Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Political Partisanship and Hypocrisy

There's a particular brand of conservative punditry that goes roughly along the lines of,
  1. Liberals used to oppose X when Republicans were in charge;

  2. Liberals now support Y, or at least aren't vocally supporting it;

  3. X and Y are the same thing;

  4. Therefore liberals are hypocrites;

  5. "Republicans rule, liberulz dr00l!"

I am going to pick on Ross Douthat, not because his is the worst example of the phenomenon - go read a random column by Mark Thiessen and you'll see he's far from it - but because it illustrates (and to an extent acknowledges) some of the problems with that type of column. I must also wonder, do columns structured in this fashion convince anyone of anything? Are their authors preaching to the choir? Phoning it in, using cheap tricks to pad out a column that otherwise wouldn't merit more than a few sentences? Hoping to tap into Ann Coulter's readership? With Thiessen I get the impression that he is incapable of perceiving that his arguments aren't well-supported, but with Douthat I get the sense that he knows what he's doing.

Douthat opens his column,
When George W. Bush was president of the United States, it was an article of faith among liberals that many of his policies were not just misguided but unconstitutional as well. On issues large and small, from the conduct of foreign policy1 to the firing of United States attorneys,2 the Bush White House pushed an expansive view of executive authority, and Democrats pushed right back — accusing it of shredding the constitution, claiming near-imperial powers3 and even corrupting the lawyers working in its service.

That was quite some time ago. Last week the Obama White House invoked executive privilege to shield the Justice Department from a Congressional investigation into a botched gunrunning operation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The previous week the White House invoked powers that President Obama himself had previously claimed to lack, unilaterally revising the nation’s immigration laws by promising to stop enforcing them against a particularly sympathetic population....4

[A]part from [Obama's] disavowal of waterboarding (an interrogation practice the Bush White House had already abandoned), almost the entire Bush-era wartime architecture has endured: rendition is still with us, the Guantánamo detention center is still open, drone strikes have escalated dramatically, and the Obama White House has claimed the right — and, in the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, followed through on it — to assassinate American citizens without trial.5
Douthat claims first that this supposed shift of "liberal" support represents "predictable hypocrisies when one side passes from critiquing authority to embodying it". There are, of course, many problems with this type of reflexive accusation of hypocrisy:
  1. It's not hypocritical to change your mind. Sometimes the benefit of a policy that seems ill-advised becomes more apparent over time, the excesses that might occur under an expansive interpretation of the policy are avoided, or the cost of switching to a superior policy rejected by a prior administration exceeds the benefit of its belated implementation, so you accept the world the way it is and move on. (In the context of his essay Douthat notes, "Sometimes it was the original partisan critique that was overdrawn" - although he tends to view any criticism of the Bush as "partisan" even if it came from conservative or libertarian quarters.) If "I changed my mind" is proof of hypocrisy, the Republicans are about to nominate one of the biggest hypocrites in the history of politics. But a genuine change of heart is not hypocrisy.

  2. An opponent's hypocrisy does not prove you right. Douthat's argument highlights this fact. If we're talking about "partisan about-faces", with the party in charge changing its position based solely upon its assumption of power, we're speaking of the compromise of principle in the pursuit of power. That tells us nothing about the relative merits of the competing policy positions.

  3. You should not confuse issue fatigue with hypocrisy. It is not particularly difficult to muster or provoke outrage, but it's difficult to sustain outrage. As people get used to the status quo, as other issues arise, people lose track of past outrages that are no longer part of the public conversation, and are no longer being covered by the media. Were Douthat to have actually read the better critiques of Bush's expansion of political power, whether from liberal or conservative sources, he would have found warning after warning to the effect that once a controversy passes it is unlikely that any future President will give up powers obtained by his predecessor.

  4. People become accustomed to the status quo. Related to issue fatigue, once a period of grief or outrage has passed, people tend to become accustomed to their new circumstances. Douthat should know that - no small part of conservatism is a resistance to change, and once you are accustomed to the status quo anything else represents a change.

One of the weaknesses of this type of argument, somewhat acknowledged by Douthat and often exemplified by Thiessen, is triumphalism: the declaration that your opponent's hypocrisy, real or imagined, somehow vindicates your position. That's a much easier approach to take than making a convincing, substantive argument in favor of your position, but from a substantive standpoint it's nothing more than hot air.

Douthat in effect shines a spotlight on the weakness of the "hypocrisy" argument when he claims,
Today those incentives are strongest for Democrats — visible in their support for Obama’s more dubiously constitutional forays, and also in the widespread liberal attempt to explain his struggles by casting him as a Gulliver tied down by an antiquated system of government.
Hyperbole aside, Douthat's observations of Obama's "more dubiously constitutional forays"6 are the continuation of Bush-era security policies, invoking executive privilege (with no explanation of how thet assertion might be a "dubious constitutional foray"), and "revising the nation’s immigration laws by promising to stop enforcing them against a particularly sympathetic population". That's some pretty weak tea.
1. If by "the conduct of foreign policy", Douthat is referring to starting a war of choice in Afghanistan, creating black hole prisons, torturing prisoners in U.S. custody and the like, well, yes... that was controversial. Contrary to Douthat's suggestion, "Republican" and "conservative" are not synonyms, and this was not a context in which liberals and conservatives lined up neatly on opposite sides of the argument. There were and are plenty of conservatives who deplore Bush's foreign policy, who deplore the manner in which Congress has effectively shifted war-making authority to the President, and who don't believe that fighting wars of choice to reinvent nation states that pose no direct threat to us represents either good foreign policy or a wise use of taxpayer dollars. Douthat also knows that the Democratic Party on the whole either acquiesced or supported many of Bush's policies.

2. I expect that Douthat is referring to the Bush era U.S. Attorney scandal because, for the first time, the Obama Administration has invoked executive privilege and that was the tool Bush used to hide his reasons for firing U.S. Attorneys who for the most part appeared to be doing their jobs properly - apparently due to their refusal to initiate or bury criminal charges based upon the suspect's party affiliation. But there's nothing new about an assertion of executive privilege.

There's also nothing wrong with being suspicious of a President's assertion of executive privilege - the President is not entitled to a presumption of innocence and I think we'll enjoy a healthier political environment if the President is concerned that a resort to executive privilege will bring both attention and heat than one in which people shrug and accept that they may never learn the truth about a controversy. Arguably that skepticism is more likely to manifest itself as melodrama or demagoguery if the President comes from the other political party, but if that's the price of a healthy level of skepticism so be it.

3. The concept of "the imperial presidency" was popularized by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. back in the early 70's to describe the growth in Presidential powers over the course of U.S. history. As for its more recent use, would Douthat see the following as an example of an over-the-top attack on a President for supposedly "claiming near-imperial powers":
[The President] exercised the powers of the imperial presidency to the utmost in the area in which those powers are already at their height — in our dealings with foreign nations. Unfortunately, the record of the administration has not been a happy one, in light of its costs to the Constitution and the American legal system. On a series of different international relations matters, such as war, international institutions, and treaties, [the President] has accelerated the disturbing trends in foreign policy that undermine notions of democratic accountability and respect for the rule of law.
Wow - what a perfect example of somebody attacking the President as adopting policies that are not only misguided but also unconstitutional, of claiming near-Imperial powers. Except you know what? That was John Yoo, architect and perennial defender of some of the Bush Administration's greatest excesses, demagoguing against Bill Clinton at the dawn of the Bush presidency. Yoo stands as a very good example of the partisanship Douthat claims to be describing, as now that Bush is out of power he has returned to prior form.

Also, is the following an expression typical of "liberal" concern about G.W.?
The Constitution’s text, structure, and history will not support anything like the doctrine of presidential absolutism the administration flirts with in the torture memos....

As revealed by the torture memos, in the administration’s theory, Congress is powerless to prevent the president from doing whatever he believes to be necessary to win a war. And, as it turns out, Congress is also powerless to prevent the president from starting a war, if he believes that war is in the national interest. Administration officials have repeatedly advanced the claim that the president’s powers include the power to decide, unilaterally, the question of war or peace....

In fairness, the administration did eventually secure a use-of-force resolution from Congress, all the while denying that any authorization was needed. But, given the administration’s broad view of the president’s war power taken in conjunction with its arguments in the Padilla case and the torture memos, the administration’s position can be summed up starkly: When we’re at war, anything goes; and the president gets to decide when we’re at war....

The administration’s conduct in the wake of Katrina suggests that its reflexive response to any crisis—whether real or hypothetical—is the same: we need more power. That is a dangerous reflex.
Only if you believe that the Cato Institute represents liberal ideology.

4. Although Douthat later claims, "It was conservatives who pointed out the dubious constitutionality of Obama’s immigration gambit", he fails to direct us to a compelling constitutional analysis. A quick search found any number of responses from opinion and political leaders that make broad allusions to the separation of powers, but nothing substantive. Similarly, Douthat whines, "Among liberals, it was taken for granted that the worthy ends were more important than the means", but he's hollow manning. He does not, and apparently cannot, identify any significant proponent of a position he's pretending to be representative.

5. While Douthat comments in relation to rendition, drone strikes, and the targeting of U.S. citizens deemed allied with enemy forces,
[The Obama Administration's] moves have met some principled opposition from the left. But the president’s liberal critics are usually academics, journalists and (occasionally) cable-TV hosts, with no real mass constituency behind them.
Douthat seems to miss the fact that the arguments against that type of policy aren't new, and that while a new excess such as the Bush Administration's torture policy can evoke a reaction, that reaction is rarely going to be sufficient to inspire the reversal of the policy. There were many philosophical and practical arguments made against the use of torture, and while the Bush Administration initially rejected both it appeared to ultimately accept that torture was impractical. What does Douthat deem to be a "real mass constituency"? As I recall, even after being abandoned as a failure, Bush's torture policies were supported by close to 60% of the public.

Douthat intentionally omits the fact that it is Congress, not the President, that prevents the closure of the Guantánamo detention center - a closure favored not only by President Obama but, by the end of his term, by President Bush.

6. Douthat might argue that his conclusion does not necessitate his expressing an opinion as to whether the various "dubiously constitutional forays" he describes are proper or improper exercises of executive power. His language suggests that he is falling into the partisan trap that he describes - even after suggesting that past opposition to Bush's policies represents overdrawn opposition and how a new president's continuation of once objectionable policies may exemplify how power educates rather than corrupts, he can't keep himself from describing Obama's continuation of those policies as constitutionally dubious.

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