I’m old enough to remember when Republicans cared about deficits. But then again, so is my toddler. The GOP came to power in the last election in part by promising to end fiscal recklessness in Washington. Once in control, however, they’ve embraced the kind of freewheeling spending they would have excoriated the Democrats for just a few years ago. (See Controversy.) If it feels hypocritical, that’s because it is. So is the Republicans’ collective shrug over the fact that dozens of White House aides don’t have security clearances, given all those “Lock her up!” chants over Hillary Clinton’s sloppy handling of classified information. But Republicans have no monopoly on hypocrisy. Democrats fighting Trump’s proposed immigration reforms happily championed at least some of them under President Obama. And if you are waiting for Democratic leaders to condemn the payoffs and favor-buying that landed their colleague Sen. Robert Menendez on trial for corruption, you’re going to be waiting for a long time.
Hypocrisy in politics is nothing new. But public acceptance of it is. In our hyperpartisan atmosphere, we’re increasingly willing to grant “our side” a pass, lest we give aid and comfort to the enemy. Social scientists have noted that Democrats and Republicans tend to flip-flop on certain issues depending on whether their party is in power. That helps explain why fiscal hawks now excuse major increases in the national debt, or why Democrats did a 180 on government surveillance when Obama moved into the White House. Believing “it’s only bad when the other guys do it” is one of the canary-in-the-coal-mine signs that authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt identify in their new book, How Democracies Die. “If one thing is clear from studying breakdowns throughout history,” they write, “it’s that extreme polarization can kill democracies.” When there are no principles and norms that everyone can agree on, and anything goes in the struggle for power, we’re headed for trouble.
Carolyn O’Hara, Managing editor