If American democracy is to survive, its political parties and electorate need to focus on reality-based policy discussions and not on fantasies of international cabals and conspiracies hatched and propagated on social media, two former Virginia congressmen told a Miller Center audience on Wednesday.
Former congressmen Tom Perriello, a Democrat, and Republican Denver Riggleman both served in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District. They made their comments at “Battling for Democracy in Ukraine,” part of the Democracy Dialogues series produced by the University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy with the goal of strengthening democracy through civil debate.
What’s happening in Ukraine has connections with threats to U.S. democracy from today’s divisive politics, the speakers said.
The series and the event are co-sponsored by the Miller Center and made possible by the support of the George and Judy Marcus Democracy Praxis Fund, Ingrid and David Hang, and former UVA Rector James B. Murray Jr.
“The very first Democracy Dialogue was hosted by Larry Sabato and it happened to coincide with the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021,” UVA President Jim Ryan said when introducing the panelists, which also included moderator Ann Compton, a former news reporter and White House correspondent for ABC News.
“The coincidence only underscored both the need, and importance, of these conversations,” Ryan said. “Since then, we’ve had dialogues on the role of social media on polarization and on U.S.-China relations, to name just a few.”
During the dialogue held at the Rotunda, both congressmen noted that Russian propaganda early in the war in Ukraine made seemingly contradictory references to both President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Jewish heritage and a claim that the Ukrainian government he leads is run by neo-Nazis.
Perriello, who spent some time working with humanitarian relief groups in Ukraine, said Ukrainians have a strong sense of identity.
“They see there being a fundamental decision after the Soviet era where they decided, ‘We are going to be a democracy. We are going to be a Western-oriented democracy.’ That was a defining moment,” he said.
“And rather than saying ‘America, come save us,’ they are very much focused on saving themselves. But they are eager for help and I think the help of the Biden administration is supported with bipartisan support.”
Riggleman, who served in U.S. Air Force as an intelligence officer and as a contractor for the National Security Agency, said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an example of a direct threat to a democratic country. He warned that there are also indirect threats that reach into American politics.
“I’m looking at this from an intelligence perspective and it’s not only the kinetic war that seems to be a threat, but it’s the non-kinetic, the cyber or the information warfare battle space, that we’re fighting right now,” he said.
Riggleman said the misinformation campaign is not limited to the Ukrainian war theater, but reverberates through American politics and society, creating a challenge to American democracy as well.
“We have to worry about what’s going on here, whether people are passing just information about Ukraine or Nazis or that Ukrainians are Nazis or the [claim] that Vladimir Putin is really the last Christian leader and is trying to bring back a sort of Christian rule,” he said. “You have all the stuff that’s happening in the disinformation space.”
Riggleman said the same Russian propaganda is being echoed across dozens of internet social media channels and is taking root in American society and politics. He said supply chain and food shortage conspiracy theories claim that globalists, interested in installing socialist governments, are behind the shortages.
He said the term “globalists” is shorthand among those promoting conspiracy theories for a belief in a Jewish cabal.
“So, any food shortage, or any food-supply shortage you have, is actually a function of the 'new world order’ which is being pushed by some of the same influencers that push Q-Anon and things like that,” he said. “We’re seeing this data explode on chat rooms and things of that nature.”
Perriello said antisemitism is a primary motive behind the conspiracy theories, as well as racism.
“When we had the horrific events here in Charlottesville [in 2017], I interviewed 30 or 40 of the protesters that day, and I was called ‘Jew Banker’ and was spit on,” Perriello recalled. “The No. 1 group they were singling out were Jewish people. It is also directly tied to anti-Blackness, the belief that Black people aren’t smart enough to run it and that the Jews are running it. This conspiracy is central to this bastardized, white Christian nationalist play that’s going on.”
The former congressmen say they worry that the increased radicalization of the political right could lead to increased radicalization of the political left. That could lead to sectarian violence and threaten American democratic institutions.
“I can be this brutal because I was in the GOP; there shouldn’t be almost 300 individuals running right now for office who believe the (2020) election was stolen,” Riggleman said.
“It’s very difficult to get away from this apocalyptic good-against-evil battle that a lot of people think they’re in,” he said. “Disinformation cannot be our baseline for policy discussions, and how we run this country.”
Deputy University Spokesperson
firstname.lastname@example.org (434) 924-1400
March 22, 2023