In a post-Gödelian world, where even mathematics cannot be consistent and complete at the same time, it is perhaps quixotic to demand that messier sciences like politics and morality, which we look to for total worldviews, also produce policy positions that are consistent with each other in every instance of an application. Still, we do at least require our leaders to attempt to avoid more egregious forms of hypocrisy, and for good reason. When politicians are allowed to say or do one thing and its opposite at the same time, we can no longer trust that they will follow through on the promises they have made to use as their constituents. We must be able to rely on our representatives to make their best efforts to advocate for our worldviews in a manner that respects the commitments they made when they took their oaths of office. Without such a relationship of trust in place, republican democracy is reduced to little more than a game of seeing who can get away with the foulest lies and betrayals.
But what do we do when we ourselves are the source of the hypocrisy that our leadership displays? How do we hold ourselves accountable? As I wrote last year in a piece titled Does Hypocrisy in Politics Even Matter Anymore?, the constant onslaught of accusations of hypocrisy from both the Right and the Left in our digital era means that we cannot hope to adjudicate every accusation fairly. That fact has in part motivated the rise of cancel culture, in which the sheer volume of accusations becomes the punishment for hypocrisy. It is a form of mob justice for an age in which hypocrisy is the new norm.
Unfortunately, we cannot make a “both sides” argument here because one side is clearly more blatantly hypocritical than the other. Whereas the Left at least struggles with the moral complexities of its own policy positions, as was seen during the primary season when over 25 candidates, around a dozen of whom were serious contenders, struggled to capture the attention of its perpetually fractured base, the Republicans are so unified in their comfort with the deeply hypocritical platform of the Trump administration that several states canceled their primaries altogether. It is almost as if the Right has realized that, now that accusations of political hypocrisy have been reduced to their most vapid form, a nearly pure aesthetic performance of moral outrage, there is no longer any need to hold true the moral intuition that our deeds and our words must match our stated principles. Whereas before the Trump era, conservatives at least paid lip service to the notion that the appearance of hypocrisy was something to be avoided, these days they cultivate hypocrisy as a rhetorical weapon with which to manipulate the left into bad faith arguments purely for the sake of gaining power, principles be damned. The result is a sense of moral drift that has saturated the GOP family tree from the deepest roots to tips of it’s loftiest leaves.
One of the most damaging and blatant hypocrisies the Right has embraced is its opportunistic use of “states’ rights” arguments to further its aims. Conservatives will trot these arguments out when it suits them, and abandon the states’ rights arguments when they are no longer useful.
For instance, take the recent hubbub over state mandates regarding wearing masks in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Conservatives have adamantly opposed such mandates on the grounds that states do not have the right to dictate what people wear on their bodies. Across the country, rightwingers have hit the streets to march for their right to not wear a mask in public. The internet has been filled with videos of conservatives vandalizing stores that sell masks, chiding mask wearers in public, and openly threatening violence against anyone who attempts to force them to wear a mask. But over the past decade, conservatives have repeatedly attempted to use state laws to dictate what clothing Muslim women can and cannot wear. For instance, in 2016, Georgia State Rep. Jason Spencer tried to push his state to adopt a bill that would have forbidden wearing masks or other face coverings in public. As Spencer explained at the time, “this bill is simply a response to constituents that do have concerns of the rise of Islamic terrorism, and we in the State of Georgia do not want our laws used against us.” Similar examples abound. On another level, the conservative anti-mask movement is hypocritical insofar as the demonstrators are advocating for their general right to control their bodies. But when it comes to abortion, conservatives routinely advocate for governments’ rights to dictate what people do with their bodies at both the state and federal levels. In each of these scenarios, conservatives use states’ rights arguments when it suits their purposes and then quickly abandon them when anti-states’ rights arguments are more advantageous.
A similar dynamic has played out in recent years over the question of what to do with Confederate monuments and monuments to slave owners across the country. As waves of anti-monument protests have swept the country year after year, conservative reactionaries at first argue that the statues should be taken down only via a process sanction by the local and state governments that have jurisdiction over the monuments. When it is pointed out to conservatives that a majority of the 63 Confederate statues, monuments or markers that have been removed in 2020 were removed by local government officials, conservatives immediately pivot to appeals to higher levels of government authority. To that end, state laws passed by Republican-led legislatures in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia over the past 20 years block local governments from removing monuments. And when state laws don’t protect monuments well enough, conservatives pivot again to advocating for federal-level protection for monuments. This year, conservatives got their wish. After the most recent wave of monument take-downs, President Trump signed an executive order protecting monuments state and local governments. Here is a quote from the executive order: “...many State and local governments appear to have lost the ability to distinguish between the lawful exercise of rights to free speech and assembly and unvarnished vandalism… State and local public officials’ abdication of their law enforcement responsibilities in deference to this violent assault must end.” Here again, we see the Right opportunistically using local rights and states’ rights arguments only so long as they benefit from them, and appealing immediately to higher levels of government as soon as state and local governments no longer agree with conservative ideologies.
For yet another example, look at the issue of gun control. It has become an almost sacred form of American pageantry for the Right to claim the moral high ground when applying states’ rights arguments to their narrow interpretation of the Second Amendment after every mass shooting. The right has taken this argument to the extreme, going so far as to carry assault rifles inside the Michigan state capitol building back in April during anti-lockdown protests. But as soon as a state threatens to exercise that same state right which conservatives have advocated for to add sensible gun control laws or reform bad gun laws, as the Michigan Capitol Commission later threatened to, conservatives are quick to abandon the states’ rights argument in favor of an appeal to the federal level Constitutional right enshrined in the Second Amendment. The Michigan Capitol Commission never did make a decision to ban carrying assault weapons inside the capitol building, by the way, in part due to pressure from conservative gun lobbyists. Similarly, the Colorado Supreme Court recently upheld a state ban on large-capacity magazines that was enacted in the wake of the Aurora shootings, deciding that limiting magazine capacity to 15 rounds does not violate citizens’ right to self-defense under the state constitution. This of course does not decide whether large-capacity magazines are legal under the U.S. Constitution, but that did not stop one gun-rights activist from saying, “You might as well take the Colorado Constitution and burn it in a barrel.” And in another example, as sweeping new gun laws went into effect in Virginia this month, which were enacted in the wake of the Virginia Beach shootings, the conservative Family Foundation of Virginia urged supporters to help “reverse the direction our Commonwealth is heading in and return to our foundational principles of respect for life, religious freedom, and limited government.” In each of these recent examples, conservatives have demonstrated their willingness to abandon their states’ rights arguments when they no longer suited their interests in the debates over gun control at the state level.
Such hypocrisy exists in almost every policy position of the current conservative ideology when it comes to relying on states’ rights arguments. Thankfully some conservatives have begun to realize that the GOP no longer represents their values. According to a recent Gallup poll, American’s party affiliation has swung decidedly in favor of the Democrats over the past 4 months. How much of this swing is related to the unprecedented levels of hypocrisy in the Republican Party is hard to say, but it is clear that the GOP’s abandonment of its core principles does not sit well with its base. As groups like Republicans Against Trump and The Lincoln Project gain steam ahead of the election this Fall, the GOP faces the prospect of wholesale collapse of their Party should the Democrats deliver the landslide victory that they seem to be moving quickly towards in both the Presidential race and Senate races. For the GOP to survive, it must reform itself and move away from the current unprincipled, power-hungry ethos that has taken over the Party. Though it might be too much to ask conservatives to be completely consistent in their worldviews and policy positions, at least when it comes to states rights issues, the American people would like to see them at least try a little harder.