This is what democracy looks like

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Hundreds of area residents who took time this past snowy Saturday morning to attend a League of Women Voters’ Legislative Forum also should take a moment to pat themselves on the back.

It was a job well done, and all participants — residents, lawmakers and organizers — deserve kudos for creating and being part of such a civil political display. Despite inclusion of hot-button issues like abortion, state finances and gun rights, Democratic and Republican lawmakers sat side-by-side and answered questions while people listened — a refreshing exercise of democracy that has lately become the exception instead of the rule.

And, given the most recent national revelations, such events may serve as a cure for our political dysfunction.

Local members of the Iowa Legislature answered questions from residents during a League of Women Voters forum at Mercy Hospital on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)
Local members of the Iowa Legislature answered questions from residents during a League of Women Voters forum at Mercy Hospital on Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)

Last Friday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller issued a sweeping indictment of three organizations and 13 Russian nationals for meddling in the 2016 presidential election. The 37-page document lays bare a multimillion-dollar Russian operation to sow discord in American politics.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said there is “no allegation in this indictment that any American had knowledge” of Russian activity, a signal that the investigation is ongoing and that any future indictments may differ.

Such discord was not sought merely along party lines, but also within the parties. In addition to derogatory misinformation about Hillary Clinton, for example, Russian operatives bolstered the campaign of Bernie Sanders. While supportive of the Donald Trump campaign, the operatives sought to discredit Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. On social media, according to investigators, the Russians rallied in favor of Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

Further, the operatives hoped to stoke certain voters to the polls while encouraging others to remain on the sidelines. They did so not only online, but through clandestine activities on the ground in battleground states.

Hundreds of Americans were allegedly contacted and recruited to support pro-Trump efforts. Individuals were paid to attend Trump events, including one who went to several dressed like Clinton in prison garb, investigators say. Perhaps in an attempt to copy a violent Carroll County parade float, the Russians allegedly ordered the construction of a mock cage for the impersonator that could be loaded on the back of a flatbed truck.

Following the election, disinformation continued, with Russian operatives organizing demonstrations supporting the President-elect as well as rallies protesting election results.

Iowans must wait to see what ultimately transpires, but there are lessons to be learned from this indictment that we can’t afford to hide under a cloak of partisanship. Namely, Russians came into our house and stirred the pot we left simmering on the stove.

We were played for fools and, in many instances, lowered ourselves to the challenge.

As we now begin to search for ways to inoculate ourselves against future misinformation campaigns, let’s not overlook the power of coming together for civil discourse.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Feb. 21, 2018.