One of the most disheartening developments in civic life in recent years is the widespread failure (or refusal) of so many people to apply the same standards to their own side that they demand the other side follow.
A too-little observed distinction to be made on this subject is that sometimes it makes sense for rules of political standards to change, but that bedrock standards of ethics should not. In the former case, it can sometimes – rarely, but yes, sometimes – be reasonable to accept that once-valued understandings have been superseded and to act accordingly. Thus, once Democrats exercised the “nuclear option” for appellate judicial nominees (allowing no filibuster to permanently block their confirmations), and showed no honest commitment to reversing their position if they ever return to power, then it made sense for Republicans to use the rules change to their own benefit.
(In this instance, Republicans made the extra, legitimate case that the use of the nuclear option merely restored an earlier, unwritten understanding that precluded permanent filibusters against judicial nominees. In other words, they were using formal rules merely to restore what had once been readily accepted, uncontroversial practice.)
On the other hand, if a standard is based on bedrock ethical or moral principles (not just social mores, but crucial normative values and truths), then no temporary political goal should justify their violation. People may argue whether adultery should prohibit someone from holding public office, but absolutely nobody should argue that sexual abuse of a minor can be excused. If – repeat, if – a significantly older man initiates clearly sexual contact with, say, a 15-year-old, that man has forfeited all claims on public office and must look to God, not civil society, for potential forgiveness.
Alas, though, on the Right, we see Evangelicals who say that bad personal conduct should not be a disqualifier for high office rise in just a few short years from the 30 percent range to the 70 percent range – largely due to their sudden embrace of Donald Trump, with his long record of moral, ethical, and business transgressions. On the Left, a large subset of activists has long embraced (explicitly or tacitly) Saul Alinsky’s evil instruction to “make the enemy live up to its own book of rules” while regarding no rules as binding on oneself.
So the same Left that excused Ted Kennedy’s lechery and his Chappaquiddick cowardice for decades turned around and treated as a mortal sin the significantly tamer allegations (even if true, which I firmly believe they weren’t) leveled by Anita Hill against Clarence Thomas – and they did another moral back-flip by excusing and/or willfully ignoring the far, far worse conduct of former President Bill Clinton.
This hypocrisy is prevalent on both sides. This week we see a significant number (though hardly a majority) of conservatives saying not just that they don’t believe the accusations against former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, but that they still will support Moore even if all the original, significant allegations involving him and minors are true. In the same breath, some of those conservatives say that liberal Sen. Al Franken’s (alleged and semi-admitted) behavior toward then-nude model Leeann Tweeden should indeed be disqualifying – even though, objectively speaking, Franken’s inexcusable and loutish behavior towards Tweeden is a tad less objectionable, morally speaking, than Moore’s alleged disrobing and touching of a 14-year-old.
(This is absolutely not this column’s intention to accept or reject the allegations against Moore, but only to note the phenomenon exhibited by some of his defenders. And I certainly don’t excuse Franken.)
Rather than choosing immutable principles and then applying them evenhandedly to both sides, too many Americans now (in effect) “choose teams” and then change their principles depending on whose team is helped or hurt.
At some level, this sort of tendency toward double standards is endemic to human nature. Much of it is not really dishonest, but merely a sign of wishful thinking combined with a lack of intellectual rigor. People naturally want to believe the leaders into whom they have put their (civic) faith are actually admirable, and are loathe to admit their judgments were wrong. And, of course, psychological studies have confirmed that “confirmation bias” is a normal part of the human psyche.
Yet it seems (this is a strong impression, but not easily a measurable fact) that what is endemic has become epidemic, and that what once was a subconscious bias has become an open and angry insistence that even conscious hypocrisy is defensible.
There’s much more to say about this than a column this length can possibly address. For now, let’s at least try to self-police better than we do today – because a society that abandons observance of what are supposed to be immutable principles is a society in danger of collapse.
Quin Hillyer (@QuinHillyer) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former associate editorial page editor for the Washington Examiner, and is the author of Mad Jones, Heretic, a satirical literary novel published in the fall of 2017.
If you would like to write an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, please read our guidelines on submissions here.