Hypocrisy and Nihilism

That is the subject of an op-ed in the LA Times from a couple weeks back by, again, Jacob T. Levy, which has forced a reconsideration on my part.

I’ve long considered hypocrisy one of the most unforgivable sins in all of political discourse. To see pundits rail for years against policy X while party A is in power, only to suddenly discover its merits in the second week of a November when party B takes control is unbearable, as is witnessing policy Y be justified by an appeal to the very values it abrogates. War is peace, freedom is slavery, we have always been at war with Eastasia, etc etc. 

To be sure, I’m not innocent here either; we’re all guilty to some extent of mood affiliated beliefs. What upsets me is the shamelessness of some political actors when it comes to hypocrisy, and I’ve reached a place where I tend to dismiss any sort of argument coming from a blatant hypocrite. But this is wrong and short sighted.

One example: I have long had a particular loathing of Thomas Jefferson, a man who could talk about the rights of man and rail against tyranny while also owning human beings. (Please, no arguments about how he hated slavery and wished it would disappear, but was trapped by the times. As is told in Daniel Walker Howe’s brilliant history What Hath God Wrought, as the slavery debate heated up in the early 1800s, Jefferson repeatedly wrote in support of the South’s right to slavery.) 

But what this article reminds me is that, as distasteful as hypocrisy is, it’s far preferable to nihilism. It is better to imperfectly aspire to some values than to aspire to nothing at all.

And that seems to be the situation we are currently in when it comes to our political leadership. The particular example in the article is the Trump interview with Bill O’Reilly, in which the President dismisses arguments against Vladimir Putin by insisting that we aren’t so innocent either. 

Of course, it’s true that America has a problematic history of clandestine operations and bloody interventions (when it served our interest). But we don’t gun down journalists in the street. We don’t poison political rivals with radioactivity. To equivocate the US with that type of behavior is disturbing.

I was never a fan of George W. Bush’s freedom rhetoric; I thought it was overplayed and often silly. But now we have a President who doesn’t talk about these kinds of values at all. Trump’s main themes are safety and jobs, and he rarely speaks of broader principles. These are the kind of justifications we are used to hearing from illiberal strongmen: I will keep you safe, I will keep you fed, I will give you jobs.

One of the themes of Francis Fukuyama’s work is that ideas have power. The invention of the liberal democracy was not the inevitable result of the forward march of history. It required the intersection of several independent factors, one of which was a particular idea about the legitimacy of government requiring the consent of the governed.

Imagine that the Declaration of Independence made no mention of inalienable rights or freedom; or imagine there never was any such document at all in the course of the War of Independence. After all, to some extent the document was propaganda; many of the Founders were well enough off and only wanted to increase their relative status. Would our history have played out the same?

I think the answer is no. To be sure, the values laid out in the Declaration didn’t prevent a shameful program of Indian extermination in the following decades, nor another century of slavery. But without such rhetoric, would the franchise have been extended so early in spite of the Founders skepticism of democracy? Would the Second Founding have begun in the aftermath of the Civil War?  Would the postwar liberal international order even exist if the War of Independence had been fought to the cry of ‘America First’?

It’s not enough to point to the hypocrisy of political leaders and walk away in disgust. In doing so, we run the risk of falling prey to political nihilism, which is incompatible with liberal democracy and a belief in any kind of progress. If this nihilism becomes the political mainstream, we really will be no different from Russia or any other illiberal polity.


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