Tu Quoque

A glib question has made the rounds of right-wing blogs over the last two years, asking “Where has the anti-war movement gone?” Megan McArdle uses the question today to introduce a potential answer.

As for me, I rarely bring up such trivialities, because the response you usually get from a leftist is “yeah, well why didn’t you guys on the right care about deficits and spending when Bush was in office?”

Despite the fact that I did care, the question stands.

Is the left hypocritical to care about ending the war until one of their own is in the White House? Yes. Is the right hypocritical to stay silent about the Bush/Republican spending and now throw a fit when a Democrat is in the White House? Yes. Is it doubly hypocritical to call out your opponents for behavior that you’ve just spent 8 years emulating? Yes. It’s a logical fallacy known as a tu quoque, but the question still stands; pointing out your opponents hypocrisy doesn’t excuse your own.

McArdle quotes a post from an antiwar activist who interviewed an academic researcher who has published on this topic. And I think the point is highly instructive:

“As long as voters remain highly polarized along party lines,” he responded by e-mail, “self-identified Democrats are unlikely to protest against Obama’s policies, even if they disagree with some of them strongly. A sudden end to the era of partisan polarization seems highly unlikely. So I would say that it is a very good bet that Obama will not confront large left-wing demonstrations. Of course, LBJ faced large left-wing demonstrations, but the party system was not polarized back then in the way that it is today.”

The same dynamics apply to the Tea Party: “Our analysis implies that the Tea Party will have a lower degree of organization and success in 2012 than it did in 2010. Because the Republicans won the House and made gains in the Senate, Tea Party activists feel much less threatened today than they did a year ago. So, while the Tea Party will obviously be around in 2012 — and it will likely factor into the Republican presidential contest — our analysis suggests that the Tea Party will not generate the same level of enthusiasm next year as it did last year.”

I disagree with his point about the Tea Party, though, as the “public face” of the government is invariably the Presidency, and that will continue through 2012 — including very contentious negotiations over budget matters and a Senate still in Democratic hands. However, should Obama be voted out of office and Republicans take over government, I believe no level of spending or debt will keep the Tea Party’s activism fully fueled.

I don’t play this “gotcha” game because I understand that it’s all deeply rooted in human tribal tendencies. We divide the world into “us vs. them”, and rationalize away the bad things “our guy” does because there must have been a good reason for it, while impugning the motives of what “their guy” does because he’s obviously got ulterior motives. Libertarians, IMHO, are a bit more naturally attuned to see this behavior for what it is, because almost everyone in the world is a “them” politically to us. However, try criticizing Ron Paul, or the Liberty Dollar, or suggesting that Atlas Shrugged might not be a great and insightful movie*, and watch the knives come out as you become a “them”.

Rather we should accept that this tendency exists, so that we can try to guard against it in our own hearts. The answer to being called out for hypocrisy shouldn’t be to point out that your opponents are also hypocritical as if it’s an excuse — it should be to evaluate your own hypocrisy and stamp it out — even if the means you’ll need to go against “your party” to do so.