials on the record who said the reputation of the agency has been permanently tarnished and that agents within the agency were upset.

Outside indications that something was amiss included the impromptu meeting between Bill Clinton and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch at Las Vegas the very weekend that the Justice Department was announcing its decision on the case.

Whether the meeting was truly impromptu, or whether Lynch was blindslided by the former president, critics on both sides of the aisle saw the optics and timing were terrible.

“It is inappropriate and it shouldn’t have happened on both their parts," Patti Solis Doyle told the Wall Street Journal. "She shouldn’t have agreed to see him and he shouldn’t have initiated the meeting.” Doyle was a longtime Clinton aide and her campaign manager from 2000 to 2008.

Meanwhile, lawsuits and intermittent congressional hearings against the IRS for targeting conservative groups for slowed down nonprofit status during the runup to the 2012 elections continue to plod on.

No one disputes that the IRS illegally and politically targeted these groups. But not a single person has been held accountable. Pepperdine University law professor Paul Caron has been logging efforts to hold the IRS accountable since the story broke in 2013.

To be fair, one reason there has been no independent investigation on any of these matters is that both parties soured on the independent counsel approach to executive infractions after the Ken Starr investigation of the Clintons' Arkansas dealings in the 1990s mutated into a sordid case centered on Clinton's sexual improprieties.

Mass media

As recently as 2003, Gallup reports, 54 percent of Americans had at least a "fair amount" of confidence in the mass media. Today, just 32 percent agree, and just 14 percent of Republicans.

Republicans have long distrusted the mainstream news media, seeing a thin facade of journalistic neutrality covering leftward political biases. Those suspicions have been confirmed with research, most notably by UCLA political scientist Tim Grosclose, whose research has repeatedly demonstrated that the vast majority of mainstream media outlets tilt decidedly leftward in their coverage.

So voters who were already suspicious of media impartiality were not surprised to learn, via Wikileaks and as explicated by Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept, that the Clinton campaign kept a long list of "friendly" reporters that they invited to attend off-the-record soirées.

While close relationships between leading media figures and the political figures they cover is nothing new, eyebrows have been raised in recent years when several major media figures from ABC, CBS and CNN turned up married to leading figures in the Obama administration.

And certainly a line was crossed when Maggie Haberman, then at Politico, was described in an internal Clinton campaign memo, uncovered by Wikileaks, as a reliable and pliable voice who often "tees up" issues for the campaign.

Haberman (the memo calls her "Maggie") should be asked to carry water on driving home a theme about Hillary's careful deliberative to decisions. And Haberman, now at The New York Times, did publish two articles hitting those themes.

Party elites

Disillusionment with government and media now also extends to leading figures in the Democratic Party, again thanks to Wikileaks.

Bernie Sanders supporters were shocked to learn, via Wikileaks and on the eve of the Democratic convention, that their party's leadership was actively seeking to discredit their candidate using "black propaganda."

In one May 18 email, Luis Miranda, head of communications for the Democratic National Committee, suggested spreading the message, "without attribution," that the Bernie Sanders campaign had been fomenting violence.

Clear evidence that the DNC had been actively working to scuttle the Sanders candidacy led to DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz being booed off the stage at the convention in Philadelphia.

Now in disgrace, Wasserman-Schultz was replaced by Donna Brazile, a former Clinton operative and CNN commentator who, according to another leaked email revealed this month, had leaked to the Clinton campaign a question that was subsequently used in a town hall debate between Clinton and Sanders.

Brazile equivocated in atttempting to deny the charge when questioned by Megyn Kelly on Fox News, and CNN anchor Jake Tapper, who helped moderate that town hall meeting, would later say he was "horrified" that "someone was unethically helping the Clinton campaign," and called it "very, very troubling."

The antidote

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, in a tight race for re-election after failing in his bid for the presidency, warned his GOP allies to go easy on the Wikileaks narratives because "today it is the Democrats. Tomorrow it could be us," Rubio said in a statement last week. "I will not discuss any issue that has become public solely on the basis of WikiLeaks. … These leaks are an effort by a foreign government to interfere with our electoral process, and I will not indulge it."

Fair enough.

But in a world where speakers must assume all mics are hot, it now may be necessary to assume that all emails are hacked. And while better cyber security is certainly in order, one solution to the legitimacy crisis may be for U.S. elites to be more legitimate — on both sides of the aisle and in both public and private.

Email: eschulzke@deseretnews.com

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