It is hardly surprising that politicians are sometimes opportunistic rather than principled. We even expect to hear outright hypocrisy from the lips of our leaders, at least every now and then. Even if these things are not surprising in kind, however, hypocrisy can be of such an extreme degree that it retains the ability to shock.
No one can tally all of the examples of hypocrisy in American politics, of course, but it is important to try to keep an ongoing catalog of the worst and most dangerous examples of political dishonesty.
In doing so, it is not at all helpful to pretend that the frequency and intensity of the dishonesty is bipartisan or evenly apportioned between Democrats and Republicans. Now that Republicans have become so brazen in their dishonesty, it is important to say so.
I will, however, honor convention in at least a small way by noting that Democrats are certainly not angels, such that a few types of hypocrisy are truly equal-opportunity offenses. The most obvious of these is attitudes toward the filibuster, where one could simply record the impassioned speeches from one party and put the words in the mouth of the other party when the tables have turned in the Senate.
It is even possible that Democrats will soon talk seriously about shutting down the government to try to score political points. There, however, it would be inaccurate to describe such a strategy as hypocritical, because the Democrats would be saying quite openly that they are taking an illegitimate page from the Republican playbook. (They also lack the numbers to succeed in doing this, so it would truly be a symbolic gesture.)
That is, the Democrats would not be saying: “We are now pretending to believe the Republicans’ theory that it is good to shut down the government, which we once excoriated them for doing.” Instead, they would be saying: “This is a terrible way to govern, but this is how Republicans taught us to live in the opposition. Karma can be painful.”
The jaw-dropping examples of utter hypocrisy and dishonesty now emanate reliably from the right side of the political aisle. This asymmetry, moreover, is not a coincidence. Republican ideology is built around what sounds like a clear set of principles, but those principles give way whenever Republicans feel the need to do so in order to achieve their real goals.
Democrats, who do not pretend to be working from a Grand Theory of Everything, are pragmatists and thus have not set traps for themselves in which they would be forced to admit that they are violating some grand principle.
In any event, it is essential to try to keep track of the worst examples of Republican hypocrisy in order to understand what is happening in American politics.
The Wonderful World in Which We Are Free to Choose
One category of Republican hypocrisy is certainly not new, but it takes many different forms and morphs over time. The conservative movement wraps itself in words like liberty and freedom to try to pretend that its opponents are in favor of oppression and enslavement.
This embrace of freedom of choice, however, only matters when it comes to economic relations. By now, we barely even notice the rank hypocrisy of Republicans saying that choice is essential for buying shoes or a beach condo, whereas when a young woman does not want to continue a pregnancy that resulted from being raped by her mother’s boyfriend, many Republicans are fine with the idea of eliminating all choice in the matter.
But even beyond that blind spot, the Republicans’ commitment to freedom of choice is blithely opportunistic. Conservatives (especially those who identify themselves as libertarians) would allow people to make and enforce any contracts, with virtually no limitations by the government. This can sound good in the abstract, but it is a cover for only certain types of free choice.
Under this theory of freedom of choice, restaurant owners could refuse to serve customers (or hire workers) for any reason—including race, nationality and so on. Businesses would be allowed to pollute without consequence and to sell unsafe products. Let the buyer beware! If people really care about safety, this argument would have it, then they will choose not to buy dangerous goods. And if they do not have the resources necessary to find out which goods are dangerous, too bad for them.
That this kind of freedom of choice is actually bad for business does not dissuade true believers, for some reason. A world in which we cannot trust that the goods on sale will not kill us, after all, is a world in which we will cautiously choose to buy fewer goods. But the supposedly pro-business party seems to have no trouble taking the short view, damaging commerce in the name of supposedly free choice.
The most prominent current use of the freedom and liberty theme is, of course, in the Republicans’ yearslong effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Why do they hate that law so much? To hear them tell it, it is all because the government (and the federal government at that) told people that there were limits on the types of contracts that they could write.
It evidently does not matter to Republicans that people will often engage in choices that they later regret. We are not allowed even to talk about such predictable mistakes, because that supposedly amounts to paternalism. Better to let people buy health insurance policies that are cheap but that do not cover preventive care, only to suffer the consequences later.
And even though everyone will end up needing medical care at some point, we are told that people must be allowed the freedom to be uninsured if they currently feel like being so.
Most importantly, this cramped notion of free choice conveniently ignores the fact that some parties to contracts are more powerful than others, which means that “agreement” to the terms of a contract is often a one-sided affair.
Beyond this, Republicans are more than willing to ignore the repeated arguments from ethicists and policy analysts who point out that economic security is the basis for being able to make truly free choices in other aspects of our lives. For true conservatives, a person who is free to accept a low-wage job—at whatever the market will bear, because of course there would be no government-mandated minimum wage—is truly free, even if he cannot exercise any other rights.
Freedom of choice, then, turns out to be a nice slogan that only applies in some situations for the benefit of some people. When millions of Americans lose their health insurance coverage and start to suffer the consequences, they will be enjoying their freedom not to have been given the ability to buy government-mandated insurance coverage. Liberty, indeed.
America First, but Not Really
Republicans have built their brand for decades around the idea that they are the only truly patriotic Americans. Conservative isolationists disdained liberals for not putting America first, whereas conservative internationalists criticized liberals for being unwilling to win at any cost.
The most consistent way in which this has played out during my lifetime is that Republicans would fault Democrats for being insufficiently concerned with what is best for America. The silliest version of this posturing was the Republicans’ freak-out at the idea of the Supreme Court citing foreign legal sources. How dare anyone imagine that we could learn anything from foreigners!
Republicans also savaged former President Barack Obama whenever they could make even the most implausible claim that he was being too solicitous to foreigners. Negotiating a deal with Iran was presumptively bad in their eyes because it gave the Iranians some things that they wanted. (For the party that supposedly now cares about “the art of the deal,” Republicans have a rather odd and childish idea that negotiations include all take and no give.)
When President Obama once greeted a foreign leader by leaning over to talk with him, Republicans called this an obsequious “bowing down” to an alien government. And Republicans (including all of the presidential candidates in 2012 and 2016) accused Obama of apologizing too much for the (very real) errors that our country has committed.
In the 1960s, this kind of mindless jingoism took the form of the slogan: “America, love it or leave it!” (The more recent versions of this are: “You Democrats always blame America first,” and “Why do you hate freedom?”) And anyone who fell afoul of Republican belligerence on foreign policy was met with: “Why don’t you move to Russia?”
Until, of course, Donald Trump became president. Now, the Republicans’ leader responds to a description of Russia’s president as a murderer by saying that “we’ve got a lot of killers” too, and asking: “What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”
Where was the Republican outrage machine? At most, there was a bit of grumbling from the party of America First. If Obama, Clinton (Bill or Hillary), or any Democrat had ever said anything close to what Trump said, Republicans would have called for show trials leading to the execution of the traitors.
But it is not just a matter of what Trump says. We know that Russia intervened in the election on his behalf, and we know that Trump’s closest advisors have had very close contacts with the Russian government. The evidence is currently inadequate to make a definitive case in court against Trump, but the Republicans would gladly have acted on even 1 percent of such evidence when Obama was in office.
The connections between Trump and Russia, and Republicans’ willingness to look the other way, led a colleague of mine to suggest a simple Transitive Property of Trump: “Republicans equal Trump; Trump equals Russia; ergo Republicans equal Russia.”
As I put it in a column last month: “Maybe the Trump-era equivalent of red-baiting will be called orange-baiting, turning everything into a test of American patriotism by impugning the motives of those who can be described as giving Trump and Putin what they want.”
At the very least, Democrats are the ones who can now say, “If you like Trump so much, why don’t you move to Russia?”
A Few Other Examples
These two categories of Republican hypocrisy—regarding freedom of choice and love of country—are the most outstanding examples of dishonesty currently on offer from America’s conservatives. Still, a few more examples are illustrative of how extreme the party’s shamelessness has become.
The party that countenanced one of its members shouting “You lie!” at President Obama during a State of the Union address now complains that people who mock Donald Trump are defiling the dignity of the office of the president.
The party that constantly talks about local control and allowing people to be free from the dictates of far-off politicians is now engaged in a campaign to have state governments override local laws regarding civil rights, minimum wages and so on. Republicans love home rule unless it leads to something they dislike.
And it is a certainty that if the Supreme Court overrules Roe v. Wade, Republicans will begin discussing a national anti-abortion law, no matter what some states might wish to do. Yes, Trump and other Republicans have claimed thus far that abortion should be decided at the state level, but why should we imagine that they will hold themselves to that supposedly principled federalist stance when they have the votes to pass a national ban?
Many commentators have noted that the party that has loudly claimed to believe that the president had too much power from 2009-17 now cheers on Trump’s executive orders. What has been less noted is that Republicans’ efforts to undermine health and safety regulations would empower courts to supersede the executive branch: “In what looks like bizarre overreach, it would invite judges to assert their views over the expertise of regulators.” So much for not trusting unelected judges, and so much for complaints about “legislating from the bench”!
What do Republicans believe in? As their new health care plan reminds us all too clearly, regressive tax and spending cuts are what Republicans are all about. Also, allowing businesses to scam consumers and exploit workers, and controlling women’s sexual lives.
But none of those core beliefs are popular. Instead, Republicans have to pretend that they care about free choice (but not really), putting Americans first (unless it is inconvenient to do so) and reining in big government (until they control it).
This has been going on for decades. Trump makes it worse, but he also makes it clearer what is happening. Will Americans finally see through the dishonesty?
Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar, a professor of law at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Taxation Law and Policy Research Institute at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He teaches tax law, tax policy, contracts, and law and economics. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs and Social Security.