Why the hypocrisy strategy works
I’ve been meaning to respond to M. LeBlanc’s post questioning the “hypocrisy strategy” since she wrote it, but it took awhile to get my thoughts together on it. The hypocrisy strategy in question is an attempt to undermine Republican credibility by showing how many Republican politicians are saying two things simultaneously about the stimulus bill. When they’re in D.C. and trying to hurt Obama, they say that the stimulus was a complete failure that didn’t do anything to create jobs or improve the economy. When they’re back home trying to stir up enthusiasm for themselves as legislators, they are praising the stimulus and, most importantly, taking credit for something they voted against. In some cases, they whip out giant checks full of money they have openly denounced and pretend that they’re the source of the funds. As M. notes, Rachel Maddow has been hitting this hard.
But as this round-up from Maddow’s show demonstrates, the argument is taking off, with multiple media outlets picking up the narrative, including conservative ones:
M.’s criticisms are twofold: She’s wary of calling people hypocrites, because this reduces complex human responses to soundbites, and that’s fundamentally dishonest. But also, she doesn’t think the Republicans are hypocrites on this:
There’s nothing hypocritical about what the Republicans are doing. I thought then, and continue to think, that the “gotcha”-ism of trying to get Republican governors to say they would reject the stimulus money was misguided. In fact, their world view is completely coherent if you look at what they do, rather than what they say. What they say is a string of platitudes that pretend that they actually care about the health and well-being of Americans. They have to do this, because they’re politicians. And Democrats let them get away with it, because they’re politicians.
But here’s where I get confused: That’s exactly what Maddow is doing. She’s pointing out that the string of platitudes expressed by Republicans are lies. The “hypocrisy” angle is about demonstrating the gap between their stated values (small government) and their actual values (I don’t care how big the pie is, I just don’t want anyone else to have any). I say this while actually agreeing with M. that there’s something deeply off about using the word “hypocrite” to describe this two-faced behavior. My preferred terms are “liar”, “full of shit”, and of course, “two-faced”.
Because what’s at stake here is a question not of values, but of facts. The Republicans could make a values argument against the stimulus bill, which is, “I don’t give a shit if the economy goes to shit and we have 40% unemployment, because I’m against government spending to stimulate the economy and worship the free market so thoroughly that I’m willing to screw the country for it.” You can see why the Republicans don’t particularly like the value argument, so what they’ve chosen to do instead is make claims about reality that are easy to disprove. Or one claim, really: That the stimulus didn’t work. The underlying assumption in that claim is that if the stimulus worked, it would be good policy, but since it doesn’t, they’re against it. They are, in other words, conceding that liberal values are superior are trying to say they perform better to those values because they have a better grasp of policy.*
This assertion they’re making is easy to disprove. But unfortunately for us, the mainstream media largely considers examining actual evidence to be not only boring, but unfair to the people who are lying. To demonstrate that one person is telling the truth and the other is lying, is, after all, “unbalanced” and showing “bias”. But if you point out that the people making these claims about reality don’t believe their own bullshit, our mainstream media considers that a story, because they can secure that into the “he said/he said” narrative they prefer. As a political move, pushing the “hypocrisy” angle is really good, because it’s a way to get the message that the stimulus worked past the gatekeepers who would otherwise never report that the stimulus worked. When you watch a segment on political hypocrisy of Republicans, or you read a column about it, the takeaway message buried inside it is that the stimulus worked. It’s really the only hope of getting that message out there.
It also reminds people that there would be no stimulus funds if Republicans had their way. The only other option that I see to drive home the point that electing Republicans means voting for turning the economy to shit and then getting no relief is to only spend stimulus funds in states or districts that elected Democrats. And while that would probably be effective in sending the message, it has troubling moral implications and it might create even more resentment against the “liberal elite”. (Though maybe not. And there may come a time to start considering these strategies.)
I agree with M. that the word “hypocrite” is inexact, because what’s at stake here is basic honesty, and Republicans by and large don’t have it. But that doesn’t mean that “hypocrite” is wrong, either. After all, the behavior M. describes—claiming one set of values while demonstrating a contrary set of values in your actions—is the definition of a hypocrite. I’d rather just call Republicans who do this liars, but the mainstream media won’t have that. But they’ll let you play with the word “hypocrite”, so we can round Republican behavior up to that, since it is true, if a bit unsatisfying.
*This is also their argument on health care reform. They claim they want it, but they are forced—forced!—to block it because the Democrats have bad ideas and they have better ones. That they didn’t pass those “better” ideas when they held power demonstrates niftily that they are lying shitbags.