By Norman Solomon
A supporter holds a picture of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange during a demonstration in March outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Assange has gone silent on social media after his internet connection at the embassy was unplugged because of remarks he made about the arrest of a Catalan politician. (Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP)
Exactly 200 days before the crucial midterm election that will determine whether Republicans maintain control of Congress, the Democratic National Committee filed a 66-page lawsuit that surely cost lots of money and energy to assemble.
Does the lawsuit target purveyors of racist barriers to voting that block and deflect so many people of color from casting their ballots?
Well, perhaps this ballyhooed lawsuit aims to ensure the rights of people who don’t mainly speak English to get full access to voting information?
Maybe it’s a legal action to challenge the ridiculously sparse voting booths provided in college precincts?
Not that either.
Announced with a flourish by DNC Chair Tom Perez, the civil lawsuit—which reads like a partisan polemic wrapped in legalisms—sues the Russian government, the Trump campaign and operatives, as well as WikiLeaks and its founding editor, Julian Assange.
It’s hard to imagine that many voters in swing districts—who’ll determine whether the GOP runs the House through the end of 2020—will be swayed by the Russia-related accusations contained in the lawsuit. People are far more concerned about economic insecurity for themselves and their families, underscored by such matters as the skyrocketing costs of health care and college education.
To emphasize that “this is a patriotic—not partisan—move,” Perez’s announcement of the lawsuit on April 20 quoted one politician, Republican Sen. John McCain, reaching for the hyperbolic sky: “When you attack a country, it’s an act of war. And so we have to make sure that there is a price to pay, so that we can perhaps persuade the Russians to stop these kinds of attacks on our very fundamentals of democracy.”
Setting aside the dangerous rhetoric about “an act of war,” it’s an odd quotation to choose. For Russia, there’s no “price to pay” from a civil lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. As the DNC well knows, any judgment against such entities as the Russian Federation and the general staff of its armed forces would be unenforceable.
The DNC’s lawsuit amounts to doubling down on its fixation of blaming Russia for the Democratic Party’s monumental 2016 loss, at a time when it’s essential to remedy the failed approaches that were major causes of Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the first place. Instead of confronting its fealty to Wall Street or overall failure to side with working-class voters against economic elites, the Democratic National Committee is ramping up the party leadership’s 18-month fixation on Russia Russia Russia.
After a humongous political investment in depicting Vladimir Putin as a pivotal Trump patron and a mortal threat to American democracy, strategists atop the Democratic Party don’t want to let up on seeking a big return from that investment. Protecting the investment will continue to mean opposing the “threat” of détente between the world’s two nuclear superpowers, while giving the party a political stake in thwarting any warming of the current ominously frigid relations between Moscow and Washington.
In truth, the party’s Russia fixation leaves significantly less messaging space for economic and social issues that the vast majority of Americans care about far more. Similarly, the Russia obsession at MSNBC (which routinely seems like “MSDNC”) has left scant airtime for addressing, or even noting, the economic concerns of so many Americans. (For instance, see the data in FAIR’s study, “Russia or Corporate Tax Cuts: Which Would Comcast Rather MSNBC Cover?”)
But even some of the congressional Democrats who’ve been prominent “Russiagate” enthusiasts have recognized that the lawsuit is off track. When Wolf Blitzer on CNN asked a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Jackie Speier, whether she believes that Perez and his DNC team “are making a big mistake by filing this lawsuit,” the California congresswoman’s reply was blunt: “Well, I’m not supportive of it. Whether it’s a mistake or not we’ll soon find out.” Speier called the lawsuit “ill-conceived.”
Contrary to the First Amendment
The most unprincipled part of the lawsuit has to do with its targeting of Assange and WikiLeaks. That aspect of the suit shows that the DNC is being run by people whose attitude toward a free press—ironically enough—has marked similarities to Donald Trump’s.
Early in his presidency, Trump proclaimed that news media are “the enemy of the American people.” Of course, he didn’t mean all media, just the outlets providing information and analysis he doesn’t like.
What Perez and the DNC crew are now promoting via the lawsuit is also harmful, though more camouflaged. The lawsuit’s key arguments against WikiLeaks are contrary to the First Amendment, and they could be made against major U.S. newspapers. Unauthorized disclosures are common, with news outlets routinely reporting on information obtained from leaks, hacks and various forms of theft.
Just as the government’s criminal prosecutions for leaks are extremely selective, the DNC position is that a media outlet that’s despised by a powerful party could be sued for potentially huge sums.
But—unless it’s functionally shredded—the First Amendment doesn’t only protect media outlets that powerful interests believe are behaving acceptably. That’s why the Nixon administration was unable to prevent The New York Times and Washington Post from publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
Now, the DNC lawsuit’s perverse “logic” for suing WikiLeaks could just as easily be applied by any deep-pocketed group that wants to strike back at a publisher for revealing “stolen” information that harmed the aggrieved party.
In view of the national Democratic Party’s deference to corporate power, we might see why the DNC is taking the current approach. It would be a much steeper uphill challenge to actually champion the interests of most Americans—which would require taking on Wall Street, a key patron of both major political parties.
Nor would it be easy for the Democratic Party to advocate for U.S.-Russia détente that could reduce the risks of nuclear conflagration. Such advocacy would enrage the kingpins of the military-industrial cartel complex as well as most of the corporate-owned and corporate-advertised news media.
How much easier it is to make some political hay by targeting Russia with a civil lawsuit. How much more convenient it is to show utter contempt for the First Amendment by suing Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.
Still No Partnership with Working-class Voters
A loud and clear message from the Democrats’ 2016 election debacle is that hoping for working-class votes while refusing to do battle against corporate exploiters of the working class is a political dead end. “The mainstream Democratic storyline of victims without victimizers lacks both plausibility and passion,” says an independent report, “Autopsy: The Democratic Party in Crisis.” Six months after the release of that report (which I co-authored), the DNC still is unwilling to polarize with elite corporate interests, while remaining extra eager to portray Russia and WikiLeaks as liable for the 2016 disaster.
So, unfortunately, this assessment in the “Autopsy” remains all too relevant: “The idea that the Democrats can somehow convince Wall Street to work on behalf of Main Street through mild chiding, rather than acting as Main Street’s champion against the wealthy, no longer resonates. We live in a time of unrest and justified cynicism towards those in power; Democrats will not win if they continue to bring a wonk knife to a populist gunfight. Nor can Democratic leaders and operatives be seen as real allies of the working class if they’re afraid to alienate big funders or to harm future job or consulting prospects.”
Willingness to challenge Wall Street would certainly alienate some of the Democratic Party’s big donors. And such moves would likely curb the future earning power of high-ranking party officials, who can now look forward to upward spikes in incomes from consultant deals and cushy positions at well-heeled firms. With eyes on the prizes from corporate largesse, DNC officials don’t see downsides to whacking at WikiLeaks and undermining press freedom in the process.Φ
Norman Solomon is coordinator of the online activist group RootsAction.org. His books include War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. He is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. This article appeared on April 24 at Truthdig.