This Week: Nygaard Notes #630: Meddling, Democracy, Systems


With all the talk about Russian “meddling” in U.S. elections, I thought I’d take a moment to point out what a convenient diversion the entire spectacle is. That’s what this issue, and part of the next one, is all about.

The Minnesota State Fair starts today. If you didn’t know.


“Quote” of the Week: “It Is the System We Are All In”

An interesting website called the conscious kid published an interview with the anti-racist educator Robin Diangelo recently, and the second question they asked was this:

“Now, you mentioned the delusions that white people can have about themselves and their racism. What are the biggest misconceptions white people have about that, and how should white people define racism and understand their role in perpetuating it?” To which Diangelo replied with this week’s “Quote” of the Week:

Oh, great question. Misconception number one is what a racist is. Most white people believe that a racist is: 1, an individual; 2, one who holds conscious and aware dislike of people based on race, and; 3, intentionally seeks to be mean to them. Individual, conscious, intentional. And by that definition, virtually all white people are exempt from racism. We do not understand that this is a system that is infused across all institutions, traditions, politics, practices, language, norms. It is the system we are all in and none of us could be exempt from its forces.

Russian Meddling or Systems Meddling?

Plenty has been written about Russian interference, “meddling,” or otherwise influencing the 2016 Presidential election in the United States. Russia (with a few traitors in the White House?) is the enemy, we are told, and they’re out to get us. The dominant story line is that there are many people outside of our borders who wish us harm, and the first job of a president is to keep strong alliances with our friends and protect us against our enemies. Much, much debate takes place about whether the President is correctly identifying our friends and our enemies.

But all the discussion and gnashing of teeth in regard to Russia, all the outrage about Trump referring to the European Union as a “foe” of the United States, all the talk about the weakening of NATO, the nattering about the absurd “Group of Seven”, the worries about the growing power of China, and collusioncollusioncollusion—basically everything that has been dominating the news of late—is functioning to confuse people about who are friends and who are foes. More importantly, all the news is working to steer people toward thinking about friends and foes, and that is very different than focusing on systems of power, which would help us to understand not only what is going on in the international and domestic arenas, but more importantly, what we might want to do about it.

Most of us have been trained to see the nation, or nation state, as the thing that defines “us” and “them.” But history has moved beyond that. In the recent Nygaard Notes #627 I discussed how “Empire” is now defined more by global systems than by direct rule by individual nations. And, as the Empire declines, the new power centers are not nations, but rather “a global, worldwide financial oligarchy,” in the words of former Russian Senator Yuri Boldyrev.

In recent months we’ve heard the word “oligarch” in the news more than we have in the previous several decades. But it’s almost always in reference to “Russian Oligarchs.” It really picked up steam this past January when it was reported that “The U.S. Treasury Department released a list naming individuals that are closely affiliated with the Russian government.” This has become known as the “Oligarch List,” as it included the names of roughly 100 of the most wealthy and politically well-connected people in Russia.

Until recently, an “oligarchy” was defined as “a small group of people having control of a country, organization, or institution.” And an “oligarch” was one of those people. But power can define words any way it wants, I guess, as we see in the following example:

CNN ran an “explainer” in April in which they asked “What’s an oligarch?” They told their readers that “we went in search of an oligarch expert and found Thomas Graham.” They asked Graham, a Russia scholar at Yale, to define “oligarch,” and he said that “Oligarchs are rich Russian businessmen who are close to the seat of power in Russia.” He added that “almost any rich Russian businessman is an oligarch, because in Russia there is a close relationship between private wealth and public power.” Very much unlike our own country, he might have said had he wanted a laugh. In an indication that they don’t get the joke, CNN headlined their story “Russia’s Oligarchs Are Different from Other Billionaires.”

So, where do we find oligarchs? Only in Russia? Or is it bigger than that? Read on…

An Oligarchic System

A Bernie Sanders opinion piece published by CNN last November started out with these words: “One of the major, untold stories of our time is the rapid movement toward global oligarchy, in which just a handful of billionaires now own and control a significant part of the world economy.”

What does he mean: “control” the world economy? Let the following anecdote give a hint of what he means:

Journalist Bob Woodward recounts in his book The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House, that just as Bill Clinton’s first term as President was about to begin (January 1993) there was a meeting of the soon-to-be Council of Economic Advisors. Clinton had promised to cut the federal deficit, in hopes that this would lower long-term interest rates and stimulate economic activity. However, the deputy chair of the Council informed him that “the bond market will not likely respond” to such a promise, after similar promises made by Reagan and Bush I were not fulfilled. Here I’ll let Woodward tell the story:

At the president-elect’s end of the table, Clinton’s face turned red with anger and disbelief. ‘You mean to tell me that the success of the program and my reelection hinges on the Federal Reserve and a bunch of fucking bond traders?’ he responded in a half-whisper. Nods from his end of the table. Not a dissent.

Clinton, it seemed to [the deputy chair], perceived at this moment how much of his fate was passing into the hands of the unelected [Federal Reserve chair] Alan Greenspan and the bond market. … It was no longer a political campaign. They faced new economic realities and had to start all over again. Their first audience would have to be the Fed and the bond market.

While I doubt that Clinton was really this innocent, it is true that, due to the institutional economic structure of the nation, the power to set the agenda is granted to those with money. It’s not a conspiracy—note that there are no names other than Greenspan’s mentioned. It’s something called “the Market” doing what it does, which is to accumulate wealth.

Election Meddling: Us, Them, and Systems

With Russian meddling in mind, let’s consider a couple of definitions of the concept from prominent dictionaries. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “meddling” as “Intrusive or unwarranted interference.” The Collins English Dictionary says that to “meddle” is “to concern oneself with or take part in other people’s affairs without being asked or needed.”

Both definitions—and, I think, common understanding—assume an us/them dynamic. Someone understood as “them” is intruding on someone understood as “us,” or some “them” is concerning themselves with “other people’s affairs.” And those “other people” are understood to be “us.”

It’s easy to point to “Russia” as the villain, and U.S. voters—or something called “U.S. democracy”—as the victims. An obsessive focus on Russia calls up a nationalistic fear that is easily manipulated. But as long as our criteria for deciding who is us and who is them is based on national boundaries, we will continue to address the issue of the corruption of our democracy by looking outside of those boundaries. That is not the road to understanding.

Homegrown Corruption

An opinion piece published in (that radical publication) TIME Magazine on June 30 2017 said it clearly:

Over the past several months, we’ve heard a lot about the Russian government’s interference in our 2016 election, and rightly so. But we’ve heard less about another threat that has nothing to do with Vladimir Putin but is just as destructive and just as effective at undermining the integrity of our democracy: a decades-long assault on voting rights. This campaign is nothing less than a sustained attack on American democracy from within.

The piece—coauthored by a U.S. Senator named Chris Coons and the director of the Brennan Center for Justice, Nicole Austin-Hillery—added that “Too many Americans don’t realize that voter suppression works, and that it has a cumulative, destructive effect on our democracy that builds with every election.”

Attempts to suppress voting take many forms, from voter ID laws to curbs on early voting to extremely gerrymandered electoral maps. Included among a list of “serious challenges” facing voters is what a recent Brennan Center report calls “unresolved concerns regarding foreign interference in our elections” which “undermine the free and fair vote that is essential to our democracy.”

Note that what is undermining the vote is not “foreign interference,” but “concerns regarding foreign interference. A March 9 report in notes that “Electoral confidence in the United States has been declining since 2000, in large part because politicians, especially Republicans, have been undermining it. Electoral confidence is particularly low in closely contested states.”

And voters who lack confidence in the power of voting are less likely to vote, which is a large part of the point of voter suppression efforts.

The advocacy group Demos reported last month that “According to research from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), black and Latino voters are 3 times as likely as white voters to encounter hurdles when trying to vote. They are more likely to: be unable to take time off from work to go to the polls; be unable to identify their correct polling place; be told that they do not have a proper form of ID; discover that their name is not on the list of registered voters; and/or be harassed or bothered at the polls. These are just the problems voters of color face when they are registered. Black and Latino Americans are also more likely to miss the deadline for registering to vote.”

It’s not simply a matter of “missing the deadline”. There is also the issue of voter “purges,” which is what they call it when election officials attempt to remove ineligible names from voter registration lists. Sometimes called a “voting list purge”, the Brennan Center explains that “When done correctly, purges ensure the voter rolls are accurate and up-to-date. When done incorrectly, purges disenfranchise legitimate voters (often when it is too close to an election to rectify the mistake), causing confusion and delay at the polls.”

It’s not random “confusion and delay.” Like virtually everything to do with voter suppression, racism is at the root of it all. Speaking of the root, the Afro-centric online magazine called The Root reports that “Almost every type of voter purge disproportionately affects black voters and voters of color.”

It’s not a small issue. Brennan reports that “between 2014 and 2016, states removed almost 16 million voters from the rolls,” an unknown number of whom were removed in error. Or, supposed error. Think about it: If it were simple error, would the targets be so disproportionately voters of color?

Recall the remark by the TIME Magazine opinion writers that “voter suppression works.” If it seemed to you like an odd thing to say, consider a Pew Research Center study published just before the 2016 election:

“Trends in party affiliation among black voters have been largely stable over recent years. Overall, 87% of black voters identify with the Democratic Party or lean Democratic, compared with just 7% who identify as Republican or lean Republican. Among Hispanic voters, the Democratic Party holds a 63% to 27% advantage over the GOP in leaned party identification. As with black voters, trends in party affiliation among Hispanic voters have changed little in recent years. Based on 2016 surveys, 66% of Asian registered voters identify with the Democratic Party or lean Democratic, compared with 27% who identify as Republican or lean Republican.”

The ferocity and persistence of efforts to suppress the votes of people of color are best understood when we consider two dates in the past and one date in the future. In the past we have the years 2008 and 2012. The election and re-election of Barack Obama were attributed in part to the overwhelming support of voters of color. The future date is the year 2045, the year that the Census Bureau projects that “white” people will make up less than 50 percent of the U.S. population. The historic fact of Obama—as a symbol more than on policy grounds—combined with the idea of “white” people not being in the majority in a majority-rule system, infuriates overtly racist whites and terrifies passively racist whites. The current racist backlash, epitomized by the election of Donald Trump, grows well in this soil.

A foreign nation that meddles by attempting to influence the outcome of a U.S. election produces a $17-million (and counting) federal investigation and endless headlines around the world. Meanwhile, the phenomenon of massive, multifaceted and ongoing attempts to influence the outcome of ALL elections by suppressing the votes of people of color (and other likely Democratic voters) gets much less attention. It attracts a few headlines, to be sure. But don’t expect a special prosecutor with a big budget to be assigned to this case.

In the next Nygaard Notes I’ll talk a bit more about why that might be, and why it’s important to think globally before acting locally.