When the U.S. gave my parents and me refuge from the USSR in 1976, the Soviet empire was at its zenith, and so were its efforts to export its repressive system. The USSR supplied plenty of evidence that its arrangement was freer than that of the U.S. After all, in the 1974 Soviet elections the unopposed, Communist-approved candidates got 99.8 percent of the vote. In 1979, that rose to 99.9 percent. When the Soviet legislature rubber-stamped the selection of Leonid Brezhnev as president (again), the entire body stood up and applauded—five times. The Soviets insisted this was “democracy” like they had in the U.S., just the “socialist” kind. For most of post-WWII history some variation of “We have our own kind of democracy” has anchored the rhetoric of U.S. foes. Every system has its strengths and disadvantages, authoritarians always like to say. “Sure, we have our problems, but so does the United States, right?” That’s still the line the Soviets’ successor, Vladimir Putin, is exporting now.
It’s sometimes supposed that there is a short list of policy goals at the top of Putin’s agenda, that he wants the U.S. to drop the Magnitsky Act sanctions on his cronies or accept the annexation of Crimea. But these action items don’t matter nearly as much as the overarching ambition of undermining the moral standing of the U.S. Autocrats like Putin and China’s Xi Jinping are playing to their home audiences; they want their subjects to think the choice is not between their rule and something better, but between them and chaos. What the Kremlin’s hackers most want to break into isn’t voting machine software; it’s the democratic principles of tolerance and the peaceful transition of power. Then their bosses can point to the unsteady state of American democracy and say, “The U.S. is just like us—there’s no moral difference.” And if Putin can sow enough discord and hatred to undermine Americans’ faith in our own system, that could even become true.