By Justin Kempf
Political Hypocrisy in America
Over the past few months Americans have witnessed two scandals that involve the misuse of classified documents. The first involves the former President Donald Trump. The second involves the current President Joe Biden. Each incident has its differences, but the single most important fact is the same in both cases. Public officials had possession of classified documents after their term in office ended.
Of course, Republicans and Democrats focus more on the differences between the two situations rather than their similarities. Democrats who demonized Trump have defended Biden. Meanwhile, Republicans who minimized Trump’s misdeeds do not show the same attitude toward Biden. It’s difficult not to notice the political hypocrisy from both parties. Few focus on the larger issue: Presidents and Vice-Presidents need a better procedure for the handling of classified documents.
Nonetheless, this is just one of many different examples Americans routinely experience of what I call political hypocrisy. Examples from both political parties exist all around us. But political hypocrisy is not limited to politicians. Regular citizens engage in political hypocrisy as well. It’s distasteful when we discover it in others. Nobody likes it when somebody points out their hypocrisy. Indeed, this is the source of many family arguments over politics. It is rarely just simple disagreement between Republicans and Democrats. More often it is the accusations of hypocrisy leveled during a family gathering.
In recent years politics has divided many families. The reasons go deeper than mere political divisions. Most disagreements involve the application of values the family embraces as part of who they are. Those closest to us often have the best windows into our own inconsistencies. So, it’s easy for families to fight over politics, because it’s not just about politics. It’s about disagreements over values that we choose to define us.
Misunderstanding Political Hypocrisy
Most of us view hypocrisy as worse than outright disagreement. We respect our adversaries more when they show a consistency in their beliefs. They come across as intellectually honest even though we view them as misguided. However, this is the wrong approach. It stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of hypocrisy. It is actually a midway point between two different positions. Facing a difficult decision, our natural inclination is to follow our political bias. Still, it represents an openness to an opposing point of view.
Hypocrisy serves as a halfway house for complicated ideas. It manifests in many aspects of our life, but is most obvious in our political views. Politics is susceptible to hypocrisy, because it raises important questions about values. It challenges our personal identity when it positions two strongly held values against one another. We overcome hypocrisy when we prioritize one value over another.
Perhaps the most glaring example of political hypocrisy in American politics involved segregation in the South. Nearly all Americans believed in basic human rights, the Constitution, and equality under the law. Yet many also believed in the superiority of white people. The Civil Rights Movement forced Americans, especially in the South, to resolve the contradictions in their values. Most decided racial segregation was inconsistent with American values. Looking back, this seems like an inevitable decision. However, people can also embrace their inner demons. In 1925, Mussolini transformed Italy from an illiberal democracy into a Fascist Dictatorship in a single speech. He took responsibility for the assassination of socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti. Before the speech, many called him a hypocrite. Afterwards, he became something far worse.
Opportunities for Persuasion
Still, most of us struggle to accept political hypocrisy especially in those we love or simply respect. Deep down we think we simply need to point out their inconsistencies to persuade them. However, this approach is more likely to offend than to persuade them. Hypocrisy represents a conflict between two values we hold simultaneously. When we point out the hypocrisy in others, we assume they will prioritize their values the same way we do. However, this is never guaranteed. They might reconcile their own inconsistencies in a way that rejects our formerly shared values and beliefs.
Rather than pointing out inconsistencies, we should strive to fortify our shared values. We should look for opportunities to confirm areas of agreement in policy, but most of all in our collective values. Many will disagree with this approach. It will leave most disagreements unsettled for long periods of time. Moreover, we will sacrifice the satisfaction that comes from scoring political points in a heated debate. But debates rarely convince our adversaries. Instead, the loser more often feels humiliated and ashamed. Most of the time, they will become even more resistant to our ideas rather than amenable to them.
Too often debates deliver pyrrhic victories. The loser might recognize the inconsistencies in their arguments. But rather than concede defeat, they choose to reject the formerly shared values. This rejection makes them a more formidable opponent, because you can no longer appeal to common values. Yet this scenario is possibly the worst possible outcome. It deepens our divide and makes common ground far more difficult than before. So, rather than pointing out the hypocrisies in others, work on reinforcing those shared values whenever possible. It will take a lot longer. But it’s the best chance we have to persuade those we care about most.
About the Author
Justin Kempf manages this blog and hosts the podcast Democracy Paradox. He lives with his family in Carmel, Indiana.
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