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Venial Hypocrisy and Strategic Cynicism

October 30, 2009

In an otherwise reasonable article about the GOP’s populist media stars, former G.W. Bush speechwriter Matt Latimer drops this unrelated aside:

Sure, every once in a while, constituents would call about something they heard on Rush Limbaugh or Laura Ingraham. Members of Congress scrambled to mollify them—by holding a hearing or issuing a press release—so they could go back to the far more important work of having taxpayer-subsidized chauffeurs take them to gas stations in their SUVs to complain about global warming.

What snark, Matt Latimer! I’ve seen this trope many times before though. Did you know that our purportedly green President rides around in a motorcade, and one time flew to New York City for a date with his wife? Speaking of jets, Al Gore had a private one. And he apparently has a big house with lots of light bulbs too!

This is a dumb trope on several levels. Global warming is like a 6.7 billion person Prisoner’s Dilemma. I wish we would all unilaterally lessen our carbon emissions, but if heavy industry isn’t bothering, then why shouldn’t Al Gore turn up the AC in August? Global warming is a textbook case of the tragedy of the commons, a situation in which the free market inevitably produces suboptimal outcomes. In such situations, we need state intervention to align personal incentives with global welfare. Yes, even Al Gore needs state intervention to align his personal incentives with global welfare.

Does that make Al Gore a hypocrite? Maybe a little. Call it a venial hypocrisy. The obvious point is that Al Gore’s hypocrisy in no way implies that climate change legislation is a bad thing.

So why did Latimer bother dropping this aside? My guess is that Latimer is deeply cynical about the motives of our elected representatives, and that he would happily spread this cynicism. Each repetition of this trope weakens the public resolve for climate change ever so little: “If Al Gore is so worried about climate change, why doesn’t he take the bus?”

Look, I am 1) cynical about the political process and 2) cynical about politicians -I’m looking at you, Joe Lieberman. But I am not 3) cynical about the efficacy of well-crafted social policy. Perhaps this is yet another constitutional difference between progressives and conservatives: conservatives insist that beliefs 1 and 2 imply 3, while I don’t.

Nonetheless, I do expect better legislators to legislate better. Hence the power of Latimer’s aside: by increasing the cynicism surrounding legislators, he increases the cynicism around the policies they support, and he thus pushes moderates to accept the status quo. This morning Tom Schaller wrote about the inherent legislative advantage Republicans have, inasmuch as it is easier to do nothing than do something. The power of Latimer’s aside is a direct consequence of this fundamental asymmetry: it is a winning strategy for the GOP to encourage cynicism toward the political process, even if that cynicism spills over and affects the public’s perception of Republican legislators. You don’t need 50 seats to move the Republican agenda forward when all that involves is stalling the Democratic agenda.

Therein lies the irony at the heart of strategic cynicism: arguing that the status quo is imperfect can be a powerful means for preserving the status quo.

A Colemanesque Dialogue: Carl, this is not a very noteworthy article, and the line you pick out of it is even less noteworthy. Why did you waste your time responding to this?

I don’t think the article was worth the rejoinder, but I do think the trope merits comment. Like I said, I have seen this trope numerous times before. Each time I saw it, it bothered me. But this time, I was finally able to put that feeling into words.

This is in part why I named the blog “Formless and Void.” When I notice that I have had the same inchoate reaction on multiple occasions, that is a signal that I should think about why I always have that reaction. I should give form to that reaction. Then, the next time I encounter its stimulus, I can counter with an already-thought through verbal argument.

Fine. But we already have a name for what you described above. Isn’t it just an ad hominem attack?

True. But I think this is a special case, because the ad hominem isn’t embedded in an article about climate change legislation, where the logical fallacy would be obvious. Rather, the ongoing project of fostering cynicism toward government can be undertaken piecemeal through hundreds of seemingly innocuous asides.

How sinister! How can we combat this cynicism?

I don’t know, but it wouldn’t hurt to remind people that progressive legislation has a pretty good track record. LBJ was an imperfect man, and the Senate was just as dysfunctional back then, but look at what the War on Poverty did!

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