With Russian meddling, truth is as disturbing as fiction

Obama on hacking: I warned Putin to 'cut it out'
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Story highlights

  • David Pepper: I intended my first book to be fiction; I may have failed
  • If a foreign government can figure out the sorry state of our democratic infrastructure, our leaders should, too, he says

David Pepper is the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party and the author of "The People's House," released on August 15, 2016 by St. Helena Press. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Four years ago, I decided to take a stab at writing my first book. I intended it to be fiction. I may have failed.

David Pepper
Given my background in politics, and the adage that you should write what you know, a political thriller seemed appropriate.
My story posed a basic question.
    What if leaders of a foreign entity are eager to change policy in America? Something substantial. How could they go about it?
    Specifically, the story weaved a tale of a Russian energy baron facing just this conundrum. And he decides the best way to change policy in America is to actually change its government.
    But how to do that? America has imposing strengths: a direct coup would never work, and a military invasion of the country's largest superpower is out of the question. So what to do?
    After studying American politics, the Russian in my book concludes that the Achilles' heel of American democracy is its crumbling political infrastructure, and gambles that taking advantage of certain weaknesses is the best way to change the government and accomplish his agenda. After some crafty election meddling in targeted congressional districts, he gets the change he wants.
    Along the way, a prominent American politician discovers the plot, but does nothing because he deduces that he and his party will benefit. And post election, even after certain voting irregularities make clear that something inappropriate occurred, the initial reaction of the media and the politicians divides predictably across ideological lines and the scandal becomes yet another subject of partisan bickering.
    Remember, this was a novel, meant to be a page-turner with deeper lessons on the need for political reform. I put it to bed on July 15, and released it on August 15.
    And then the actual Trump-Clinton campaign played out. (To be clear, the precise means of the meddling differed — my story involved voting machine infiltration as opposed to party emails and well-timed leaks — but the overall storyline was far closer to reality than I would've hoped).
    Ever since, readers have begun joking: What did you know and when did you know it?
    While I spent time in Russia in the early 1990s, no, I had no special knowledge of that side of the equation.
    The truth is, what I knew had less to do with Russia than ourselves. And it is this: We have allowed key pillars of our democracy to erode to the point where the deep dysfunction of our political system and culture has emerged as perhaps the prime vulnerability of our nation.
    Gerrymandering is so extreme that our legislatures are no longer democratic. Control of the US House (or "The People's House," which is the name of the book) rests entirely in the 25 to 30 seats across our country where a contest actually takes place. The rest of the elections are essentially preordained, the results inevitable, the "people" largely irrelevant. As the world's oldest democracy, it is not a system we can be proud of or hold up as a model.
    "Dark" money overwhelms our campaign cycles. Small groups of special interests and even individuals from far beyond a targeted state can play an outsized role in who will serve as that state's representative.
    Our culture of politics is breaking down before our eyes. People can no longer delineate fact from fiction amid frenzied media coverage and social media postings. Campaign cycles have become an endless sequence of superficial breaking news rather than substance.
    We have not heeded warnings that our voting systems and technologies are antiquated. There have been some improvements in recent years, but we still have badly underfunded elections operations in thousands of counties across the country. Widespread machine malfunctions in Detroit were just the most prominent example this year.
    From courts to the Fed to our intelligence apparatus, no institutions are beyond the fray of the fierce partisan divide. Even the principle that partisanship stops at the water's edge has become a relic of the past.
    Voter participation is far lower than most other developed nations, and laws are making it harder to participate rather than easier.
    To top it all off, we have come to accept these weaknesses. They've become normalized — in some cases, cemented into place by court decisions.
    As in my novel, the vulnerabilities of America's democracy are more readily perceived by an outsider sizing up our system than ourselves. We are the frog in the proverbial pot. Others can see our dilemma better than we can.
    Reports now suggest that Vladimir Putin was one of those observers, anticipating that some timely hacks, leaks and fake news would stir up chaos across our broken system, potentially influence the outcome, and that we would be too partisan, divided and distracted to catch up to it all in a timely way.
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    This Russian revelation is deeply disturbing. And it is heartening to see a handful of Republicans joining Democrats to demand that the extent of the interference be thoroughly investigated. The truth is, all should be seeking a thorough and immediate investigation.
    But that is not enough. Which takes me back to my novel.
    I don't want to give the end away. But let's just say the politicians in the book decide that if America's political infrastructure has eroded to the point that it risks destabilizing election interference, it might be time to address those underlying weaknesses as well.
    A few readers have told me they found this to be unrealistic. Politically naive. I hope not.
    To state it bluntly, if a foreign government can figure out that the sorry state of our democratic infrastructure has become America's soft underbelly, it is long past time American political leaders also figure it out, come together, and take steps to fix it.