Who Cares About Hypocrisy?

But even beyond that, hypocrisy provides a neat, clean, easy to grasp, nonpartisan rubric by which to pass judgment on public officials. With hypocrisy, you don’t need to get into the policy weeds or take a stand that could be considered ideologically slanted. It’s not the misbehavior being denounced; it’s the discrepancy between what someone professes to believe and his behavior. The existence of the gap is what offends.

Opinion Debate
What should the Biden administration prioritize?

  • Edward L. Glaeser, an economist, writes that the president should use his infrastructure plan as an opportunity to “break the country out of its zoning straitjacket”
  • The Editorial Board argues the administration should return to the Iran nuclear deal, and that “at this point, the hard-line approach defies common sense.”
  • Jonathan Alter writes that Biden needs to do now what F.D.R. achieved during the depression: “restore faith that the long-distrusted federal government can deliver rapid, tangible achievements.”
  • Gail Collins, Opinion columnist, has a few questions about gun violence: “One is, what about the gun control bills? The other is, what’s with the filibuster? Is that all the Republicans know how to do?”

By these rules, the safest political course would seem to be to avoid championing any kind of standards and admit you’re an amoral shark driven solely by personal ambition. Some would argue that this is what Mr. McConnell has done with a fair degree of success.

In practice, politics runs on hypocrisy. Witness the Republican deficit hawks who learned to love the budget-busting tax cuts of 2017. Or all those “family values” voters who, confronted with the personal degeneracy of Donald Trump, suddenly stopped fretting about the character or morality of elected officials.

This inconstancy works in part because, for all their professed loathing of hypocrisy, most voters will forgive a boatload of it if they like what their elected officials are getting done. Republicans may not relish being called hypocrites, but they recognize that there are more pressing issues. Just ask Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

Making rationalization easier, hypocrisy is often in the eye of the beholder. People engaged in hypocritical behavior will indulge in elaborate mental gymnastics to convince themselves that they aren’t in fact guilty of such.

A similar dynamic holds true for the electorate. It is an enduring political truism that voters tend to overlook, excuse or even embrace serious sins committed by members of their own political tribe, even as minor infractions by the opposition provoke a supernova of self-righteous outrage. Plenty of Democrats who were furious with Mr. McConnell for blowing up the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees were considerably more tolerant when Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, did away with it for lower court and executive branch nominees in 2013.

So it is that hypocrisy risks making hypocrites of those who denounce hypocrisy.

As for Mr. Biden, he should absolutely continue his outreach to Republican officials — phoning them, inviting them over for White House chats, sending them home with chocolate chip cookies. But he should also keep moving forward with his agenda, with or without their support.

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