I can’t look away from the news from Ukraine. I spoke there in 2017 and have friends in Kyiv from the trip, but even without that personal connection, I’d still be glued to it.
The real story is the human tragedy. The civilians shivering in underground shelters, waiting for the next explosion and the mangled bodies it might leave behind. Those taking to roads and rails, not knowing if they’ll see home and family again. The citizens picking up rifles and rockets to defend their country and their right to have their own democracy. The half-trained draftees they’re often up against, living with the knowledge that the next turn in the road could mean flame and death.
Political people tend to glamorize our work with the language of war, “fighting” in “campaigns” with an “air war” in “battleground” states. Those words ring hollow when you can see the brutal reality of armed conflict on any screen. But without making a facile comparison between the bloodless profession of politics and the human horror of war, the tactical part of my brain still looks for lessons from what it’s been seeing for the past week.
The Information War
For once, the West seems to have understood that the first part of the war in Ukraine would take place in our minds. Instead of waiting for Russia to employ disinformation as a weapon, America, the U.K. and others ripped the lid off the box and told the world what the aggressor would say before he could say it. Russian government narratives may still influence millions of its citizens at home, but preempting the lies helped keep them from shaping how the war has been portrayed and perceived around the globe.
The U.S. and its allies are still using their intelligence systems to expose propaganda, now with help from Ukrainians on the ground. Cellphone videos and social media bring us the war from within, and images of burned-out Russian tanks, blown-up buildings and defiant Ukrainian citizens have exposed the lie that is the Kremlin’s claims of military success in a righteous war.
We can learn from that. Democrats in particular have been caught flat-footed by disinformation campaigns, whether talk of socialism in Spanish-language media in Florida in 2020 or a moral panic about critical race theory in Virginia last year. Next time, they should anticipate the attacks and counter them aggressively, walking the delicate line of rebutting a smear without amplifying it.
For a start, campaigns should show images and video that contradict dark accusations without expressly repeating them. Accused of being a socialist? Get some local business owners to talk you up on camera. Your supporters are almost always your best ambassadors, so give them the content and leadership they need to counter disinformation friend by friend. Social and messaging apps can provide the outreach channels, but supporters and allies usually need the nudge to use them. And keep listening, since you can’t preempt an attack you don’t see coming.
Considering the length of time they had to prepare, the Russian army’s apparent lack of organization is shocking. Many of their units broke up into packets as they moved into Ukraine, with clusters of a few vehicles and their crews rolling through fields and towns without obvious air support. They’ve been terribly vulnerable as a result, with many ambushed by Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers carrying rockets, rifles and bottles of gasoline. Others, stalled short of their objectives and separated from support units, have run out of fuel or broken down on a back road. Meanwhile, Ukrainian aircraft still fly and Ukrainian drones still hunt Russian supply trucks.
Without evoking the glib air/ground metaphor, you can see the obvious problems that come up when different parts of an organization don’t support each other. In the political space, direct mail messages and digital advertising should generally echo one another, but they’re often built by different teams. Digital ads can prepare the ground for field outreach, but organizers often don’t know they’re an option. Data from face-to-face voter contacts can inform media strategy, but it’s often siloed away. Communicate and integrate: sounds easy, right? Not so much in the real world.
But the true story, again, isn’t technical or tactical. When farmers are towing away armored vehicles and schoolteachers are making molotov cocktails, you’re seeing the ultimate expression of people power. Ordinary Ukrainians are self-organizing to defend their homes, including by documenting the violence around them for the rest of the world to see. We can’t know what will happen in the end, but they’ve given their country a chance to survive that most outsiders wouldn’t have expected.
I hope they’ll fire up a whole lot of Americans in the process. People-powered politics seems to have lost some of its energy in the U.S. as of late. Perhaps the sight of Ukrainians literally fighting for their democracy will cause a new wave of us to rejoin the peaceful struggle to keep ours afloat. Political professionals can draw their own lessons, but we can all draw inspiration.
Another expression of people power I’d like to see? A whole lot more young Russians watching videos, walking away from their tanks and heading back toward the border. What if Putin threw a war and the soldiers wouldn’t go along? I’m not going to predict it, but what a triumph that would be for us all.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, author of “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections,” a twenty-five-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at email@example.com.