The Pros and Cons of Hypocrisy

Governor Mitt Romney of MA
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Nothing seems to me to be rarer today then genuine hypocrisy. I greatly suspect that this plant finds the mild atmosphere of our culture unendurable. Hypocrisy has its place in the ages of strong belief: in which even when one is compelled to exhibit a different belief one does not abandon the belief one already has.
–Friedrich Nietzsche

All of this talk about Mitt Romney as regional manager of an Olive Garden (okay, technically CEO, but I think my version is funnier) has got me thinking again about how underrated political hypocrisy is. I’ve written before that a political figure’s personal hypocrisy is basically irrelevant when it comes to assessing his or her fitness for office, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. Romney practices public, not personal, hypocrisy. And rather than being irrelevant, I think it’s actually a sort of virtue.

The difference between public and personal hypocrisy is this: the personal hypocrite preaches a certain set of values that he believes should guide people’s personal lives, but does not live by them. (Example: Ted Haggard preaches that homosexuality is a sin, but sleeps with male prostitutes.) The public hypocrite may or may not live by the values he preaches, but that’s beside the point. What makes for public hypocrisy is a tendency to change whatever those stated values are, not because of a genuine and publicly stated change of heart, but because of political expedience.

Romney is a one of the most shameless and nakedly opportunistic public hypocrites in recent political history. He refuses to let any of his prior accomplishments or stated positions stand in the way of his quest for the Republican nomination, to the point where if you presented him with a poll suggesting that the majority of Republican primary voters believed that electricity was witchcraft, then within the week there would be a Romney-authored op-ed in the Washington Post decrying the homosexual lightbulb agenda. This sort of desperate pandering is not what we would typically characterize as virtuous behavior. But there is something rather comforting about it. It’s almost quaint.

Maybe it would seem a little spookier if Romney didn’t have an actual governing record to accompany his sweaty dance of Tea Party seduction. But he does, and it’s not so bad. It suggests a competent administrator who realizes that rational self-interest demands his constituents be relatively healthy, happy, and secure. Richard Nixon was more or less the same way: the low-key, pragmatic father of the EPA and detente with China when in office, but a dirty trickster and stoker of racial resentment when election season loomed.

Granted, “Nixonian” generally isn’t used in the complimentary sense. But imagine a presidential candidate who espoused Romney’s currently stated views and actually acted on them once in office. Suddenly, no principles starts to look preferable to bad principles.

That, I think, is the major thing we can learn about public virtue from Romney’s candidacy. When it comes to politics, most of us taking Walter’s position in The Big Lebowski: “I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.” But in a democratic system, where rational self-interest usually demands at least some deference to the interests of the voting public, savvy egoism is usually preferable to destructive principles. Of course, it should go without saying that committed (though not uncritical) attachment to well-reasoned principles trumps both nihilism and insanity. But when that’s too much to ask, I’ll go with public hypocrisy over “at least it’s an ethos.”

That said, there are cases where a remarkable lack of hypocrisy about one’s crazy, backwards beliefs can be a good thing. Example A: Our troglodytic friend, Rep. Louie Gohmert, arguing against the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell:

No question, Gohmert is a homophobe. He is not, however, a hypocrite. Were he a hypocrite, he would have done one of two things:

  • Decided that it was in his own interests to vote to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, regardless of his personal contempt for LGBT people. (Option A)
  • Continued to oppose DADT, but never reveal his real reasons for doing so. (Option B)

For sure, Option A, despite being hypocritical, would nonetheless be morally superior to the path he wound up taking. But Option B? In that case, he’s no longer adjusting his stated policy preferences out of political expediency. Instead, he’s just making dishonest arguments on behalf of those policy preferences. That’s a very different kind of public hypocrisy, one that we might well call McCainism. And I would argue that it’s the bad kind of public hypocrisy. Whereas Option A puts a political figure’s weak convictions — or total lack of conviction — in the service of a greater good, Option B is just another version of the same evil compounded by further dishonesty.

So let’s be glad that the Republican Party has both its Romneys and its Gohmerts. The Romneys harness the insanity that already exists in a way that, compared to how your Palins and Angles roll, looks relatively responsible. And when the rest of the party tries to veil the true intentions behind an undeniably unjust agenda by raising nonsensical procedural concerns, the Gohmerts are there to expose the party’s real reasoning to the light of day.

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