Have you ever gotten into an argument involving hypocrisy? “Joe Biden says racist things but no one bats an eye,” a Republican voter complained to me recently. “Hypocrisy at its finest?” he asked dryly, “...or just Democrats being Democrats?”
Someone intolerant of hypocrisy is an anti-hypocrite. What can we learn about politics from anti-hypocrisy? We can learn at least one thing: Hypocrisy is hardly ever the main problem.
Anti-hypocrisy has long been a tool to criticize democratic regimes. In 1973, during the Cold War, the U.S. helped overthrow Chile’s democratically elected president Salvador Allende in a military coup, leading to decades of brutal dictatorship. The official justification for this foreign policy was to defend democracy by preventing Soviet influence. The Nixon administration encouraged a military coup to redirect a country from hard-won democracy to military dictatorship — all in the name of promoting democracy.
But overthrowing a democratically elected president is in the first instance a way to destroy a democracy, not a way to promote it. The U.S. government eventually acknowledged this fact. When asked about the CIA’s role in the coup 30 years later, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell called it “not a part of U.S. history we are proud of.” The constitution installed by the subsequent dictatorship is being revised only now, 47 years after the coup.
Though the Nixon administration’s hypocritical justification of the coup was problematic, hypocrisy was not the main problem. The main crime was undoing a democratically elected regime.
When you point to a government’s hypocrisy in an effort to hold it accountable to democratic principles, your anti-hypocrisy is a tool to reconnect valued principles with their proper application.
But anti-hypocrisy can be hacked. It can present hypocrisy itself as the problem. Instead of being a tool for opposing violations of valued democratic principles, charges of hypocrisy can be a tool to confuse or paralyze, creating a set of options only an authoritarian could love.
The Republican voter I spoke with defended President Donald Trump against charges of racism by claiming that Biden is subject to the same charge: Any anti-racist commitments made by Democrats are a hopeless pretense. Republicans and Democrats are on a par when it comes to racism, he thinks. The only difference? Democrats are hypocrites: Their commitment to equality is a sham. Or as the Trump campaign slogan puts it: “No more bulls---.”
The voter I spoke with was using a well-honed rhetorical technique. The current president uses it often. When Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly interviewed Trump before the 2017 Super Bowl, Trump expressed his admiration for Vladimir Putin. “But Putin is a killer,” said O’Reilly. Trump replied: “There are a lot of killers. You think our country is so innocent?”
These remarks divert attention away from the vices of social inequality and political murder, and redirect it to hypocrisy. “Don’t criticize my side, because yours is no better.” If both parties endorse racism, then there can be no basis for criticizing racism — we are simply stuck with it. If everyone is a killer, there can be no basis for criticizing killers. If purported democracies act like autocracies, there is no real difference between these regimes.
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The technique is used in political antics — not just in conversation. A recent Senate Intelligence report confirmed journalists' earlier findings that when Paul Manafort was Trump’s campaign manager, he passed information to Russian intelligence officer Konstantin Kilimnik. How did Trump respond? By alleging that Democrats colluded with figures tied to the government of Ukraine. He reintroduced similar fabrications in the pseudo-scandal involving Hunter Biden in the hopes of making the Democrats appear guilty of the same thing. If the Democrats are corrupt, then corruption by Republicans must be left uncriticized.
Setting up a mirror image of vices paints a picture of two equally bad sides. It also frighteningly justifies future actions. Trump used now-debunked claims of fraud in mail-in voting in attempts to scale back the means of voting. His baseless assertion that “Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants to be a dictator” would suggest to many that what’s needed is another dictator to keep her in check.
What would equivalences like these do to our choices in an election? If we can’t choose sides on the basis of what either party does, we must instead choose on the basis of loyalty: With whom do we identify? And if you don’t identify with either figure, you won’t be motivated to choose at all. As one glum undecided voter from Maine put it recently, slouching toward apathy: “It doesn’t matter who we choose, we’re pretty much screwed either way.”
Despairing apathy, or unprincipled loyalty: Both responses let an autocrat govern without any pretense of accountability. Both options are music to ears of an authoritarian leader who hopes to replace any allegiance to principle with allegiance to him. Authoritarians want people to stand to their leaders as loyalists, not as citizen-participants to whom leaders are accountable, whose votes they have to count. This goal gives authoritarians a vested interest in creating the appearance that their own anti-democratic moves are always mirrored by their opponents.
“Those who do not accept the legitimizing norms at all will use hypocrisy as their most telling accusation,” wrote the 20th-century political theorist Judith Shklar. When today’s fiercest anti-hypocrites concentrate their criticisms on hypocrisy, it is a clue to the type of actions they are excusing. If those things are as consequential as dictatorship, corruption, political murder or white nationalism, wouldn’t it be better for voters to focus on them directly?
Susanna Siegel is a philosophy professor at Harvard University. Follow her at @siegel_susanna. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.