Election meddling, whether by foreign or domestic actors, is nothing new. The enormous amount of political energy spent on denouncing such practices and accusing the other side of benefiting from them impedes solving more important problems.
Election meddling is to be expected of interested parties, both foreign and domestic and the more important an election is, the more such meddling can be expected.
In a democratic system as presented in elementary schoolbooks, the agents or parties running in an election should propose their programs to improve the res publica. They should make logical arguments based on common sense. It is expected that the winner should, within the parameters of the constitutional and legal framework, implement the program proposed during the campaign.
Unfortunately – and to the detriment of democracy and freedom – electoral campaigns can become muddled. Often, the confusion is caused internally. This occurs because programs are frequently sidelined in favor of trying to prevent a person or party from winning. In the 2016 American presidential election, many people voted for Hillary Clinton not because they favored her policies, but rather to keep Donald Trump out of the White House. The converse was also true.
For a healthy, free society, foreign attempts at intervention should not be a huge worry.
In Europe, elections have become lackluster for similar reasons. They have become less a competition of ideas, but rather a byzantine blame game that harms societies. Such circumstances open the door to foreign intervention.
Also, parties often spend a lot of effort trying to obtain votes that normally would have gone to their rivals, even if it means contradicting their own convictions. When the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster occurred in 2011, the German government decided to implement a policy of eliminating nuclear power, to the detriment of German businesses (and jobs) and against better judgment. The real purpose of the move was to siphon voters away from the Green Party. This is also a form of populism.
It is an old game. Poland, which has a long history of democratic political decision-making, once elected its kings instead of using hereditary methods. Other European powers worked to influence various factions in an attempt to install a monarch that they deemed favorable. Unfortunately, Poland accepted this influence, which finally ended in the division of the country between its neighbors.
Myriad such examples exist. The kings of France tried for centuries (mostly unsuccessfully) to influence the electors of the Holy Roman Empire against choosing a Habsburg as emperor. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union supported the communist parties in Italy and France, as well as the socialist protest movements of 1968.
Any great power, whether democratic or authoritarian, supports parties in foreign elections – usually using clandestine methods.
Modern social media has become a legitimate tool for electoral propaganda, but it is also misused by state and non-state actors to disrupt foreign elections and to distort the outcome. For a healthy, free society, this should not be a huge worry. Such propaganda would be seen for what it is.
The media and political strategists blow these attempts out of proportion, paralyzing necessary political activities.
Unfortunately, the media and political strategists blow these attempts out of proportion and use them to insinuate that an electoral adversary has illicit contact with, or is supported by, foreign powers. This then paralyzes necessary political activities.
In the current United States presidential campaign, as in the last one, alleged support from foreign powers such as Russia and China has been an important issue. After the controversies of 2016, Congress spent tremendous amounts of time and energy on the matter. More important political decisions were neglected and the public’s trust in the process was damaged.
More than any collusion, it is the emphasis put on those allegations that is dangerous. It is also a good excuse for the losing side.