Compared to the sturm und drang swirling around last week’s Republican National Convention, the Democratic convention this week seemed likely to be a fairly placid affair. Then, as Democrats prepared to gather in Philadelphia to officially nominate Hillary Clinton as their presidential candidate, Wikileaks released a dramatic cache of hacked emails sent and received by members of the Democratic National Committee.
The emails confirmed many Sanders supporters’ fears—previously derided as conspiracy theories—about both anti-Sanders sentiment within the DNC and the role of money in politics. The emails showed, among other things, that supposedly neutral DNC staffers were actively hostile to Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign and gave donors access to president Barack Obama and other key White House staffers.
Yet both career politicos and a number of journalists have so far downplayed the newsworthiness of the emails. When they’re not too busy shrugging off the content of the leaks, they’re shooting the messenger—shifting the conversation to the likely involvement of Russian hackers and to concerns about the sometimes-odious, and always-controversial, Wikileaks.
The evasions of our political and journalistic elites reveal a story just as newsworthy as the leaked information itself: The political parties and media organizations that purport to vouchsafe our democracy have been infected by the very corruption they were meant to guard against.
In one of the emails, according to Sam Biddle at the Intercept, Brad Marshall, the DNC chief financial officer, “suggested the party ‘get someone to ask’ Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders about his religious beliefs.” The email reads:
It might may no difference, but for KY and WVA can we get someone to ask his belief. Does he believe in a God. He had skated on saying he has a Jewish heritage. I think I read he is an atheist. This could make several points difference with my peeps. My Southern Baptist peeps would draw a big difference between a Jew and an atheist.
“AMEN,” DNC chief operating officer Amy Dacey shot back. (It’s worth noting that Marshall denies he was talking about Sanders; instead, he claims he was talking about a surrogate. But as Timothy Lee writes for Vox, Marshall “wasn’t able to explain who the target was, making this denial a bit hard to believe.”)
Yet many people have downplayed such discoveries, suggesting that only a rube would be surprised to learn that party officials sometimes vent about a serious Democratic candidate. Jedd Legum, an editor at Think Progress, writes in a tweet that “If you are shocked by the Wikileaks DNC emails, you probably have never worked in politics. Most surprising thing is how tame they are.” Timothy Carney, writing in the Washington Examiner, quotes “longtime Democratic operative Joe Trippi: ‘If the party isn’t trying to stop you, you’re not actually the insurgent.’”
Legum and Trippi are probably correct that these emails are tame—at least when compared to what political operatives often say about candidates. (Not being a political reporter like Legum, I really wouldn’t know.) But we ought to read these emails as an indictment of the cynical, vain, and small people who run and report on our country, rather than an indictment of the poor saps who believe that politics should work for them.
Whether or not you believe that both the Democratic and Republican establishments are largely self-serving, Sanders does believe it—and so do a great many of his supporters. That belief animated his “revolution,” and it was on full display when his die-hard delegates booed prominent Democrats last night. It is therefore newsworthy, though admittedly not unsurprising, that the allegedly impartial DNC was, in private, bashing a campaign predicated on the belief that our body politic is critically ill.
Another, related argument is that the leaked emails aren’t particularly newsworthy because, while DNC staffers might have said nasty things about Sanders in private, they didn’t actually do anything that could have swung the election (or at least, they didn’t talk about them in their emails). Jamelle Bouie, senior political correspondent at Slate, writes on Twitter that “even if you grant substantive DNC meddling—and not just gross emails and griping—it’s low on the list of what shaped the primary.” He goes further, writing, “This hysteria over the DNC isn’t just silly, it actively obscures what a future Sanders-inspired candidate would have to do to win.”
I have neither the desire nor the tools to adjudicate what DNC meddling would or wouldn’t do to the delegate math—and, frankly, I doubt Bouie does either. But let’s grant this: The DNC, despite their naked hostility toward Sanders and his campaign, did not swing the election against Sanders. However, the emails at the very least do show the insidious influence of money in politics—one of the main issues fueling Sanders’s campaign.
One damning email shows “DNC finance chair asking team for names of folks (donors) who want to be on boards and commissions,” as Jake Tapper notes on Twitter. The emails also raise serious ethical concerns about how the political establishment permits donors to use their money in exchange for access to politicians, as Matea Gold for the Washington Post reports:
The DNC emails show how the party has tried to leverage its greatest weapon—the president—as it entices wealthy backers to bankroll the convention and other needs. At times, DNC staffers used language in their pitches to donors that went beyond what lawyers said was permissible under White House policy designed to curtail the perception that special interests have access.
Top aides also get involved in wooing contributors, according to the emails. White House political director David Simas, for instance, met in May with a half-dozen top party financiers in Chicago, including Fred Eychaner, one of the top Democratic donors in the country, the documents show.
At the New York Times, Nicholas Confessore writes about how the emails reveal the mechanisms by which money buys access to power:
[T]he leaked cache also included thousands of emails exchanged by Democratic officials and party fund-raisers, revealing in rarely seen detail the elaborate, ingratiating and often bluntly transactional exchanges necessary to harvest hundreds of millions of dollars from the party’s wealthy donor class.
The emails capture a world in which seating charts are arranged with dollar totals in mind, where a White House celebration of gay pride is a thinly disguised occasion for rewarding wealthy donors, and where physical proximity to the president is the most precious of currencies.
To some Americans, it may be striking to learn that DNC staffers were openly exchanging money for access even as Sanders supporters were told that their concerns about quid pro quos were overblown.
Call me hysterical, but I don’t find this silly at all.
The worst of it is that the failure of elite political and journalistic institutions to grapple with their own shortcomings is the very thing that enables candidates like Donald Trump and American authoritarianism. Since at least the early aughts, elites have managed to flub nearly every crisis–from the aftermath of 9/11 to the financial crisis of 2007-2008. In a sane world, the politicians and journalists who supported an unnecessary, devastating war would be kicked out of office and stripped from mastheads. Instead we got, at best, mealy-mouthed mea culpas. In a just world, the politicians and financial journalists who did nothing to stop bankers and hedge-fund managers from running our economy into the ground would be forced to reckon with their complicity. Instead, “too big to fail” financial institutions are even bigger today than they were before the financial crisis.
These failures, coupled with Republican obstructionism in Congress, have left Americans utterly bereft of people they feel they can count on to bring about change. Is it any wonder that people are turning to Trump–a man who promises to use his business acumen and power to shake things up and get things done? Yet even as the DNC leaks provide evidence that the system really is rigged in favor of the wealthy, the chattering class play cool cynics. And our elites remain oblivious to the fact that their refusal to focus on their own flaws is wearing away the trust that is necessary for democracy to work.