The overwhelming focus on President Trump’s possible collusion with Russia by the Democratic Party and its allies is impeding the left’s potential to enact fundamental change. This obsession is not a winning electoral strategy. Perhaps more importantly, it does nothing to build support for a progressive agenda and simultaneously shields the forces that maintain the status quo from criticism. The left must campaign by placing appropriate blame on the institutions and systems that keep millions of Americans poor and oppressed while proposing our own bold alternatives.
It’s easy to conclude that liberal media outlets have been devoting outsized attention to Trump’s Russia connections. MSNBC coverage has been paralyzingly slanted towards the issue, and it is the biggest story on the New York Times’s website seemingly every single day.
While quantifying exactly how much the Democratic Party and its allied groups are focusing on Russia is more difficult, the pattern above seems to hold true. Nina Turner aside, a quick survey of television interviews reveals that Democratic politicians and strategists are more than happy to make their rounds with the talking heads answering questions about Russia and little else. Meanwhile, in the Senate, Democrats succeed in closing ranks to implement sanctions on Iran, but not to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada.
Perhaps the best evidence of Russia taking center stage is the “March for Truth” that took place Saturday, June 3, in cities across the country. The events, put together with the purpose of demanding more information on Trump’s possible collusion with Russia, were organized by a broad range of Democratic-aligned groups, including The Women’s March, Swing Left, and Progressive Democrats of America. That these sincerely progressive groups are choosing to organize around Russia instead of the impending Senate vote to take healthcare away from over 20 million Americans makes it clear where the energy is being directed at the moment.
This Russia-heavy playbook must not continue into the 2018 election and beyond.
The first defense offered for this lopsided focus on Russia is that it will politically benefit Democrats and their allies on the left opposed to Trump. We would be crazy not to take advantage of this scandal, we are told, often by the same people who laughed at the thought of Trump winning the presidency.
The evidence, however, leads to a different conclusion: that running on Russia would actually endanger Democrats’ chances at the polls. According to a Huffpost/YouGov poll from late May, “healthcare” and “the economy” are much more important to voters than Russia. Healthcare was selected as one of the top two most important issues by 47% of all polled (and 51% of non- or third-party voters), while the numbers for Russia were only 12% and 8%, respectively. With the Republicans’ healthcare plan remaining extremely unpopular, it would be a huge mistake to place Russia at the center of the strategy to defeat Trump and the Republicans.
More concerning, however, is that this strategy contributes nothing to the ever-important fight to build support for bold, progressive alternatives to the reactionary schemes of the right and the milquetoast solutions of the center.
Messaging is a zero-sum game. Every minute spent speaking or tweeting about Russia is one not spent on all the other injustices that have existed since long before Donald Trump was sworn into office. Russia has nothing to do with the millions of Americans living in extreme poverty or saddled with crushing debt. Trump didn’t put the finishing touches on the prison-industrial system that continues to devastate communities of color across the nation (that would be Bill Clinton). The Republican Party’s shameful agenda to enrich the wealthy on the backs of the poor predates and will outlast Trump himself. And the billionaires buying elections have done more to undermine our democracy than Russia ever has. We should not lose sight of the more salient enemies of progress.
But by focusing so intensely on Russia, we necessarily avoid advocating for sweeping changes that would materially improve the lives of those the Democratic Party claims to represent. No longer are we building momentum for universal healthcare, tuition-free public college, or an aggressive green energy program that would put millions of people back to work. Even if the Democrats were to sweep into Congress, or even the White House, by harping on the Russia issue, they’d have no mandate for fundamental reform. A victory on those terms would only demonstrate a rejection of Trump’s corruption, not a wholesale repudiation of the conservative and neoliberal projects, which is what we need if we’re serious about change.
The possibility of collusion with Russia should continue to be investigated, of course, and may have a role to play as part of a broader campaign strategy that is principally focused on empowering the many and not the few. Bernie Sanders, by far the most popular politician in the country right now, showed just how quickly support for a progressive agenda can materialize when these issues are pushed into the national spotlight. We must continue to power this revolution.