Politico reports that the GOP voting base in Alabama has been “galvanized” by accusations against Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore. Whereas the Senate race was once nothing to be particularly enthusiastic about, voters are offering a “furious defense” of “their man.”
It’s curious how this works. Accusations of misconduct surface, and instead of carefully weighing the facts and considering the besmirching of a man’s character, warriors draw their swords. The Right cries, “It must not be true!” and the Left auto-fills the guilty verdict. But featured prominently and predictably among the immediate reactions are cries of hypocrisy. What about Weinstein? What about Weiner? What about Clinton? What about Kennedy? The list of cases in which leftist misconduct was swept under the rug is lengthy, and a perfect shield for the tribal warriors.
The etymology of the word “hypocrisy” suggests its origin in Attic Greek. At one point it meant “to play a part on stage.” But you mightn’t guess that the second half of the term is earlier derived from a word (krinein) meaning “to sieve” or “to discriminate, distinguish.” That’s what’s missing from the political charade of 2017. From molehills to mountains, any event can be staged as a premium example of hypocrisy. Especially given our modern technology, we have decades of words and pictures that can be summoned at the click of mouse to make our case that an individual or institution is despicably hypocritical.
Hypocrisy Is Just Another Stick for Beating Your Enemy
It’s open season in politics for ripping off the masks. Disgraced former Rep. Tim Murphy, who had apparently pressured his mistress to have an abortion in the midst of an unfounded pregnancy scare, is a recent example. You say one thing and do another, and that is license for the commentariat (and the Twitter mob, for that matter) to try to discredit an entire movement.
Now, allegations of sexual misconduct would fall in the “mountain” category, and should be dealt with seriously and consistently. Yet along the whole range of hills the streams of commentary rush through partisan valleys. Any criticism is just an opportunity to punch back, harder. Hypocrisy offers the best angle of attack. Seeing as how the political tribes are more interested in defending “their man” than in pursuing truth and an even dispensation of justice, there is plenty of hypocrisy to go around.
It is crucial to note that voters are increasingly willing to settle for this tit-for-tat as long as they get their guy, who is so much less terrible than the other guy, in a position of power. Last year, NPR reported that white evangelicals were even more likely than the general population (72 percent to 61 percent) to say politicians who have committed immoral acts in their personal lives can still be effective in office. That percentage was up from just 30 percent in 2011.
We’ve Got Plenty of Hypocrisy to Go Around
In the same theme of betraying the cause, for all the Left’s fervent campaigning for affirmative consent and other laws to protect women from harassment and assault, for all their firm insistence that Moore is a sick man unfit for the Senate, film producer Harvey Weinstein, a major Democratic donor working in the most far-left bubble in America (Hollywood), was outed as a serial sexual predator. Hollywood has a deeply rooted problem of sexual exploitation, and the Right was quick, and correct, to point that out.
Pointing out hypocrisy is the name of the game these days in both right- and left-leaning outlets. The points are cheap and plentiful, and we have millions of pictures and tweets to draw from. Any mountain can be a molehill as long as someone else has a comparable volcano of botched political maneuvers or personal vices, or vice versa, and any molehill can be disregarded as utterly insignificant.
The short skirt Ivanka wore to a policy conference in Japan, for instance, was a molehill, but that doesn’t mean it was a nothingburger. As it turns out, the administration is plagued with molehills, mostly in tweet form, and enough molehills can ruin any political landscape and trip up clumsy politicians (including the president himself). But since there are analog molehills in the Obama administration, such as excessive rounds of golf, most pundits will find it especially easy to ignore.
We’re All Into Whataboutism Now
Talk show hosts who may be conflicted on the decisions and character of our president and his associates, or undecided on whether it is wise to elect Moore to the Senate, are relieved for a steady flow of liberal hypocrisy they can funnel to their audiences. It’s a sure way to fire up the base and fill segments without having to lay out cold judgments on beloved fighters for the cause.
Judgment statements are too often framed in whataboutism, in which a person deflects a genuine concern by saying the accusers do it, too. Whatabouts do not absolve, they redirect and shift the emphasis back to the sins of the other side. Politically, it’s a critical tactic. Holding the misdeeds of your warrior chief up against those of his adversaries serves to allay your chagrin and boost your tribe’s spirit.
It seems like a winning PR strategy, and the myopic focus on hypocrisy means as long as you have a finger to point with, you’re in the game. Any argument from across the aisle can be met with, “Where were you when your side did X?” and dismissed without too much scrutiny from the audience.
There is merit in pointing out when someone is being hypocritical, because we should know when public figures are being dishonest. But merely pointing out inconsistency does nothing to address the problems our nation faces, except perhaps to diminish the hypocrite’s credibility. When it is not balanced with substantive discussion on what is foolish and what is wise, what is right and wrong, highlighting hypocrisy simply feeds into the rampant tribalism of the age.
It is even more dangerous for a public that puts more stock in political promises than personal integrity. Indeed, indignation toward hypocrisy implies some baseline standard of decency that we all should abide by. If that baseline is removed, what is the point, except to excuse our favored political player?
Hypocrisy Isn’t Enough
2016’s tribalistic wars of whatabouts and hypocrites have continued apace through this year and show no signs of winding down. Have the mainstream media been unfair and hypocritical in their coverage of the Moore allegations? Of the Trump administration? Of the Right in general? Undoubtedly. Is the Left generally less committed to consistency in rhetoric and behavior than the Right is? I’d argue yes.
But as we remove the masks, let us be discerning, sifting the good from the bad. It is not enough to just point out when someone from across a political divide is being hypocritical. The country must be shown why his positions are wrong or imprudent, or why and how his character is compromised such that he cannot be trusted or should not be granted the privilege and responsibilities of higher office.
Just as important, but much more difficult, is the task of showing why champions’ positions are prudent or right despite their failing to always act in accordance with their word and despite personal moral failings—or else admit that our warrior chiefs are not upright and trustworthy enough to be worth defending on a given issue. This task must be diligently worked at if our divided country is to make any progress toward understanding, cooperation, and solid policy.
Today’s politics and culture make a hectic and confusing field to navigate, to be sure. But do not forget the compass. If finger-pointing is our only source of direction, we’ll never get anywhere worth going.