Philosophers On The DNC Leaks

Philosophers On The DNC Leaks

Earlier this month, the website Wikileaks released a collection of over 19,000 emails from seven officials of the Democratic National Convention (DNC). You can search through them here. While Wikileaks will not disclose information about how it obtained these emails, many experts believe that two Russian intelligence groups were involved. The Russian government denies this. The hacked emails appear to show that that the DNC, despite its purported neutrality between Democratic candidates, was biased against Bernie Sanders’ campaign and in favor of Hilary Clinton’s. Meanwhile, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange says that his site might release “a lot more material” relevant to the current US presidential election.

You might not think that this mess of real world politics, technological espionage, and international intrigue is the kind of place philosophers like to ply their trade, but you’d be mistaken. A good number of philosophers work on issues related to democracy, corruption, information technology, and international relations.

So, building on the earlier post, Philosophers On The 2016 U.S. Presidential Race, I invited a number of philosophers to share some thoughts on this latest development. As with previous installments in the “Philosophers On” series, these remarks are not comprehensive statements, but rather focused thoughts on specific issues, meant to prompt further discussion, here and elsewhere.

Contributing are:

I appreciate them participating in this post. Thanks, also, to Steve Matusic, for suggesting the topic.

The idea of the “Philosophers On” series is to explore the ways in which philosophers can add, with their characteristically insightful and careful modes of thinking, to public conversations about current events, as well as prompt further discussion among philosophers about these events. All are welcome to join the discussion.

Please share the post with others, and feel free to provide links in the comments to relevant philosophical commentary elsewhere.

Philosophers on DNC blinds image

Emanuela Ceva — The Surreptitiousness of Political Corruption

The recent leaks of emails hackers have taken from the servers of the Democratic National Committee has revealed an allegedly worrisome dynamics in the campaign planning among senior DNC officials, some of whom appear to have acted to undermine purposefully Bernie Sanders’ position to the advantage of Hillary Clinton’s. Although the emails do not provide clear-cut evidence of a secret plot to damage Sander’s campaign, some exchanges seem to corroborate the suspicions of Sander’s supporters. For example, an email reveals that Brad Marshall, the DNC’s chief financial officer, asked: “for KY and WVA can we get someone to ask his belief. Does he believe in a God.” Although the email does not mention the identity of the “he”, it is plausible to presume that Sanders was the target. If that proved to be accurate, this message would suggest a pro-Clinton agenda to make Sanders come forward as an atheist in order to discredit him with Christian voters. This case is problematic because DNC officials are expected to be neutral between the candidates in the primaries, while the leak suggests that they may have acted to favor—more or less explicitly—one of them.

Intuitively, the DNC officials’ behavior looks inappropriate, but what exactly is wrong with it? I wish to suggest that we could helpfully understand the wrongfulness of this behavior as an instance of political corruption. Corruption is a multifaceted idea, which may take different forms depending on its subjects (e.g., private citizens or public officials), object (e.g., monetary transactions or a personal favors), and the benefit sought (e.g., material gain or influence). These variations granted, I propose to concentrate on a broad characterization of political corruption as occurring when officials make a distorted use of their entrusted power for the pursuit of a surreptitious agenda.

The wrongfulness of political corruption is generally thought to derive from the abuse of entrusted power in ways that deviate from the duties associated with certain offices. Insofar as the leaks show that some DNC officials have abused their power in breach of the duty of neutrality that ought to regulate their conduct, their behavior could be sanctioned as an instance of political corruption. But there is more to this case. Not all abuses of power would count as wrong in the sense of being corrupt. On the characterization of political corruption that I have proposed, only those abuses of power aimed at the pursuit of a surreptitious agenda qualify. What is distinctive of cases of political corruption is, therefore, the surreptitious nature of the official’s agenda, whose rationale is such that it could not possibly stand public scrutiny and be considered a legitimate reason for public action. The pursuit of such an agenda through an abusive use of entrusted power is wrong because it is in plain contradiction with the logic of accountability that ought to govern the officials’ conduct. The surreptitious nature of this agenda, once exposed, make the officials unable to account for their behavior in terms that are publicly recognizable as in line with their mandate, thus violating its conditions.

What is interesting to notice is that if the DNC officials are proved to have followed through on the pro-Clinton agenda the emails suggest, this case would qualify as an instance of political corruption regardless of whether the officials used DNC resources to damage Sanders. Their surreptitious behavior would be wrong as corrupt because it is in contradiction with the logic of accountability that ought to regulate their use of entrusted power. In this sense, the leaks would expose a worrisome pattern of political corruption within the DNC with important implications on the overall dynamics of accountability of the electoral campaign.

Paul Gowder — On Interfering in the Self-Determination of Another People

When Justin’s invitation to contribute to this landed in my inbox, my first thought was that it’s an impossible task. There’s very little to say about this email mess, “philosophical” or otherwise, that we don’t already know. There’s too much money in politics, and that leads to multifarious kinds of institutional corruption. Obviously. Officials at the DNC preferred a candidate who had spent decades building a relationship with them over a candidate who wasn’t even a member of the party for most of his career and spent most of the campaign insulting them. Obviously.  No philosophical argument required.

There might be something to say about this crazy Putin angle, though. There’s been a lot of speculation and even some evidence that the leak of the e-mails was prompted by Putin and initiated by Russian hackers, in order to aid the election of a candidate who would be willing to back off from NATO commitments in Eastern Europe. Indeed, Putin’s hand is often alleged in various far-right candidacies and parties, from UKIP to the French National Front, and it’s reasonable to believe that he has a strategy of encouraging nationalist populism across the world in order to undermine the political will to resist his territory-grabbing.

The Putin thing might actually be philosophically interesting, in light of the apparently general folk assumption that it’s unethical to interfere in the electoral politics of another nation. Of course, Putin is hardly likely to be moved by considerations of political ethics, but supposing he is tampering in the U.S. election: is he blamable for that?

To my mind, the folk wisdom doesn’t seem obviously correct. Of course, the democratic self-determination of another people is an important political value, which should give the leaders of a state some pro tanto reason not to interfere in the electoral process of another states. But, just as immigrants have some legitimate interest in influencing the policies of states that purport to control their movements, states probably have some legitimate interest in influencing the policies of other states that affect their people. For an easy example: suppose that a more-or-less just state had an opportunity to interfere with the election of an imperialist leader in its more powerful neighbor—a leader who would be very likely to launch an invasion if elected. Just as it’s permissible to kill to prevent oneself from being killed, I find it hard to deny that it’s permissible to interfere in the self-determination of another people in order to prevent one’s own self-determination from being interfered with. But we can also ratchet down the urgency of the problem and maintain the same basic argument: suppose state A interferes in state B’s electoral politics in order to prevent much-richer state B from imposing trade restrictions that would cause mass starvation in state A?  Again, it seems like talk about respecting the self-determination of another people has to give way.

As a first pass, then, If Putin is blamable for interfering in the U.S. (or U.K., or French, etc. etc.) elections, it seems to me that this is only because his motives for doing so—largely to make it easier for him to aggress on his neighbors like he did with Ukraine—themselves are blamable. (Of course, nothing in this mini-argument is inconsistent with the proposition that the U.S. is free to resist Putin’s interference.)

Graham Hubbs — How to Approach the Ethics of Wikileaks

One basic ethical question to ask about this case is this: should WikiLeaks have done what it did? There are a number of ways in which one can respond to this basic question. One role philosophy can play is to sort, to distinguish, and, perhaps, to prioritize the various forms of response here. For example, one might take a consequentialist approach to the question and decide the matter based on the effects, or perhaps the predictable effects, of publishing the emails. One might instead focus on the various rights that may be involved and attempt to weigh the expressive rights of WikiLeaks against the email writers’ rights to privacy against the public’s right to know politically important information against the public’s right to safety that might be compromised by the disclosure of secrets.


Alternatively, one can respond by reflecting on the institutional role of the press in a well-functioning democracy, on what activities count as instances of playing this role, and on whether publishing the DNC emails count as one of these activities. A primary function of the press in a well-functioning democracy is to provide the people with the information it needs to engage in democratic deliberation, and this includes information that the people needs to hold its politicians accountable. For reasons that should be obvious, sometimes it will benefit the people to know information that its politicians would prefer to keep secret. If an individual or organization gains information of this sort and makes it publicly available, then that individual or organization is, at least under that description, performing a legitimate press activity. (There may be other descriptions under which the action falls, of course, that have nothing to do with defensible press activity. Also, saying this sets aside the question of how the information was initially obtained, which is a separate matter.) Thinking along these lines, however, does not excuse publishing private information that is of no benefit to the people’s democratic deliberation. Whether or not this latter sort of activity can be excused on other grounds, it is not the sort that has any clear institutional place in a well-functioning democracy.


Call this the institutionalist approach to the question of whether WikiLeaks should have done what it just did. If we take this approach, we will separate out the publication of credit card data of DNC donors from the publication of messages that show party elites promoting Hilary Clinton over Bernie Sanders during the primary process. No institution in a well-functioning democracy has the role of publishing the former sort of information, so WikiLeaks’s decision to publish this information is not defensible as legitimate democratic press activity. The publication of the latter sort of information, by contrast, is defensible on these lines. WikiLeaks’s dogmatic commitment to transparency leads it to publish both sorts of information without much regard for this distinction. It is a distinction we should preserve.

Manohar Kumar — Secrecy and the Failure of the DNC

The recent Democratic National Committee (DNC) email leaks raises a plethora of questions that need careful consideration. If the leaks are to be believed the committee sought to favor Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders to the point of undermining his candidacy. The leaks demonstrate a fundamental prejudice against Sanders. Some committee members wanted Sanders to be questioned over his religious beliefs; this would make him unpopular with the religious population. In addition they mocked his campaign, were annoyed at his supporters. As if this was not enough, Clinton lawyers also provided strategic advice to the DNC when it was questioned over its neutrality. Allegations have also been made that debates were scheduled in a manner to limit Sanders’ access to the public. The leaks also raise concerns regarding preferences of certain donors in terms of access to POTUS or important platforms.

In my opinion we should judge the leaks within the fundamental conflict between the right to privacy and the quest for transparency. Privacy advocates would vouch for the secrecy of exchanges and the right of individuals to share and discuss their opinions freely. The disclosure of identity of individual donors would also be a matter of concern. It can be argued, in their defense, that the leaks jeopardize future attempts to raise funds by keeping in mind the interests of donors.

Contrary to these contentions, I think that the leaks raise weightier concerns of transparency and publicity. These concerns trump the privacy rights of individual donors and the claim of the DNC to hold negotiations among its members in a secretive manner. The leaks also raise important questions from the point of democratic theory: should members holding public office disregard their preferences over commands of duty? Should strategic and pragmatic considerations trump role obligations? Are offices such as the DNC bound by transparency regulations?

To answer these questions, the functioning of the DNC needs to be understood along with the role that publicity and secrecy plays in such institutions. Since the DNC is the formal governing body of the Democratic Party, it is supposed to be impartial towards its candidates and accountable to its members. All departures from such a norm requires due public justification to its members. With this contention in mind let us turn to what philosophy has to offer about secrecy of negotiations.

Political philosophers have often argued that secrecy in deliberation is permitted if it enhances the quality of deliberation. Publicity often forces individuals to play to the gallery and advance partisan interests rather than deliberate in a calm, reasonable manner. It also allows individuals to accept and appreciate reasons provided by others and counter them with equal reasonable arguments. Participants can equally revise their opinion in an uncoerced environment. This argument has been contested by those who claim that allowing for secret negotiations can in turn allow the very partisan interests to hold sway which one is seeking to avoid. Publicity, on the contrary, acts as a necessary check against private appropriation of a public platform.

The leaks reveal that DNC members were prejudiced and promoted particular interests of the Clinton camp in liaison with them. Such secret deliberations does not uphold the interests of party members; it skews it into a favored direction unbeknownst to its members. This is tantamount to manipulation of the results and opinions of members, disregarding their autonomy as reasoning and thinking beings. Manipulation is evident, too, in the issue of scheduling of debates that limited party members’ opportunity to engage with candidates. The mocking of supporters demonstrates aversion to citizens’ freedom of expression. The disclosures also demonstrate distaste for media who tried to expose their complicity. The leaks thus not only reveal a moral failure to comply with role obligations but also a lack of accountability towards party members.

Finally, the divulgence of the documents expose the nexus between donors and the committee members. Such intimate association has the tendency to undermine the egalitarian structure of a party. The leaks invite a careful scrutiny not only of the functioning of the committee but the party as a whole, and warns against the influence of donors and interest groups. A party can only be democratic when its publicly stated motives align with its actions which are open to scrutiny by its members. In this regard the DNC has failed its members.

Daniele Santoro (LUISS) — The Value of Transparency

The long awaited nomination of Hillary Clinton as presidential candidate was a path of many hurdles. Last year she stumbled in a major scandal over the use of her private email for sending classified material over the internet while she was Secretary of State. Only FBI’s recent decision not to prosecute her  finally put the controversy to rest. Just as the stain on her public image was vanishing, on July 22nd Wikileaks kicked in another controversy by releasing nearly 20,000 emails and 8,000 attachments hacked from the Democratic National Committee. The emails regard unofficial correspondence among the DNC staff with several members of the media, but its critical content is a portion of the leak where the DNC committee is shown to be highly biased against Bernie Sanders, to the point of deriding his campaign.

Although Clinton was not directly involved in the affair, her close allies were. In the forefront was Debbie Wasserman Schultz—the DNC chair-person—who unleashed an array of devastating comments against Sanders’ campaign manager. Other emails show Schultz’s collaborators in the attempt to taint Sanders’ campaign by pressing him on his religious beliefs. According to a large portion of the public opinion, the DNC’s chairwoman and her staff violated the principle of neutrality toward the candidates, which she is bound to in her role according to the Party Charter (Article 5, section 4).

In response to the accusations, Wasserman Schultz has resigned as the DNC chairwoman immediately preceding the Convention, but Sanders’ supporters harbor much criticism about the DNC’s partiality. Even more, the public opinion has witnessed a lack of transparency that may affect the presidential elections.

As a class action comprising small donors is underway against the DNC, one more actor appears on the stage: Russia. In indirect response to the charges of a lack of neutrality, some Democrats (notably, Sen. Nancy Pelosi, House Democratic leader) declared to be certain that the DNC hack is part of a Russian plot to weaken Clinton’s image in order to elect Donald Trump. Several security agencies have backed Pelosi’s conviction, expressing ‘high confidence’ that the Russian government was indeed behind the plot.

The DNC scandal unveils a fundamental tension between the champions of transparency and those who take transparency as only instrumental to the realization of other public values. For its supporters, transparency is the primary virtue of democracy because transparent procedures are essential to provide justification to majoritarian decisions, and make it possible to hold political representatives and public officials accountable for their decisions.

However, not every aspect of democratic life should be exposed to sunshine, even more when competing interests and even rights at stake. Those who defend this view often claim that Wikileaks-style disclosures do more harm than good: if the leaking was indeed manipulated by the Russian government, far from being democracy enhancing it will thwart the democratic process. Besides, when it comes to the functions of private organizations such as political parties, no law requires internal decisions of these bodies to be available to the public at large, and the leadership is accountable only to their party members.

Both sides seem to capture important intuitions about the dilemma of transparency in democracy. Transparency is democracy enhancing, but full transparency can harm democracy in many ways. Is there a principled view that can solve the dilemma?

In my opinion transparency does not embed an intrinsic value, but it serves a specific overarching interest, the public interest of citizens of a democratic polity.  But, what is the public interest? Despite its abundance in political parlance, reference to it is too often generic, but we should start clearing the muddle.

First, public interest is distinct from other forms of interest, for it is the interest of a common body arrayed against the private interests of particular groups or individuals. The exemplary case here is the public interest of a community contrasting powerful groups whose interests are more powerful in virtue of influence or financial capacity, but also those vested interests that often come under the vestige of national security.

Second, public interest has a wider significance in constitutional democracies because its scope comprises at least the core set of interests citizens have in common, that is their constitutional rights, including their right to privacy and legal safeguards. Third, public interest should also include prompt information of those acts that may potentially affect the public. The case here is government’ agenda regulating public goods such as energy, defense, and public health, but more generally we can we can think of information that are of presumptive interest for the polity, matters of over which we can presume citizens might have their say.

With this rough notion of public interest in mind, we have a yardstick to judge the moral legitimacy of those disclosures that are made in the extra-legal domain. When the whistleblower decides to leak information in the absence of proper channels of disclosure, her conscience should live up not only to the ideal of truth telling, but also to the contribution to the presumed interest to the public that the disclosure would contribute to.

Can a proper understanding of public interest teach us something about the DNC scandal? I think that it can help us to clarify where the problem consists. In my view, the right question to ask is this: are the Wikileaks revelations in the DNC scandal of public or just party interest? If they are of party interest, then Wikileaks revelations overstepped the democratic self-regulatory procedures internal to the Democratic Party. If they are of public interest, then citizens at large, and not only party members or donors, had a right to be informed.

Now, given the nature of the information (off-record, and confidential), we can presume that no internal or public channel would have been made available to ascertain whether the leadership was biased. Had not Wikileaks released those files, the violation wouldn’t have probably ever come to surface. Thus the leak has contributed to the transparency within the party. Second, the leaks have also contributed to inform the larger public of potential voters about the circumstances of Hillary Clinton’s nomination. Since we don’t know whether an unbiased leadership would have affected the chances of Clinton’s nomination, our presumption should be that those information might be relevant for a more informed election.

One last point: what about Russia? The narrative of these days constructs the role of Wikileaks as the middle man, an instrument in the hands of Putin to favor the election of Donald Trump. If the story were true, the leaks would be a reckless consequence of a bad intentioned source. But this judgment is all too quick. Consider the parallel case of an informant snitching on one’s own mob just for money, or to negotiate a better deal with the investigators. Far from showing any consideration for justice, the informant is often in bad faith even when he leaks highly valued information. Would anybody argue that the bad faith of the informant undermines the public value of criminal justice? Not, I guess. Likewise, the public interest of the DNC leaks shall not depend on the wicked intention of the Russian government, but on the content of those revelations. Admittedly, the value of these leaks is dwarfed in criminal significance by other recent leaks. Compared to the Panama papers, the DNC scandal seems just politics as usual. But who is to judge their significance? Being truthful to the democratic ideal offers a guidance in such matters. Since the legitimacy of democracy lies in the power of their citizens’ decisions, the legitimacy of disclosures when no legal avenues exist will depend on the presumptive interest those citizens have in making informed decisions.

Kevin Vallier — The Neutrality of the DNC

One unaddressed question raised by the DNC leaks is whether party elites are morally required to be neutral between primary candidates. In my opinion, they have no such obligation. A democracy is democratic because the people choose their leaders. This does not mean that the candidates on offer must themselves be democratically chosen as contenders by the people. In most functional democracies, parties choose candidates, and the people choose between those candidates. So there is no problem in principle with the DNC elites favoring Clinton over Sanders. However, in the United States, we have an informal norm of party elite neutrality among primary contenders. Since the informal norm is publicly acknowledged, DNC elites did misbehave because they were dishonest. They pretended to comply with the informal norm when they were probably not attempting to be neutral.

Vanessa Wills — Democracy and the Range of Options

“But we already knew this!” is the kind of exasperated protestation we’ve heard repeatedly in the past few days: genuine surprise that the recent leaks about the DNC’s conduct in the 2016 primary should make a serious difference to anyone. This is often accompanied by a deep impatience with those who will allow the leaks to affect their vote in November.

But this is to underestimate the faith that millions of Americans have continued to have in the democratic process in the United States, perhaps up until recently. For millions of supporters of Bernie Sanders, the idea of reforming the Democratic Party from the inside wasn’t just a useful slogan to discourage external political challenges to the party. It was a genuine effort to have meaningful input into the political decisions that affect them directly. The leaks reveal the ways in which the American political system is in some important ways impervious to meaningful popular intervention, and confirms the worst fears many members of the public have about whether or not the electoral game is rigged.

Much of the conduct described in the leaks should seem outrageous on its face. But to point out that the conduct was underhanded or unfair is only part of the story. It is equally significant that the kind of left populist politics represented by Sanders is now completely off the electoral table in the 2016 presidential election. The range of political options accessible through voting in that election spans only from the far right (Donald Trump) to the center (Hillary Clinton). Frustration and disaffection about what this means for American democracy is the completely predictable result. This is true even or especially if one believes there is a significant difference between the two candidates that compels a vote for one or the other.

How narrow can the range of political options become before it no longer offers the American people an opportunity to participate in democratic decision-making? Who gets to decide which political options are on offer? Is it simply enough that the number of political options be at least apparently greater than one?

We are at a historical moment in which the millions of people in the United States who live in poverty, whose towns are dying, who are without decent job prospects, who are crushed by medical expenses and student loans, who face deportation, who are beaten and imprisoned, will not much longer accept their exclusion from political life. They do not have the privilege of resigned cynicism—that is a luxury for those who feel sure they can weather the status quo. In thinking about democracy as it is and is it ought to be, we academics could do worse than to seek to understand the ground of their frustration.

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