Resistance-minded Democratic Party politicians have become fond of declaring that Donald Trump is trampling, assaulting, and attacking the ideals of American democracy by ignoring corruption rules, bullying institutions like the FBI, letting Russia off the hook for sabotaging our last election, etc. And it’s true: Trump is abusing, molesting, and committing genocide against every standard of honesty and ethical conduct that has ever existed in United States public life. But the institutional Democrats’ newfound and ostentatious affection for the sacred principles of civil society can ring hollow, and two recent stories involving well-connected Democrats faced with decisions between upholding small-d democratic ideals and helping powerful interests maintain their power demonstrate why that is.
The first involves the Podesta Group, a lobbying company that was founded by brothers John and Tony Podesta; John was Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman and Tony was a major donor. (John Podesta doesn’t appear to have had any connection to the firm’s activities since at least 2003, but in addition to still being run by his brother it employs a number of other veteran Democratic Party/Clinton operatives.) The Daily Beast reported Monday that the Podesta Group collaborated from 2012 until 2014 with infamous Trump adviser Paul Manafort to lobby American officials on behalf of Kremlin-backed Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych. Specifically, the Beast says, the Podesta Group promoted the dubious claims of various Kremlin-affiliated hacks and stooges in an effort to make the case that the 2012 Ukraine parliamentary elections, in which Yanukovych’s party did well in part because his chief rival had been imprisoned for political reasons, was a fair and free one.* (One example: The Podesta Group distributed materials quoting Russia-friendly French politician Thierry Mariani calling the Ukrainian election “the best election he had ever seen,” a hilarious claim that sounds a lot like something a certain current U.S. president might say.) Call me a dreamer, but I think the small-d democratic move in this case probably would have been not working with a notorious international right-wing sleazeball to help expand Russia’s ethno-authoritarian sphere of influence, right?
The second story involves Anne-Marie Slaughter, a prominent wonk and State Department official under Clinton who is now president of an officially non-partisan but ostensibly left-leaning think tank called New America. (Slate’s Future Tense section, which covers emerging technologies and the policy debates around them, is a partnership between Slate, Arizona State University and New America.) In June, a scholar at New America named Barry Lynn issued a statement that criticized Google for engaging in monopolistic business practices. According to an account in the New York Times on Wednesday, Google, which is a New America donor, complained. New America then pulled the statement from its website (though it was re-posted a few hours later) and Lynn was pushed out. Slaughter initially declared that the Times’ report was “absolutely false,” but later, not having identified any erroneous information in the article, admitted that its “facts” were “largely right” while arguing they’d been taken out of context. More of New America/Slaughter’s response can be seen here; their argument is basically that Lynn was a pain in the ass as a coworker for a lot of reasons and not just the Google thing, which may well be true. But they don’t deny that one of the reasons Slaughter was irritated at Lynn was because he was “imperiling funding” by criticizing Google, and the fact remains that his statement was briefly pulled from New America’s site. Neither reality squares with the ideal of supporting the free exchange of ideas. It’s not nearly the same level of offense as doing PR for a dictatorship, but it’s not good.
In these stories, we see influential Democrats—members of the party that deplores Trump’s crony-capitalist corruption, his attacks on the press, his affection for bad foreign regimes, and his general assault on the idea of truth—abetting the truth-suppressing impulses of an omnicorporation and a Russia-affiliated gangster government. This willingness to compromise ideals for power’s sake is not unusual in the party. For one thing, Slaughter’s State Department connection is a reminder of how many top-level Democratic figures were aware that Hillary Clinton used a private email account while she was Secretary of State, a shady ruse which is employed quite frequently by politicians who are attempting to prevent journalists from obtaining records of their activities via Freedom of Information Act requests. Top Democrats were silent at the time about this arrogant disregard for the principle that public servants should be accountable to the public; one of Clinton’s top aides, asked in 2009 why he himself used a private email address at State, said that he was doing so to “avoid FOIA.” (He later claimed he was joking.) Later, when Clinton ran for president, the Democratic National Committee worked on her behalf against Bernie Sanders while publicly claiming it was remaining neutral, which is as literal a trample-attack-assault on the democratic process as could be imagined. (Yes, American parties are allowed to choose their own candidate in whatever way they see fit, which doesn’t have to involve a popular vote; the point is that Democrats claimed they were running a democratic contest when, in fact, they were not.)
While it barely registered as news at the time, meanwhile, the moment that best sums up the flexible Democratic attitude towards democracy might have taken place in Sept. 2014 when Clinton praised former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and proudly touted him as a mentor and influence. Henry Kissinger! The man’s entire career—from his involvement in then-presidential candidate Richard Nixon’s insanely treasonous sabotage of then-president Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam peace talks to his complicity in the secret illegal bombing of Cambodia and Laos to his announcement that he would not serve on the 9/11 Commission because doing so would require him to disclose the names of his foreign clients—has been an assault on the spirit of government by and for the people. In some cases Kissinger literally helped engineer the overthrow of democratic governments by unelected authoritarians! But Clinton and her advisers likely felt that cultivating an association with him underlined the themes of her percolating campaign by making her seem Gravely Qualified and Seriously Experienced, so his alleged contributions to “American leadership in service of a just and liberal order” became a talking point—one that was just about as meaningful as so many Democratic talking points about the spirit of democracy are right now.
On Wednesday, former DNC chair and CNN pundit Donna Brazile—a frequent tweeter of thoughts about resistance and democracy—sent a fundraising email to a Democratic voter list. “Donald Trump and his cronies are out of control, and it feels like they’re testing us in new ways every day,” it began. “Sometimes I have to remind myself to breathe,” Brazile or her digital communications consultant added, in a nice personal touch, before asking for donations of up to $100. You may remember Brazile’s name from the election; she was the one who appears to have been caught lying about leaking CNN debate questions to the Clinton campaign in advance. What an inspired choice for the job of soliciting money to support the cause of public honesty and democratic fairness! Was “literally anyone else in the world” not available? Where are the good guys?
*Correction, Sept. 1, 2017: This post originally misstated that Ukraine’s national election in 2012 was a presidential election.