Maybe it’s just the hyper-connected, social media age in which we live, but modern politicians, pundits and advocates really love their “gotcha” moments. Often, it seems, there’s no better way to deflate a highflying opponent than to catch him or her in a moment of hypocrisy (or, at least, self-contradiction). If you doubt this, take a dip into the world of Twitter and Facebook where scarcely a day goes by in which a major public figure isn’t getting skewered by a recording of him or her appearing to say or do something that contradicts a present day position or value.
You know the drill:
“Senator Smith says he’s for lowering taxes (or family values or helping public schools), but watch this video of him calling for higher taxes on the middle class (or making a lewd joke or calling teachers lazy).”
Such vignettes have actually been a staple of political campaign ads for decades, but modern communications technology and the advent of smartphone videos have made them ubiquitous – even when it’s not campaign season. Just try to imagine Jon Stewart’s Daily Show without them.
Needless to say, the rapid spread of online “gotcha” moments is a mixed blessing for the policy debate.
On the one hand, of course, caught-in-the-act video and audio can be enormously powerful. In addition to empowering countless citizen journalists, “gotchas” have exposed many a corrupt, dishonest or blatantly hypocritical public figure. It‘s one thing to attack Mitt Romney as a servant of fat cat plutocrats; it’s quite another to hear and see him confide his disdain for 47% of Americans to a roomful of them. Similarly, it’s one thing to label a supposed progressive lawmaker a limousine liberal, but it’s something else to see him partying at a lobbyist-funded shindig in D.C.
On the other hand, however, it’s quite clear that “gotchas” have many shortcomings. Even when not altered to, say, rearrange a speech or use words wildly out of context (something that’s always a serious risk and concern), they often present a picture that is far from complete or even blatantly inaccurate. Witness the recent “controversy” about Planned Parenthood manufactured by anti-abortion activists and the excesses of campaign “trackers” of varying political persuasions.
“The Democrats did it too!”
A variation of the “gotcha” video/audio phenomenon that’s been much in use in North Carolina in recent years is a tactic that we might call the “Democrats did it too” defense.
You’ve undoubtedly heard and seen this tactic in use over the last few years. It goes like this: When the Republicans in power face criticism for a policy decision or position, they quickly leap to find and hold up instances in the past in which Democrats have done something similar.
A classic example is the debate over gerrymandered legislative maps. When confronted with the stunning impact of GOP maps in turning a 50/50 state into one with massive Republican legislative majorities, the cry goes out: “The Democrats did it too!” Here’s the Pope-Civitas Institute breaking in that much-repeated theme way back in 2011:
“The first North Carolina legislative and congressional redistricting maps drawn by Republicans since Reconstruction have passed the General Assembly, and they have been greeted with caterwauling from Democrats claiming they give an unfair advantage to their opponents.
The media has largely allowed Democrats to articulate these complaints without mentioning their party’s long, sordid affair with political gerrymandering – a love that did not end until they realized their party could no longer control the process.”
And so it has gone on issue after issue.
A bloated state budget bill packed with hundreds of pages of “special provisions” (i.e. new laws) never before considered in the regular legislative process?
“Well, the Democrats did it too.”
A frequently short-circuited legislative process in which debate is summarily cut off before numerous legislators or, God forbid, the public at-large, have had a chance to be heard?
“The Democrats did it too.”
A seemingly endless budget stalemate?
“The Democrats did it too.”
Big cuts to K-12 and higher education funding?
All together: “The Democrats did it too!”
Just last week, a John Locke Foundation staffer attempted to defend the latest planned cuts to teacher assistants in current budget proposals (as well, presumably, as others made by Republicans in recent years) by citing a decade-old dispute between Democrats over the issue. The name of his blog post? Yes, you guessed it:
“Democrats wanted to cut TAs too.”
A thoroughly lame excuse
Though it’s typically framed by its users as a real rhetorical “gotcha,” it’s self-evident that the “Democrats did it too” excuse is a lame one. First and foremost, it admits – often explicitly – to the failings of the policy or behavior. As it has been with countless playground bullies, fraternity hazers, political bosses and military juntas throughout history, the message devolves to a blatant and straightforward one: “You may not like what we’re doing and it may even be bad policy, but we had to put up with it before and we’re in power here now, so get used to it.”
Even if one sets aside the crude “eye for an eye” nature of the whole thing, however, there are other obvious reasons the excuse is especially ineffective in the current context.
First of all, try as they might to cast their actions as ‘business as usual,” there’s no denying that Republicans campaigned for the power they now wield promising to end many such abuses. This clearly applies to issues like gerrymandering, budget special provisions and limiting debate – all of which were issues in which the GOP promised reform and new levels of transparency and openness.
Add to this the fact that the Republicans have not just continued many flawed Democratic policies and behaviors but doubled down on and even perfected them – see for example the matter of gerrymandering where Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger once regularly sponsored nonpartisan redistricting reform bills before overseeing the birth of some of the nation’s most elaborately rigged legislative districts – and the whole matter becomes that much more outrageous.
In short, Republicans and their defenders may believe and act like they’ve unearthed some real “gotchas” when they highlight similarities between their own policies and behaviors in the present and those of their Democratic predecessors in the past, but the truth is that such excuse-making only makes the GOP look that much worse.
The challenge going forward
Unfortunately, for all of its obvious flaws and blatant hypocrisy, there’s reason to believe that the “Democrats did it too” tactic remains effective at times. For instance, with the continued demise of the mainstream news media, the number of reporters who can properly distinguish the current unending legislative session (in which lawmakers are not even discussing the budget differences that divide them) from past extended sessions (in which Democrats met regularly in an effort to bridge the gaps between them) is dwindling quickly.
Let’s hope citizen journalists and just plain average citizens pay attention and help fill the gap. If they don’t, we may all find ourselves falling victim to one very big “gotcha.”