Since the Republican victory in 2016, pundits and policymakers alike have been enamored with investigating potential collusion between Donald Trump's campaign and Putin's Russia. Nicholas R. Smith argues that Cold War legacies have led Americans to overestimate Russian power at their own peril-- what really needs interrogation is the state of American democracy. 

This is becoming a familiar trend: as another month of Trump’s presidency passes, an even more scandalous exposé of the collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian government during the 2016 presidential election comes to light.

Last month it was the exposé that Donald Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr, had email conversations with an alleged intermediary to the “crown prosecutor of Russia”. This month it is the revelation that in early 2016, despite statements to the contrary, a member of Trump’s team directly emailed a close associate of Vladimir Putin asking for help regarding a prospective Trump Tower project in Moscow.

It is fair to say that the allegations of Russian involvement in the Trump campaign can no longer be simply dismissed as fake news – although some pro-Trump outlets have tried.. There is enough evidence to suggest that, at the very least, Trump and Russia colluded: ranging from the now indisputable financial aid and intelligence sharing to perhaps, but less conclusively, the covert use of cyber weapons.

Understanding Russia’s motivations and power

The idea that Russia would try and undermine America’s presidential election, despite how shocking the media would have you believe, is not that outlandish to anyone with an interest in Russian foreign policy. Importantly, Russia’s foreign policy grand strategy since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 has been predominantly to secure Russia’s position as a pole in an emerging multipolar world. Such a goal is predicated on the erosion of the United States’ power concurrently with the rise of China and other emerging powers like India; something Russia has tried to hasten with their cheerleading of the BRICS group.

It is not hard to see how helping turn American domestic politics into a circus could help Russia in their goal of creating a multipolar international system. A domestically divided America beset by internal crises would undoubtedly have repercussions for their foreign policy appetite globally. Certainly, America’s ostensible retreat from playing an arbitrating role in international politics - many are signalling Trump as the end of the liberal international order – seems to be a testament to this assumption.

Where the media and analysts have got it wrongest so far in the analysis of the Trump-Russia fiasco is in their assessment and portrayal of Russia’s international power. This perception of Russia as a strong global power - one capable of penetrating the world’s preeminent power, the United States - is largely a mythical remnant of the Cold War. Despite the Cold War ending in the late 1980s, Russia has still remained the fabled enemy of the United States; an imagined evil empire with designs on defeating the United States, even through the use of nuclear strikes if necessary.  

The reality is that Russia is in terminal decline. It does not have anywhere near the power that the Soviet Union had – and even then, the idea that the Soviet Union was an equal to the United States at any point during the Cold War was also a myth - and its economy is in a dire state. The fact is, because of Russia’s downward trajectory, most Russia expertsmany of whom are ardently anti-Putin – do not buy that Russia was, regardless of intent, capable of orchestrating an electoral victory for Donald Trump.

Difficult questions about America’s democracy

The media frenzy that has erupted around the allegations of Russia’s intervention in America’s domestic politics is partly driven by the tabloidization of contemporary news where hyperbole and sensationalism are more important than substance and caution. This frenzy is also a convenient diversion for American political elites because it excuses them from answering the difficult questions that arose during the 2016 presidential election about American democracy.

Trump did not win because of Russia (although it can be asserted as a minor variable). He won because of a number of more pertinent factors: the corruption of the DNC; a greatly disliked opponent in Hillary Clinton; voter apathy; the rise of anti-establishment sentiment; the quirks of the American electoral system; and white blue collar discontent, to name but a few.

The 2016 presidential election, however, demonstrated a much deeper problem than all of the aforementioned issues: the clear ‘oligarchization’ of American democracy. Bluntly, any democratic system which has elections as the main mechanism of its popular participation is inherently undemocratic and prone to the emergence of oligarchy – hence why the oligarchization of power is a global Western phenomenon.   

The 2016 presidential election illustrated the oligarchic nature of American democracy in four clear ways. First, two of the least liked candidates - Clinton and Trump - in the history of the United States ended up as the nominees for the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively. This is because elections tend to reward candidates with power, status, money and connections.

Second, the American system is so infiltrated by interest groups that many of the largest organizations donated money to both Clinton and Trump in the leadup to the 2016 election. This is because elections are corruptible as candidates are easily identified and can be prepositioned or influenced by interest groups.

Third, the partisan divide between the Democrats and Republicans grew even wider during the 2016 election campaign and took on a life of its own after Trump’s victory. This is because elections help entrench political parties which over time then leads to partisanship and, ultimately, a reduction in the opportunity for political compromise.

Fourth, the use of populist demagoguery, predominantly by Trump but also Clinton, reached unprecedented levels in their campaigns.  This is because elections incentivize candidates to bombard people with campaign slogans, character assassinations of rivals, and out-and-out propaganda in order to win votes.

The amalgamation of these four inherent deficiencies to electoral democratic systems meant the 2016 presidential election often resembled a circus. Because the two main candidates were not liked by the people, had dubious links to interest groups, represented partisan political parties, and used populist demagoguery, there was zero constructive debate on actual issues; just a cacophony of obnoxious campaigning to an increasingly apathetic populus.

An Athenian Model?

Aristotle, in his famous treatise, Politics, warned of the oligarchic nature of elections. Indeed, during the democratic zenith of Athens – the so-called first democracy - in the 6th-century BC, it was through lotteries, not elections, that citizens were selected to participate in the democratic procedures.

Through the use of a kleroterion - a sortition device – citizens from the Ekklesia (an assembly open to all citizens) were randomly selected to the Boule – a council which prepared the agenda to be discussed by the Ekklesia – and to the Heliaea – a court which judged infringements of the law. Elections were used only to select magistrates who presided over military, economic and societal affairs.

Such a system - if made more inclusive (only male landowners could be citizens) - would remove pervasive demographic imbalances, especially gender, class, and ethnic, while being less susceptible to lobbying by interest groups. It would also help replace loyalty to one’s party with loyalty to one’s conscience, while minimising the opportunity for populism to take centre stage – making democracy about the demos again.

We do not lack ideas about how a more direct and deliberative system which minimises the influence of elections (and oligarchs) could work in the United States. For instance, University of Pennsylvania Professor, Alexander Guerrero, has designed a system called a lottocracy. In a lottocracy, not only would the presidential election be scrapped, the United States Congress - two bodies which broadly look at all issues - would be replaced by 20 to 25 single issue committees of up to 300 people all randomly chosen by lottery.

Where Guerrero arguably falls short is in his failure to address the problem of scale. Frankly, the United States is too large to be an efficient democracy. Plato calculated that an optimal polity would be limited to no more than 5,040 heads of families because larger polities – settings where not everyone knows each other – are more susceptible to tyranny. While 5,040 is an unrealistically small number, any push for a more democratic United States has to be strongly informed by the principles of decentralization and subsidiarity; two ideas, we should not forget, that were prominent in the Federalist Papers.

A diminishing opportunity for change

Discussions about what a more democratic American political system could look like should be taking center stage in the public discourse right now. However, the focus is squarely on Russia and Trump, ad nauseam.

Certainly, the allegations against Russia and Trump need further investigation and, if proven, swift and strong retributions. However, at the same time, one cannot lose sight of the bigger questions about American democracy which remain unanswered. Otherwise, America will have lost perhaps its best chance - given the anger and frustration that has manifested in the wake of Trump’s victory - to re-evaluate its democratic system and, as a consequence, will continue sliding down its seemingly unstoppable path to oligarchization.

Nicholas R. Smith is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Canterbury.