Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III last week issued a sweeping indictment of a large contingent of individuals, revealing an ominous vulnerability in the American electoral system. The accused are millions of American voters who were, or were at least thought to be, susceptible to a weapon no more powerful than exhortation. The vulnerability is an education system that is churning out citizens who may have vocational skills but are incapable of deep reflection on political things.
Two conclusions about Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals for interfering in the 2016 election are clear. One is that Russia engaged in a systematic and wide-ranging effort to manipulate American voters. President Trump’s response to this fact has been typically narcissistic and indefensible: He has considered solely the investigation’s impact upon him, rather than the nation, and has even linked it to the school shooting in Florida.
The second is that if the Russian campaign even marginally influenced the election — which it almost certainly did — then many American voters on both sides are remarkably manipulable.
The Russian operatives, after all, are not alleged to have stuffed ballot boxes. They did not, to public knowledge thus far, hack electronic voting apparatuses or employ any method of coercion. They stand accused of disseminating messages, some misleading and all manipulative, that swayed freely cast votes. And they apparently succeeded with communications that were notable for their crudity. A cage was constructed to conjure an image of Hillary Clinton in prison. An American was persuaded to hold a sign proclaiming the wholly implausible message that Clinton not only supported sharia law but had said so out loud.
That is not to question the sinister sophistication of the Internet Research Agency, the Russian trolling operation that carried out the campaign of interference. Both its targets and its beneficiaries share a patriotic obligation to protect what should be the sacrosanct process of electing the leaders of the American republic.
Moreover, no one argues that these messages were political alchemy that turned unthinking Americans into Trump enthusiasts. Like most political messages, they almost certainly served to inflame prejudices already held. That said, the messages purveyed could just as easily been generated by American operatives and just as easily have had the same effect. The fact of Russian interference is ominous regardless. But if voters are so incapable of evaluating incoming information, republican government is imperiled at home, not just from abroad.
To say so is to violate a sacred taboo according to which every element of the American political order is subject to criticism except the voters who are ultimately accountable for it. But the idea that Americans are overly gullible is in fact an article of faith among many advocates of campaign-finance reform who, by way of a bizarre populism, want to restrict political messages because they believe voters are incapable of processing them. It would be far better to educate voters to assess those messages than to step down the slippery slope of restricting them.
Given that the Russian operation explicitly targeted Trump voters, it will be tempting for their condescending critics to fall into a comfort zone from which they regard conservatism generally, and voting for Trump specifically, as symptoms of intellectual deficiency. They would do well to remember that the early phases of the campaign, and some post-election operations, targeted the Left as well as the Right.
It is equally tempting, and not wholly inaccurate, to blame this susceptibility on the technology it used. Social media is uniquely disposed to pathos, and the quick flashes in which it engages users are not hospitable to reflection. But that technology is reality. The question is how to educate citizens of a republic so that they are capable of interacting with social media and fortified against its abuse.
Our vulnerability to the Russian campaign, then, testifies not just to the failure of intelligence and law-enforcement systems that should have prevented it but also to the failure of an American education system that increasingly emphasizes technical skills at the expense of thoughtful citizenship. That is different from “critical thinking,” whose purpose is often deconstruction that teaches people not to believe anything. Between criticism and credulity, there is a mean: the capacity for serious reflection, especially on political things.
This capacity for reflection comes not from an overt effort to teach it but rather from engaging with it. That is the essence of liberal education, so there is more than a little irony in the fact that one target of the Russian campaign — then–presidential candidate Marco Rubio — sought votes by disparaging it. Reading the great works of our political, philosophical, and literary canon — from Aristotle to Shakespeare to the Federalist Papers — will do far more to inoculate Americans against manipulation than would teaching them skepticism as its own end.
A revival of liberal learning will not prevent foreign interference, against which it remains the responsibility of American officials to be on guard. But the fact remains that Americans will be exposed to manipulation, whether from home or abroad, and need an education capable of preparing them for that threat. Not every citizen of America, any more than of classical Athens, will spend reflective days immersed in philosophy, nor should such be the goal. The goal is a recovery of learning whose purpose is neither technocracy nor deconstruction but rather reflection and formation.
Perhaps citizens so educated would think twice before following a Facebook group simply because of a catchy name.
That is not a cure-all, nor will it produce instant results. But its need is inescapable. Perhaps citizens so educated would think twice before following a Facebook group simply because of a catchy name. We might not be so moved by superficial images of a political opponent in a prison uniform and might even actively seek ideas that challenge us instead. Most of all, we would reach our own political conclusions with a confidence not so easily dislodged by messages so crude.
That many Americans apparently do not do so is no excuse for foreign interference. There is all the difference between Russians manipulating Americans and Americans manipulating each other. But in either case the base problem is manipulability. It may be, of course, that Americans are too awash in a culture of celebrity and emotion to recover the ability to reflect. But if that is so, republican government is already lost, and the Russians are not to blame.