Russians Sought to Use Our Political Polarization Against Us

In his farewell address George Washington expressed his hopes for the new nation, one of which was the wish that factions would not rip apart what so much blood and treasure was spent to establish.

“That party disputes among all the friends and lovers of their country may subside, or, as the wisdom of Providence hath ordained that men, on the same subjects, shall not always think alike, that charity and benevolence, when they happen to differ, may so far shed their benign influence as to banish those invectives which proceed from illiberal prejudices and jealousy.”

In a line he deleted from the final draft, he would have gone further, warning of the fundamental risk of faction.

“In such republics,” he wrote, “it is safe to assert that conflicts of popular factions are the chief, if not the only, inlets of usurpation and tyranny.”

It is troubling then that the divisions between Republicans and Democrats reached record levels during the presidency of Barack Obama, and have further grown apart in Donald Trump’s first year.

“[T]he bottom line is this,” Pew Research wrote of the results of recent polling, “Across 10 measures that Pew Research Center has tracked on the same surveys since 1994, the average partisan gap has increased from 15 percentage points to 36 percentage points.”

In many ways, both parties share a degree of the blame for this troubling state of affairs. Too often both parties retreat to their corners and point fingers in order to improve a negotiating position or score political points. We treat the other party as opponents in a zero sum political game rather than as debate partners responsible for honing arguments over how to make America better.

But Democrats stepped over a line this week in an attack ad against Republican candidate Ed Gillespie in the Virginia gubernatorial race. The ad features minority children running for their lives from a white man driving a pick-up truck carrying a Confederate flag and a “Gillespie for Governor” bumper sticker. The truck chases the children down a dead-end alley as a terrified young boy desperately tries to climb a chain link fence. The children wake up, the scene having been a nightmare. And then the ad flashes to a white supremacist march in Charlottesville with a voice-over that asks, “Is this what Donald Trump and Ed Gillespie mean by the American dream?”

Never mind that Gillespie repeatedly condemned the white supremacists in Charlottesville. Never mind that Gillespie is widely considered to be “able, honest, and well-qualified.” The ad isn’t meant to be any sort of honest reflection of the facts, but instead a twisted, perversion of the truth that threatens to create an irreparable chasm between the parties. It’s purpose-built to not just divide Americans along political lines, but to make one side actively hate the other. It takes Hillary Clinton’s broad label of Trump supports as “deplorables” and labels would-be Gillespie supports as murderous white supremacists.

What’s more the ad comes in the same week that we learned about strategists that the Russian government was using to influence American culture. The Wall Street Journal reported:

Russian-linked account activity went far beyond paying for polarizing ads dropped into Facebook members’ news feeds. At least 60 rallies, protests and marches were publicized or financed by eight Russia-backed Facebook accounts from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., according to a review by The Wall Street Journal, which looked at archived versions of now-deleted Facebook posts and interviewed activists, attendees and others familiar with the events, most of which were posted on Facebook. …

At least 22 of the 60 events actually took place, such as a May 2016 protest of an Islamic center in Houston planned by “Heart of Texas”, a Russia-created page that supported Texas secession and posted the “Blue Lives Matter” rally in Dallas two months later. On June 25, 2016, following the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla, “LGBT United” organized a candlelight vigil, where one of the victim’s brothers spoke. Both were covered by local media and attracted a dozen or more attendees.

The Russians goal was not elevating Trump to the White House, it was destabilizing society by making us angry at each other. They set up groups to argue for and against the same issue, not for a balanced debate, but because they were stacking the deck in favor of hate.

Sadly, we seem to be leaning right into this disturbing trend. Rather than seek common ground, our parties are drawing lines in the sand. And advertisements like the one Democrats are running in the Virginia governor’s race exacerbate our worst political tendencies. Somewhere, Russians are patting themselves on the back.