‘Whataboutism’: What of It?

(Reuters photo: Brian Snyder)
When a public actor does something wrong, we should consider how we punished similar sins in the past.

As more details come out regarding Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer — and also his meeting, as has just been revealed, with a Russian-born lobbyist with links to Russian intelligence — the headaches pile up for the White House. In response to accusations that members of the Trump family committed “treason” by being willing to meet with individuals connected with a foreign government in hopes of gaining politically useful information, some have noted that some key Democrats may themselves have coordinated with foreign governments. And broader questions remain about the role of foreign intelligence services in contributing to and disseminating anti-Trump material (such as the infamous “dossier” compiled by Fusion GPS).

This counterattack has engendered a debate about so-called “whataboutism,” meaning the tendency to say “but what about X” — to point to the other side’s past failings in order to deflect attention from the current failings of one’s own side. Whataboutism is generally considered a bad thing, and it’s true that it can indeed lead to moral numbness.

But the practice also has its merits. It is a way of insisting that both sides be held to the same standards, and of trying to ascertain public norms. And it highlights one of the major problems of our time: namely, the media’s penchant for rewriting public norms on the fly depending on the political circumstances.

If we’re going to help heal our body politic, we need to start discussing our public norms openly and honestly. When a public figure errs, we need to talk about why the action is wrong and the consequences that should follow from it. Part of that discussion necessarily will involve a look at previous similar sins by the other side, precisely because the relevant norms and penalties should apply regardless of faction.

Possible contacts between Ted Kennedy and the Soviet Union, Bill Clinton and the People’s Republic of China, or Democrats and Ukrainian officials in 2016 do not necessarily excuse the Trump campaign’s alleged actions. All four instances of contact could be bad, and all four could be disqualifying. But if they are, it is incumbent upon those who supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 to admit that her candidacy was also tainted by contact with foreign governments. And if all four of those contacts are not equally bad — if, for instance, Democratic contact with Ukrainian officials is acceptable while the Trump campaign’s alleged Russia contacts are not — Trump’s defenders have a right to demand a clear explanation as to why. There certainly are plausible arguments out there to this effect (Dan McLaughlin lays out one of them), but those arguments should be advanced forthrightly.

One of the great drivers of the current populist insurrection is the perception that different sectors of society play by different rules. Aiding and abetting different standards for different political parties degrades our existing standards, increases partisan polarization over those standards, and encourages misbehavior by the party that has a better chance of getting away with it. Whatever standards we set for collusion, those standards should be applied equally.

The substitution of partisan anger for moral probity is one of the more destructive forces in the present, and my-way-or-Armageddon partisanship burns the core of our body politic. If we want our politics to have a hope of sanity, we need to have a full discussion of our public norms, strive for an accurate accounting of the present and past alike, and put aside the opiate of partisan-relative morality.


Trust Nothing, Defend Nothing

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— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm.

Fred Bauer — Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. His work has been featured in numerous publications, including The Weekly Standard and The Daily Caller. He also blogs at ...

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