No, this isn’t 1970. It’s a full half-century later, but judging from what we’ve been hearing for several years now, those pesky Russians are at it again. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, you’ve been hearing a lot about this since at least 2016. In the United States, the Mueller investigation and the impeachment saga all brought this to the fore, and it continues with politicians, journalists, and various others offering dire warnings about our democracies being threatened by what is called “meddling” on the part of various Russian and other actors in our electoral processes. I have a question about this, and also a couple of suggestions.
Let’s begin with a question: exactly what constitutes meddling? As I write this, it is 2020, an election year in the U.S. and I myself am not American. If anyone hearing this is American, would I be meddling in your democracy if I were to urge you to vote one way or another? I’m not going to do that, by the way, but my point is, what if I did? Would that be a case of foreign interference? Consider this: in Canada, where I live, we recently had a federal election and shortly before voting day a non-Canadian former head of state made the unusual move of endorsing one of our political parties and its leader. The individual in question was Barack Obama and he was endorsing his fellow liberal Justin Trudeau. Obama remains very popular in Canada, and an endorsement from him carries weight in this country. A short time later, Trudeau won the election; it was a minority government only, but that’s still a victory, and it would be hard to deny that Obama’s endorsement was a factor, albeit probably a small one. I dimly recall something similar happening in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan, without going so far as to offer an endorsement, intimated that he might have liked to see Brian Mulroney, a fellow conservative, win his election, which he did. The Canadian press corps cried foul at the time. Reagan, they said, was meddling in our election campaign and should mind his own business. In the recent case, the press didn’t object at all. I wonder why.
Anyway, when an outsider to a given nation—any nation—offers an opinion about an election or engages in some kind of campaign of persuasion or propaganda to try to influence an election in that nation, is that in itself meddling? Do you need to be a citizen of a given country to express an opinion about its government? It would be hard to make that case. What is it about the Russians, then, and whatever it is they’re supposed to be doing, that’s so problematic? Let’s take it as a given that some number of Russian operatives, presumably with Putin’s blessing, have been and still are engaging in a campaign of mostly on-line propaganda and misinformation aimed at swaying American voters toward one party or candidate for purposes that bear upon Putin’s political self-interest. What is to be done about it? The American president’s many critics urge him to force Putin by some means or other to stop it. It’s worth pointing out that the Russians aren’t the only ones who do this, although they are the target of most of the criticism. Many governments and non-state actors of various kinds use any number of means to try to influence foreign electorates and have been doing so for a long time. What’s to be done?
I have two suggestions. The first is that the many news organizations that have been reporting on this phenomenon for the last few years on an almost daily basis tell us in far more detail than they have exactly what these Russian meddlers are currently doing and what ordinary voters can do to flag internet content that is of dubious origin or is otherwise problematic; which websites, news stories, and so on, should we be on the lookout for and how might ordinary voters distinguish such material from legitimate news or information? Given how high-profile this issue has been for the last few years, it’s surprising how little the press has said about this. My second suggestion is more important and it’s that we stop emphasizing what the Russians are doing and direct attention to our own education system. One indicator of a well-educated mind is precisely that one is invulnerable to intellectual manipulation, propaganda, and misinformation of this kind, and if any such campaign is achieving its objective, we need to ask why some sizeable portion of our population seems unable to see through not only what the Russians are doing but many of our own news organizations as well. By the way, if it’s propaganda we’re worried about, we’d do better to worry about these news organizations more than any foreign meddler.
A century ago, John Dewey was reminding us of an idea that’s about as old as the Western tradition itself: a democratic citizenry must be educated for democracy. Being a competent citizen, he believed, means far more than that one votes every so often. A good citizen has received a certain kind of political education, one that’s centered around particular capacities of thought and action along with whatever informational knowledge that is central to a particular field of study. Dewey’s classic study Democracy and Education (1916) argued that these two ideas need to be understood together and that how one conceives of a just society inevitably raises questions about the citizens who live in it and how they ought to be educated so they can assume their role in public life. Democracy, Dewey believed, is more than a set of institutions but is more like an ethos of public life, and it can’t be instilled in students’ minds as any kind of external imposition. A preparation for democratic citizenship in no way resembles the kind of political training or indoctrination that Dewey observed first-hand in authoritarian states, where from an early age students would be inculcated with some state-sanctioned ideology. The kind of democratic education that Dewey advocated involves no direct instilling of political beliefs in the minds of the young but very nearly the opposite of this: a training in what he called experimental inquiry of a kind that makes political and all indoctrination impossible. For Dewey, a high level of public participation is a mark of a well-functioning democracy, and indicators of its decline include a susceptibility of the people to propaganda, a low level of political involvement, and public apathy in the face of the encroachment into politics of commercial interests, all conditions that Dewey observed and lamented in the first half of the twentieth century. The way forward for democracy is a citizenry that’s educated not only for political deliberation—or what he called experimental inquiry—but in intellectual and moral dispositions that enrich the political life of the society.
The educated mind as Dewey conceived of it possesses habits of thought and conduct that incline it toward reflectiveness and an intelligence that prepare us to participate in the life of a democracy and that effectively immunize us against the propaganda that we see. Whether such propaganda is foreign or domestic doesn’t matter. What does is that every member of a democratic society receives a political education that renders any hostile meddling by a foreign power futile. I see little evidence that our public education system is presently educating students for democracy. Such an education isn’t a matter of force-feeding an ideology, including one that claims to be democratic, but habituating young minds to inquiring intelligently and cooperatively into finding solutions to what ails our society.