On Sunday, Italian voters delivered a shock to Europe not felt since the UK’s Brexit vote in June 2016. Two populist parties came out on top: The NATO- and EU-skeptic Five-Star Movement took home over 32 percent, of the vote while the right-wing Lega party garnered a surprising 17 percent. The fact that both parties have called for better relations with Russia led immediately to the seemingly inevitable accusation that it was the Kremlin, not Italian voters, who was ultimately responsible for the outcome.
Former US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power tweeted: “Italy’s joins long list of elections influenced by Russia…. The question is: what are our democracies going to do about it? Will voters repudiate candidates who seek to benefit from Russian interference?” The UK’s Guardian asked, “Will Putin benefit from Italian populist parties’ Kremlin leanings?” and fretted that the “two populist parties that won big electoral upsets in Italy’s national election have close ideological ties to the Kremlin and could shift foreign policy in Italy in favor of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.”
Similar accusations were unfurled against UKIP in the wake of the Brexit vote and continue to taint the 2016 election of Donald J. Trump in the eyes of many Democrats (and some Republicans).
What we are seeing —in Italy, the UK, and the United States—has the shape of a global populist revolt, but elites are in danger of misidentifying the underlying causes of that revolt as long as they stick to the narrative that these election results were really the work of an outside actor.
There are a few problems with this narrative.
The first problem with blaming Russia, besides the fact that there is no evidence its efforts had any tangible affect on the outcome of these votes, is that doing so denies agency to voters. It also shows a disrespect for the plight of the vast numbers of people who have been immiserated by decades of neoliberal austerity policies. Are we really to believe Russian Twitter “bots,” Facebook ads, and RT factored in more than the rates of unemployment (Italy has a rate of 38 percent youth unemployment) and poverty as the main factors behind Brexit and the US and Italian elections?
By now even the most tireless promoters of the idea that Russian “bots” pose some sort of existential threat to Western democracy are no longer so sure.
Hamilton 68 co-founder Clint Watts recently admitted that he is no longer “convinced on this bot thing,” telling BuzzFeed he believes the narrative is “overdone.” Watts isn’t alone in having a bit of a rethink. This week, Mark Galeotti, a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Affairs Prague, admitted that the so-called “Gerasimov Doctrine” that countless pundits have cited as evidence of a Russian plan to undermine the West does not exist. “I feel I can say that because,” wrote Galeotti, “to my immense chagrin, I created this term, which has since acquired a destructive life of its own, lumbering clumsily into the world to spread fear and loathing in its wake.”
Blaming domestic turmoil on a foreign adversary also serves as a useful and welcome diversion on the part of neoliberal elites against whose policies voters are at long last rebelling. It lets them off the hook for letting Wall Street off the hook in 2008 and likewise allows European leaders to deflect from their failure to protect their working and middle classes from the depredations of German-imposed austerity.
It allows these elites to avoid a reconsideration of their own failed economic policies. Taking no blame, they instead simply blame Russia, all the while offering voters no alternative to the global system of casino finance, free trade, and unrestricted capital movement.
The uncomfortable truth is that by blaming Russia for the current groundswell in populist anger, European and American elites willfully ignore causes which lay closer to home.