Why Whataboutism Undermines the Rule of Law

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Tuesday, June 8, 2021


In today’s often grotesque political media landscape, one issue stands out above the rest. Of the myriad problems that involve the blurring of fact and opinion, expertise and hackery, tabloidism, and a laundry list of ethically questionable practices, political media’s biggest bogeyman is its obsession with whataboutery. 

Just like it sounds, whataboutery is the tendency for political partisans in the media to respond to allegations of bad behavior by bringing up the past inconsistencies of their political opponents. There are obvious problems with this. Above all, it’s dishonest. 

While charging your opponent with hypocrisy doesn’t make you any less of a hypocrite, whataboutism tends to work insofar as it refocuses the attention of sensationalist-addicted media. But the problem is bigger than that. Strangely, whataboutery succeeds in creating the illusion that politics is zero-sum. By deflecting criticism through regurgitating faults, it reinforces the notion that the loudest voices of catastrophism repeat incessantly: “Under the circumstances, the ends justify the means.”

Whataboutery on both the left and the right hurts everyone. Just as many Democrats are only fond of the Constitution when it’s abused by those on the political right, an increasing number of Republicans are only fond of the Constitution when it’s the left who are abusing it. In the process, the rule of law–the fulcrum of a free society–is eroded as both parties play the blame game instead of addressing the issues at play.

Take, for example, Justice Stephen Breyer’s recent call for Democrats to heed the rule of law regarding talk of altering the composition of the Supreme Court. An angry Vox article, rather than adequately addressing the merits of Breyer’s call, immediately redirects attention to the events of January 6th and former President Trump’s behavior. Using Trump as an example, the author suggests that extreme action with regard to the Court is simply par for the course.

For this reason, whataboutery is not only annoying but potentially dangerous. If political virtue and moral behavior fail to transcend partisan boundaries, people and institutions suffer. Above all, the rule of law is diminished as the selective application of principles and law, especially the Constitution, invariably diminishes the force and effect of that law.

When partisans quibble over who has the moral high ground in these circumstances, necessary and legitimate conversations are brushed aside, and people are hurt. When media figures and politicians argue at length that mobs of rioters and looters were morally justified, ordinary people suffered. When people argued that Trump was right to contest an election because prominent Democrats had claimed the 2016 election was stolen, institutions and ultimately, people suffered. 

While contradictions and hypocrites certainly abound, the biggest mistake we can make is to treat politicians and leaders as more than human. It is often said that one of the fundamental characteristics of conservatism is its pessimism. As conservatives, this pessimism ought to inform our expectations about leaders; but moreover, it should tell us that failing to consistently apply principles and best practices by blaming one another cannot long sustain a free and virtuous society.

Sean is a senior at Regent University pursuing a B.A. in Government with dual concentrations in American government & politics and international relations & foreign policy. His academic interests include the relationship between faith and public life, the interplay of institutions and society, and everything foreign affairs related.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.


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About Sean Preston

Sean is a senior at Regent University pursuing a B.A. in Government with dual concentrations in American government & politics and international relations & foreign policy. His academic interests include the relationship between faith and public life, the interplay of institutions and society, and everything foreign affairs related.

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