Two weeks ago, RT approached me for an interview. I wavered. Was there any way to go on the show without making myself a mouthpiece for Moscow? Should I just say no?
RT is the propaganda arm of the Russian regime. Financed by the Kremlin, the network acts as Vladimir Putin’s most eager cheerleader, politely declining to cover domestic repression. Its commitment to untruth is so dogged that it has also become an important breeding ground for the kind of cynical propaganda that is increasingly at the center of politics throughout the West. (On its website, RT claims that it reaches 36 million Europeans and 8 million Americans every week.) So when the network asked me to talk about my research, I immediately understood what its angle would be.
As a political scientist, I have argued that liberal democracy in countries such as the United States is much less stable than most people assume. Since the turn of the millennium, we’ve seen stagnating living standards, eroding trust in public institutions, and rising anger at the political system. Even in countries such as Sweden, where politics was once genteel and thoroughly, well, boring, far-right populists are rising rapidly. As I watched these changes over the past few years, I began to ask some unnerving questions: What if we are entering a period of real instability? Could political scientists who assumed that democracy had long since become “the only game in town” turn out to be wrong?
My answer is yes. As I’ve shown in a series of articles with my colleague Roberto Stefan Foa, attitudes toward democracy have rapidly soured over the past 20 or so years. Even in the most historically stable countries in North America and Western Europe, democracy may now be deconsolidating.
So I knew what RT wanted. Look how bad democracy is, it would say. It’s widely despised even in countries like the United States, and here’s a political scientist to prove it. All of my instincts told me to turn down the invitation. For anybody who is serious about defending liberal democracy in these uncertain times, the first rule must be not to make yourself a witting tool of those trying to harm our institutions.
Then I thought about it a bit more. What if I could use my appearance on RT to speak my mind about the authoritarian alternative to democracy—and drive home just how much we have to lose back here in the United States? I emailed the producer and agreed to make the appearance on the condition that it be carried live, not tape-delayed. To my surprise, the producer quickly agreed. The game was on. I walked over to RT’s New York offices on Third Avenue and was connected to a host in Moscow. Now I just had to make sure that I didn’t choke.
“Is that really the case, then,” a slick news anchor with a cut-glass English accent asked me at the top of the segment, “that people are losing faith in democracy?”
I gave a quick summary of my findings. Then I pivoted. The danger, I argued, is that a new crop of far-right populists would soon try to erode the basic institutions of liberal democracy. In a first step, they would politicize once-independent state institutions. Tax authorities would go after political opponents. Regulatory agencies would try to harm the business of political rivals. “This,” I said, “is exactly what has happened in Russia over the last 10 or 15 years, and the risk now is that similar things will start to happen in Western Europe and North America.”
The host tried to cut me off. But I was determined to keep going. The second danger, I quickly added, consists of more overt forms of repression. Eventually, freedom of speech would be curtailed. Dissent would be quelled. Independent newspapers would be silenced. Government critics would be persecuted. “That again,” I said, “is exactly what has happened in Russia over the last 10 or 15 years.”
Then I went in for the kill. The biggest danger, I said, was that propaganda and fake news would become so pervasive that politics could no longer be about truth. In such a world, politics would become altogether divorced from the realm of facts. “That is exactly what has happened in Russia over the last 10 or 15 years,” I concluded, “and this channel, which you’ve been very gracious in inviting me to speak to, is a key element in doing that.”
I could tell I’d hit a nerve by the hostile reaction of the studio technician. He didn’t say a word as he took the microphone off me, but his glare was unambiguous. For an hour or two, I was in a celebratory mood.
Then I considered just how little I’d accomplished. For a few short minutes, the segment broke through RT’s carefully guarded wall of propaganda. But on its own, it won’t have much of an impact. The regularly scheduled programing immediately resumed. A minute or two after I had been ushered off the air, the slick presenter was once again smiling his slick smile.
My little guerrilla mission was not going to bring down the Putin regime. So is there a more effective way to stand up to RT’s propaganda—and similar efforts closer to home, including the brazen lies and the scores of fake news stories that helped get Donald Trump elected?
To begin with, we have to understand the scale of the challenge. We need to realize that this kind of propaganda is a deliberate—and potent—attack on liberal democracy. Stephen Colbert has excoriated “truthiness,” the willingness of politicians to say things because they feel true. Similarly, the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt has argued that the greatest threat comes not from the lying politician but rather the politician who has grown altogether indifferent to the truth—the one who, in Frankfurt’s words, is simply “bullshitting.”
Both of these concepts are useful, yet each of them fails to capture the full scale of the new propaganda wars. Putin is not indifferent to the truth, nor does he enjoy saying things merely because they sound true. Rather, he has consciously flooded the political system with so many lies, so much bullshit, and such incessant fakery that it becomes impossible to transact politics on the basis of truth. At a certain point, so many lies pervade the system, and so few facts are generally agreed upon, that even people who are highly informed about politics can no longer get to the bottom of things. As a result, politics becomes a competition between rival realities—one in which you have little choice but to believe whatever narrative your own team puts out.
Things have not yet gotten quite this bad in the United States. Trump’s celebrity has long given him the ability to speak—and to lie—directly to the American people. But lacking control over state institutions, he hasn’t been able to create an alternate reality to the same extent as Putin has in Russia. As a result, we do not know just how far Trump is willing to go in spreading misinformation. But we may be about to find out—and the signs are not encouraging. Trump has a lot to fear from the truth, and his willingness to lie and dissemble can hardly be in doubt. As he takes control of state institutions, there is every chance that it will keep getting harder to get to the bottom of the lies, evasions, and outright conspiracy theories he and those in his circle are spreading.
So what can we do? First, there is power in numbers. I’m not likely to be invited back on RT anytime soon. But if other critics of Putin join the effort to undermine his message, more cracks might begin to show. As I experienced firsthand, for any one guest, it is surprisingly easy to turn the tables on the purveyors of propaganda, if only for a brief moment. And if we are able to penetrate RT’s defenses, then there must be ways to subvert outlets spreading propaganda in the United States as well. To this end, Slate has just launched This Is Fake, a browser extension that helps readers find and flag fake news on Facebook.
Second, while we need not waste our time disproving every last conspiracy theory, however outlandish, we must be unwavering in our commitment to a politics based on the truth. One part of this is to dispense with the false neutrality that has long prevailed in American media. When two reasonable political parties make diverging yet reasonable arguments for diverging yet reasonable policies, it makes sense to treat their claims with equal respect. By contrast, when some politicians have started to invent claims at will, without bothering to produce evidence for them or to make their lies internally coherent, it is a retreat from truth-based politics to treat them as though they were equivalent. Big newspapers should beware becoming political partisans—but lest they cease serving any real function, they must become proud partisans of the truth.
Third, we need to recognize that much of the function of everyday falsehoods is to cloak the importance of dangerous lies and obfuscations. So while we should call out all lies, we must take special care to chronicle the erosion of basic democratic norms, especially when they are happening in secret or when the government is out to mislead us. If the government does start down the path I described on RT, auditing opponents, using the regulatory state to punish critics, or copying Putin’s other tricks, we need to document these illiberal actions. Together with some entrepreneurial colleagues, I’m currently building a database to collect such violations by the Trump administration.
Finally, nothing counters cold propaganda quite as effectively as a mass of warm bodies in the street. Television channels can downplay the number of protesters. Leaders with an authoritarian streak can call them criminals or communists. But if a huge segment of the population comes out to protest, no amount of spin is going to conceal the public’s anger. When they come out into the streets in the hundreds of thousands, the people remain as able as ever to resist a gifted propagandist.