How political tribalism is leading to more political hypocrisy

Why We Wrote This

With every tweet recorded, it’s easy to find examples of rampant political hypocrisy (especially of the other side). But sometimes what looks like hypocrisy is a misunderstanding of someone’s views.

Tom Brenner/Reuters
President Donald Trump participates in a prayer before speaking at an Evangelicals for Trump coalition launch at the King Jesus International Ministry in Miami, Jan. 3, 2020.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 4 Min. )

Today it seems, hypocrisy is particularly rampant – and there’s a reason. “It’s a function of our extreme partisan polarization,” says the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato. “Hypocrisy is the lifeblood of politics.” 

In behaving hypocritically, each political “tribe” can argue it is serving a greater good: furthering its goals. During President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, liberal feminists stood by him, despite his predatory history toward women. His support for women’s rights won him a pass.

For Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, it meant blocking an Obama Supreme Court pick in 2016, saying voters should have input in an election year. When asked if the Senate would consider a high court nominee if there’s a vacancy in 2020, Senator McConnell didn’t hesitate: “Oh, we’d fill it,” he said.

“It is pragmatic for politicians to act like hypocrites during periods of hyperpartisanship, since they otherwise might be harassed or expelled from their group for disloyalty,” writes Jay Van Bavel, an associate professor of psychology.

Has hypocrisy reached the point where voters will just disengage? That’s hardly likely, given the strong views about President Donald Trump, for and against. Turnout in the 2018 elections was the highest for a midterm since 1914. Turnout in November could shatter modern records.

Hypocrisy in politics is a time-honored tradition. Republicans slam Democrats for doing and saying the very things they once did and said, and vice versa. 

Years before he became president, Donald Trump railed against President Barack Obama’s aggressive use of executive power. Today, President Trump faces criticism for doing the same. President Obama ramped up drone attacks against militants and terrorists, but when Mr. Trump ordered the killing by drone of Iraqi Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who had much American blood on his hands, Democrats cried foul. 

In 1998, Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York declared the impeachment of President Bill Clinton “an undoing of a national election.” Today, Republicans say the same of Democrats over the Trump impeachment, which Congressman Nadler – now Judiciary Committee chairman – calls “imperative.”

The list is endless. And the rise of the internet, which captures every tweet and video clip in perpetuity, makes it easier than ever to catch hypocrites in the act. Which is pretty much every politician, and plenty of voters too. 

But today, it seems, hypocrisy is particularly rampant – and there’s a reason. “It’s a function of our extreme partisan polarization, and really, it justifies anything,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “Hypocrisy is the lifeblood of politics.” 

In behaving hypocritically, each political “tribe” can argue it is serving a greater good: the furthering of its political goals. During his impeachment, liberal feminists stood by President Bill Clinton, despite his predatory history toward women. His support for women’s rights won him a pass from them. 

For Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, it meant blocking an Obama Supreme Court pick in 2016, saying voters should have input in an election year. Yet when asked more recently if the Senate would consider a high court nominee if there’s a vacancy in 2020, Senator McConnell didn’t hesitate: “Oh, we’d fill it,” he said, to the surprise of no one.

“It is pragmatic for politicians to act like hypocrites during periods of hyperpartisanship, since they otherwise might be harassed or expelled from their group for disloyalty,” writes Jay Van Bavel, an associate professor of psychology at New York University, in an email. 

Indeed, the only House Republican to call for impeachment proceedings against Mr. Trump, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, was so ostracized by fellow Republicans that he quit the party and became an independent. 

All the hypocrisy may seem enough to make one cynical. And some may wonder if the level of hypocrisy, on both sides, has reached the point where voters will just disengage.

That’s hardly likely, political analysts say, given the strong views about Mr. Trump, for and against. Witness the big turnout during the 2018 midterm elections – 49.2% of eligible voters, the highest recorded rate for a midterm since 1914. 

Turnout in November could shatter modern records. But no matter the winner, expectations are low that today’s hyperpartisanship will end anytime soon. A recent Battleground Poll, sponsored by Georgetown University, found that the average American voter believes the nation is two-thirds of the way to the edge of civil war.

The poll also showed that voters hold contradictory views on what they’re looking for: More than 80% agree that political leaders should strive for “compromise and common ground” – but they’re also “tired of leaders compromising their values and ideals and want leaders who will stand up to the other side.” 

The current standoff over impeachment presents a singular test of America’s ability to self-govern, as established norms – such as cooperating with subpoenas – fall by the wayside, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. 

“We’re seeing a point at which we’re calling into question whether our institutions can function the way they were intended to function in a polarized age,” Professor Jamieson says. 

But in other ways, commonly cited examples of hypocrisy may in fact represent a misunderstanding of the people who hold seemingly contradictory views. Strong support for Mr. Trump by white Evangelicals is one case, Ms. Jamieson says. 

Mr. Trump’s morally dubious past, including marital infidelity and vulgar talk about women, may seem to disqualify him from support by religious conservatives. But that ignores the edict to “hate the sin, love the sinner” and the biblical tradition of forgiveness. 

Furthermore, Ms. Jamieson notes, Mr. Trump is delivering for this key constituency – foremost, nominating anti-abortion judges. “He’s running on promises kept,” she says. “That’s the opposite of hypocrisy.” 

The forgiveness argument plays down the recent mini-revolt within the evangelical world, as seen in the recent editorial in Christianity Today supporting Trump’s impeachment and removal from office, citing “gross immorality and ethical incompetence.” The editor-in-chief, Mark Galli, argued for consistency; the publication had supported impeachment for both President Richard Nixon and Mr. Clinton, also on moral grounds. But the Trump editorial was met with vocal opposition from white Evangelicals and only quiet praise – though the magazine did net 3,000 new subscriptions.

To Republican elites who oppose Mr. Trump, and are working for his defeat in November, evangelical supporters are a prime target.

The first video produced by the so-called Lincoln Project sews together clips of Mr. Trump speaking of faith – including his Jan. 3 address to Evangelicals in Miami – with clips of him crudely attacking opponents.

But such activism may be counterproductive. When presented with contradictory information, people are motivated to reduce feelings of discomfort, and “may therefore double down on their beliefs or ignore evidence that their behavior is inconsistent with the past,” says Professor Van Bavel, an expert on the “partisan brain.” 

“Under conditions of polarization there is a strong pressure to follow the leader,” Mr. Van Bavel says. “This is especially true for people who have authoritarian tendencies. They loyally follow the leader and pressure others to follow the leader as well.” 

Positions on issues – except for abortion – almost become secondary. “Everything is seen through the lens of how you view Trump,” says Republican pollster David Winston. 

That explains how the president has been able to bend Republicans to new positions on tariffs, foreign policy, rising debt and deficits, and immigration. Amid polarization, there’s little room for dissent.

“Trump is partly a cause and partly a consequence of polarization,” says Mr. Van Bavel. “He was voted into office by the overwhelming support of Republicans, in part because many of them did not want to support a Democrat.”

“Once in office, Trump has been aggressively partisan in many of his actions,” he continues. “This has ensured that he maintains the fierce support of Republicans, even as it undercuts any potential support he might obtain from Democrats or independents. We are in a vicious cycle of hyperpartisanship that is self-reinforcing.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.