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Hypocrisy in Red and Blue: How Republicans and Democrats Betray Their Principles Differently

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We are no longer surprised that Republican scandals are so often ripe with the stench of hypocrisy. It is a fetor that frequently accompanies the predictable libidinous lapses of pious "family values" conservatives. Sanford, Ensign, Craig, Vitter, Haggard, Limbaugh, Gingrich, and Palin are only some of the more recent purveyors of right wing rectitude whose messy real lives and even messier longings have collided head-on with their revered black and white biblical mandates. It needn't be pointed out that these are the same rigid rules with which they are fond of flagellating others, primarily liberals.

Before weeping over the wages paid for his sexual sins, Governor Sanford shed a bucket of crocodile tears over the dire prospect of taking federal stimulus money. As we later discovered, he was quite willing to use taxpayer funds as another sort of stimulus - to subsidize a tryst with his Argentine "soul mate." As I will show later in this post, the conjunction of these two moments of hypocrisy - the economic and the erotic - reveal much about conservative psychology. But before we go there, let's look at their opponents across the aisle.

Democrats are certainly not strangers to bimbo eruptions or other scandals. But for the most part they don't tell others how to lead their private lives. Nor do they pummel their opponents with holy books or claim to be taking orders from God (or any other invisible sky man, as the Daily Show's John Oliver would put it). So, embarrassing revelations about uncontained lust towards forbidden objects of desire, even when they rain personal and political disaster down upon Democrats, do not render them hypocrites.

To be sure, Democratic politicians are no less capable of betraying their stated values. But their hypocrisy derives from a very different character flaw, a crippling moral cowardice - an inability to actually fight for positions they claim to believe in. So many Democrats seem allergic to their own aggression. Their idea of negotiation is to start out asking for very little, and retreat from there. Preemptive submission is their primary tactic. We can all recall their declarations at various points that certain items were "off the table" - the impeachment of Bush regime members or, post-election, investigations of their crimes - and now "single-payer" health care.

Perhaps the most malignant expression of Democratic Party surrender, because it facilitates all the others, is the willingness of its elected members to accept GOP linguistic and narrative frames on all the major issues. Regardless of their beliefs to the contrary, Democrats have been quite willing to parrot phrases like "war on terror," "tax relief," "defense of marriage," and "enemy combatant." This has not only set them up for the inevitable legislative capitulation, but also enabled the already docile, mostly stenographic mainstream media to function as an uncritical vector for right-wing talking points.

As we have come to see, the rhetoric of "bipartisanship" is often a cover for a desperate, masochistic need for approval from GOP colleagues who feel nothing but contempt for their groveling Blue State supplicants. In spite of doing their own share of war mongering over the years, Democrats have been readily depicted by Republicans as "weak on defense." It is no wonder. Even with a congressional majority, there's been very little they have been willing to go to battle over. Merely the whisper of a GOP filibuster is enough to make them wet their pants and seek "compromise". They begin most debates pleading for the usual half a loaf, only to end up toast - defeated by their own timidity.

Even when Democratic presidential candidates have lost elections due to a right-wing judicial coup (Gore) or as a result of frank and widespread GOP election fraud (Kerry), there is no protest or call for investigation. In both cases electoral theft was followed by a rapid concession to the perpetrators because it was "good for the country" and we needed to "move on." Well, I think we all saw how good these two surrenders turned out to be for the country. As a result, we've gotten to know Republican hypocrisy all too well.

GOP hypocrisy is founded in a very different psychology. The problem is not simply that they are "two-faced." After all, there are few humans who are not plagued by contradiction and a Janus-faced psyche. Rather, what so often dooms the sanctimonious prigs of the Republican Party is their inability to face their own complexity - the conflicting impulses and longings that are so painfully at odds with the dictates of their fundamentalist super-egos.

For them simple-mindedness is more than a cognitive deficit; it is also what they seek. George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan are perhaps the most outstanding examples of conservative politicians for whom self-reflection was an abomination to be avoided at all costs. They prided themselves on having an opaque inner life, and worked strenuously to keep it that way. Their gaze, like that of so many right-wingers, was always fixed on the external world, where evil, immorality, and murderous impulses could be projected and battled.

Not surprisingly, the traits of conservative politicians tend to be mirrored in those who vote for them. In 2003 four prominent psychologists published an encyclopedic assessment, called a "meta-analysis," of nearly all the research conducted over the last fifty years on the personality characteristics that differentiate conservatives from liberals. From the perspective of these authors, right-wing ideology, like all political views, tends to be driven by what they call "motivated social cognition." By that they mean that political attitudes result in part from unconscious psychological needs and concerns. This can lead us to believe what we need to believe, and see what we want to see.

One of the most striking of the many findings the research has yielded is that adherents of right wing ideology are likely to exhibit a profound intolerance of ambiguity. This anxiety leads to a tendency towards black and white thinking, a distorting lens through which they see the larger social world. As a consequence, they often divide it into domains of unalloyed good and pure evil.

This trait also enables a simplistic vision of their inner lives. It affords a picture of themselves as shorn of complexity, conflict, or religiously unsanctioned impulses. Sadly, this does not stop them from acting out the desires they so desperately struggle to disavow. Thus we have become accustomed to the seemingly endless series of tearful press conferences in which family-values fundamentalists apologize to their families for one or another sexual transgression. Unfaithful people of faith, sexually active abstinence believers, and gay homophobes are now a perennial feature of the tabloid media-scape.

In is not just in these scandals that Christian Right hypocrisy shows up. An astonishing recent analysis by Charles M. Blow in the New York Times revealed that states that voted Republican in the last election were dramatically higher in divorce rates, teenage pregnancies, and subscription to online pornography sites. This does not appear to be something right-wing politicians want to know about themselves or their constituents.

Rather than look inward, conservative leaders - like that mythic monarch of antiquity, Oedipus - would rather put out their eyes. No wonder they find themselves in the middle of public relations disasters, their exploded careers and personal lives in ruins around them. They never see it coming. Again and again, they seem to prefer hysterical blindness to the emotional pain of leading an examined life.

Right wing authoritarians around the world, as varied as they may be, share a familiar cognitive reflex - the reliance on "outside agitator" explanations for most internal problems. Just the other day Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a week after his own security forces murdered and thereby martyred the young woman known as "Neda," promised (like OJ) to find the "real killer." In the mean time, he's expelling foreign journalists, who he claims are the ones responsible for stirring up the population, making people march in the streets, and generally disturbing the erstwhile tranquility of Iranian society.

Here on these shores Rush Limbaugh recently exceeded the usual contortions his logic can take when he conjured one of the most inventive outside agitator explanations I've heard in a long time. In an argument only M.C. Escher could follow, Limbaugh reasoned that Mark Sanford was so disturbed by Obama's stimulus package and the "Big Government" control it signified, that the Governor decided to throw all caution to the wind and have a mad, passionate extramarital love affair, one that began before Obama was elected.

But that only serves to highlight another major manifestation of conservative hypocrisy. For nearly thirty years Republicans have made opposition to what Reagan called the "National Nanny," and her addictive social services and infrastructure milk, one of their primary battle cries. Steeped in their rhetoric of cowboy individualism, they have consistently denounced the dependency-inducing perils of getting government assistance, as well as the taxes necessary to fund it. "Tax and spend" liberals were the source of most social woes in their view.

As it turns out, they doth protest a bit much. Based on 2005 tax data, the vast majority of states (84%) that receive more federal tax money than they contribute are Republican. And, most of the states (78%) that contribute more than they get are Democratic. A recent study of tax revenue distribution within California shows that this pattern is replicated within the state. The greatest recipients of state funds are Republican-dominated counties. And the largest donors are the most Democratic counties.

So, part of what this data tells us is that, in addition to aspects of sexuality, another panhuman trait conservatives cannot face in themselves is their dependency on others. This has led to a particularly malignant manifestation of Republican hypocrisy, one that has impeded social progress on multiple fronts, and severely impoverished their own Red-State constituents.

In conclusion, it is unlikely that Republicans are going to enter psychoanalysis en mass and come to terms with their own complex inner worlds. We needn't wait for that. However, if we are going to have health care, consumer protection, and environmental policies (to name but a few crucial areas) that are not dominated by the interests of corporate predators and their conservative minions, Democrats are going to have to get up off their knees and act with integrity. They don't have to wrap themselves in the American flag on every occasion, just stop waving the white one when confronted by Republican hypocrites.