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Russian Influence and the Commodification of American Democracy

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Since the Supreme Court’s landmark 2013 Citizens United decision that political donations by independent entities (i.e. unions, corporations, etc.) are a form of free speech, Vladimir Putin has been speaking with a mighty voice in American politics. Technically, it’s illegal for foreign nationals to contribute to American political campaigns, but the law’s loopholes are big enough to drive a Russian tractor through. In 2016, it was cheap and legal for anyone to buy online political advertising that amplified social divisions and spread disinformation, so long as it didn’t mention a candidate. And in the absence of an enforcement mechanism, Facebook was happy to run any ad it could make money from—even those that fell afoul of existing campaign finance laws.

Neither was it difficult for Russian operatives like Alexander Torshin and Mariia Butina to find American collaborators through which to funnel political money. The National Rifle Association appears to have been one such willing partner. The NRA’s dark money arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, spent a reported $35 million in election-related activities for 2016, including untraceable independent expenditures like this 30-second, “Hillary did Benghazi” attack ad. The ILA’s expenditures for 2016 represent a 270% increase over the previous election cycle. Under current campaign finance regulations, the NRA is not required to identify where that money came from, and it looks like a lot of it came from Russia.

If Russian money influenced the electoral outcome in 2016, it’s worth noting that it did so in the same way as the money from Sheldon Adelson, Paul Singer, the Kochs, the Mercers, and any number of other American billionaire activist donors. If Russian intelligence agencies helped put Donald Trump in the White House, then it’s worth remembering that the majority of the Republican Party welcomed their assistance. And it makes sense: Putin wants to game American elections to hurt the United States, and Republicans don’t mind hurting the United States to win elections. And our campaign finance laws are such a toothless mess that experts aren’t even sure any of it is illegal.

The bottom line is that loose campaign finance laws and deluded Supreme Court rulings like Citizens United have allowed the American political system to become a battlespace in a global information war. And while Republicans are still too pleased with the outcome of the 2016 election to see it, that’s very bad for everyone who lives in and/or cares about the United States. Without stronger financial disclosure laws, Vladimir Putin is just another skilled and deep-pocketed player in the graft-fest that we’ve made of our own elections. In a perfect example of this dynamic, Concord Management and Consulting, a Russian firm under investigation in the Mueller probe for illegally interfering in an American election, is now citing previous decisions by Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh to argue that all charges against it should be dropped. Quite the coincidence how Kavanaugh’s name made it to the top of the pile. 

Obviously, Citizens United won’t be overturned any time soon, although there are things we can do to mitigate its damage in the meantime. But that decision, and the 2016 election, is a call to arms for anyone who cares about the preservation of democracy in America. This cynical, transactional, and laissez-faire view of our political system as just another unregulated marketplace is at the root of my quarrel with modern-day Republicanism. I believe that it represents an existential threat to our ability, and our right, to govern ourselves.

Eric Busch

2300 Red River Street, University of Texas at Austin, TX, 78712

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