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What Is Hypocrisy & What Kind of "Hypocrisy" Should We Worry About?

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What is "hypocrisy" and what kind of "hypocrisy" should we worry about in politics? Forgive me for the length of this post, but these are not easy questions to answer, because we live in both a globalizing world and a country governed by, ahem, an imperfect political system. But we should pause to ask them in light of today's Wall Street Journal story about economic populist John Edwards' holding investments in a hedge fund that has a subsidiary holding in a subprime lender that has foreclosed on 34 New Orleans homeowners. Some conservatives would have us believe that because of this story, Edwards thus should face nothing short of political extinction for the supposed "hypocrisy" of publicly criticizing the laws that govern subprime lending while holding investments in a fund that owns some subprime lenders.

I won't pretend that this is a great situation for Edwards. In a media environment where campaign beat reporters simply refuse to cover huge issues like health care, wage stagnation, job outsourcing and retirement insecurity, manufactured gotchas take center stage, whether it is Mitt Romney getting tarred for his kids' decision not to serve in Iraq (which, I've said I think is fairly ridiculous) or this new line of attack on Edwards. It's not that I think its unfair to ask these candidates questions about how well their personal family and financial decisions in the current world go together with the policies they are pushing for the future. But to portray the differences between the two as hypocrisy is absurd.

We live in an imperfect world, and candidates running for office all purport to have solutions to make the world better. But that doesn't mean these candidates don't live in the current imperfect world.

Think about this in your own life for a moment. Let's say you believe oil companies are doing great harm to the planet through their environmental practices and great harm to consumers through their price gouging. And let's say you supoprt much stronger regulation on their behavior. Are you an immoral hypocrite because your 401(k) plan owns shares in ExxonMobil? Broaden it out a bit further. Let's say you despise China's treatment of workers and think we need much stronger labor and human rights standards in our trade policies to push the Chinese government to do better. Are you an immoral hypocrite because many of the products you buy were made in China?

I'd say that whether you are a politician or not the answer is no, not necessarily. Sure, it's laudable if you divest yourself of oil industry stocks (if you even have the option to do so in your retirement plan) or try to not buy any Chinese products (likely an impossible endeavor if you wish to continue existing in American society). But if you don't, you aren't a hypocrite - you are just a person who simultaneously wants to create a better world but who lives in the real world. There's nothing inconsistent about that. You can wholeheartedly believe that we need to change the laws and policies which govern the oil industry or Chinese human rights while not retiring to a monastery or taking a vow of poverty. And in many cases, that is what reporters seem to be expecting from candidates when they focus on this personal hypocrisy storyline. Do we really expect - or even want - every political candidate in America to divest all of their stock holdings? Should every candidate who supports the war be expected to immediately send their children off to war? I just don't think it's so cut and dry.

Now, I will say this - where I do think it is cut and dry is when all this takes place totally within the same spheres, because that goes to a question of what these candidates will do in office.

So, for instance, consider the public sphere. Let's say a candidate is railing on a particular government policy or railing on the behavior of a corporation operating under a particular public policy. If that candidate voted for that policy or previously lobbied for that policy without explaining or apologizing for those previous actions, then that's real hypocrisy - the kind we should worry about because the candidate in question helped create the issue he/she is now railing on, which suggests all the current pledges are lies. A good example of this is GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney using his campaign to rail on a woman's right to choose just a few years after campaigning for governor expressly on his support for a woman's right to choose. How can anyone feel confident about what he would do on the issue as president on the issue? Another example is Colorado Republican Senate candidate Bob Schaffer. He railed on his fellow school board members not disclosing their conflicts of interest, and then went ahead and didn't disclose his own conflicts of interest. How do we know what he would do in situations just like this as a U.S. Senator?

This axiom, by the way, does extend to personal behavior. If candidates are specifically bragging about their personal behavior in a given area as a reason to vote for them, and then they are shown to be doing exactly the opposite in their personal lives, then hell yes - we should be worried. Same thing if candidates are campaigning for office telling Americans we need to be doing certain things in our personal lives. If they aren't doing those things in their personal lives, then that's a big problem.

Now, last I checked, Edwards is not criticizing people who happen to have stock portfolios that include holdings in funds whch have ownership stakes in subprime lenders (and if he had been, he would deserve serious criticism). He has been critical of the laws that are permitting many subprime lenders to hurt ordinary Americans. Same thing for Romney on Iraq. He may support the war (which I, of course, think is grounds for criticism unto itself), but I haven't heard him tell people that if they support the war they should make sure their kids enlist in the military. (By the way, this is substantially different from the very real hypocrisy of the 101st Keyboard Commanders - the group of young, military-age pundits in Washington who used their platforms to push us into the Iraq War and keep us in Iraq, but who haven't enlisted themselves. These people sold the war to America by telling us that the war is important enough for young people to volunteer for the military to die for - yet they themselves are not willing to volunteer for the military and potentially die for the cause that they say is so important).

And not to go off on too much of a tangent, but let's just all stop with the "fair and balanced" nonsense and have the decency to just admit that its no conspiracy theory to say that today's media disproportionately aims these gotchas at Democrats (and remember, I'm no apologist for many of the most high-profile Democrats).

Al Gore campaigns for laws to deal with global warming, and he's the target of a (since debunked) attack as a hypocrite for having the nerve to use energy. Edwards campaigns for policies to deal with poverty, and he's called a hypocrite for getting an expensive haircut. Ted Kennedy criticizes policies that contribute to economic inequality and he's been called a hypocrite because he's personally wealthy. John Kerry votes for an initial version of an Iraq spending bill and then is criticized as a hypocrite for voting against a different version of the bill.

Meanwhile, reporters barely make a peep when Fred Thompson bills himself as a down-home political outsider even though he's spent most of his adult life as a corporate lobbyist in Washington; George Bush is portrayed as a plain-spoken cowboy and independent entrepreneurial businessman even though he grew up an aristocrat and had his personal fortunes built by massive public subsidies secured by his father's financial and political network; and Rudy Giuliani is presented as the strongest candidate in the race on homeland security issues, even though his single defining homeland security experience was negligently contributing to the health plight of New York firefighters.

Sure, I think every candidate - especially Democrats, for the reasons stated above - ought to try to anticipate these manufactured gotcha stories and avoid them, whether through targeted stock divestments or anything else. They should do that not because these examples are the kind of "hypocrisy" that voters should worry about, but because they should know how shallow today's campaign journalism is. And sure, we should applaud candidates who go out of their way to try to bring their personal lives into as much congruence with the policies they advocate for - but are not yet the law of the land.

But I believe Barack Obama said it best this week when he explained why it's not contradictory for him to be advocating for lobbying reform despite aggressively raising money for his presidential campaign. "The argument is not that I'm pristine, because I'm swimming in the same muddy water [of the current system]," he said. "The argument is that I know it's muddy and I want to clean it up."

He's exactly right. So while campaign journalists continue to obsess over manufactured hypocrisy, us voters should be looking not at whether these candidates are perfect humans or whether they have receded from the world as it is now to live in a monastery, but at what these candidates are promising to do with the power they are asking us to give them - and what in their record should make us believe or not believe they will live up to those promises.

Cross-posted from Working Assets