Russia’s apparent interference in the U.S. presidential election is a big story, but it’s part of an even bigger one: the ease with which foreign actors can insert themselves into the democratic process these days, and the difficulty of determining how to minimize that meddling. Witness the disagreement in recent weeks among leaders of the U.S. Federal Election Commission. Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub has urged the regulatory agency to plug the types of “legal or procedural holes” that enabled Russia to pose “an unprecedented threat to the very foundations of our American political community,” while her Republican colleagues have resisted her proposed fixes.
“There are many historical examples of overreaction to foreign threats in American politics,” the Republican Commissioner Lee Goodman observed. Just because a foreign government attempted to mess with American democracy in 2016 doesn’t mean all foreign involvement in U.S. politics is nefarious—or worth shutting down.
The intense focus on the Russian government’s campaign to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump—and whether or not the Trump campaign illegally conspired with the Kremlin—has illuminated the fuzzy boundary between proper and improper interactions between foreigners and political operatives in the United States. But it’s also obscured the various completely legal and questionably legal ways that foreign governments and foreign nationals can seek to influence the course of American politics.