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In Defense of (Mitt Romney’s) Hypocrisy

The Concord Monitor of (I assume) Concord, New Hampshire, published an anti-endorsement of Mitt Romney that's been making the rounds. As funny as the premise of the piece is — we the editorial staff have no idea who you should … Read More

By / December 27, 2007


The Concord Monitor of (I assume) Concord, New Hampshire, published an anti-endorsement of Mitt Romney that's been making the rounds. As funny as the premise of the piece is — we the editorial staff have no idea who you should vote for, but make sure it's not Romney — what makes it unintentional comedy gold is the breathless seriousness and solemnity with which it endorses and defends the Granite State's divine right to decide whom the rest of us are allowed to decide between for president:

When New Hampshire partisans are asked to defend the state's first-in-the-nation primary, we talk about our ability to see the candidates up close, ask tough questions and see through the baloney. If a candidate is a phony, we assure ourselves and the rest of the world, we'll know it.

If the CM's editorial board wants to make sure that no one ever again mistakes New Hampshirers' extra-sensory ability to peer into a politician's souls for an oversized sense of entitlement, James Randi will pay them a million bucks to demonstrate their special gifts. Alternatively, the anti-endorsement suggests, the people of New Hampshire can prove their skill at divination pro bono by rejecting the fraudulent, cynical hypocrite Romney.

Okay, there's no doubting that Romney is a fraudulent, cynical hypocrite. But relative to the field he's running in, that's not such a bad thing. Romney's transparent pandering and willingness to adopt absolutely any position he thinks will make him popular suggest to me that if he ever gets to be president, he'll be a Republican Jimmy Carter, completely hapless and ineffectual, swaying this way and that with the vicissitudes of opinion polls, and accomplishing little to nothing (he's got the sweater thing down already). The one and only campaign promise Romney would be certain to follow through on is his pledge to talk to his lawyers in a crisis situation that calls for immediate discussion. After the last seven years, total sclerosis in government sounds fairly appealing to me.

In any case, what Romney lacks is that precious, rare, and inscrutably vague quality of authenticity, which, in the superficial world of Washington punditry, is taken to entitle those who possess it to respect, regardless of the contents of the views a politician authentically holds. That's why John McCain gets such fawning press, while Romney's press is awful; it's why, for example, Joe Klein and Andrew Sullivan adopt a ring-smooching pose before McCain when, by the lights of Klein and Sullivan's self-professed views, McCain is on the wrong side of the most important issue in a generation.

Moreover — and this especially comes through in the Klein piece — McCain's claim to respect on the basis of his authenticity is supposed to apply to all of us, no matter how reprehensible we take McCain's views to be (very reprephensible in my case). Why should this be? If X holds a belief that we take to be wrong and pernicious, how could the fact that X holds her belief with utmost sincerity transform either X or her wrong, pernicious belief into an appropriate object of admiration, let alone someone or something we're obliged to admire? What's going on is what Simon Blackburn calls "respect creep":

"Respect," of course is a tricky term. I may respect your gardening by just letting you get on with it. Or, I may respect it by admiring it and regarding it as a superior way to garden. The word seems to span a spectrum from simply not interfering, passing by on the other side, through admiration, right up to reverence and deference. This makes it uniquely well placed for ideological purposes. People may start out by insisting on respect in the minimal sense, and in a generally liberal world they may not find it too difficult to obtain it. But then what we might call "respect creep" sets in, where the request for minimal toleration turns into a demand for more substantial respect, such as fellow-feeling, or esteem, and finally deference and reverence.

The case Blackburn has in mind is religious people's demand for respect, which generally begins as an assertion of a right to practice freely, and culminates in a claim that refusing to join in is itself an affront to religious freedom. The difference in the political case is that a pontiff of authenticity like McCain doesn't make the claim to respect on his own behalf; he has starstruck auxiliaries in the media, from Klein and Sullivan to the Manchester Union Leader editorial board, to make that claim for him. Indeed, the fact that so many people unaffiliated with McCain testify to his authenticity is part of what establishes his authenticity in the first place. (Incidentally, if you've been wondering how Andrew Sullivan's short list of Republican candidates came down to the most libertarian candidate and one of the most statist, well, there you go.)

Romney, like McCain, claims to hold many beliefs that are dangerous and crazy. Unlike McCain, Romney is completely insincere in his beliefs. Good for him. (Hey, by the way, it looks like Romney got a bum rap about his father marching with MLK, though to be sure, he doesn't help himself by his inability to form non-bullshit sentences.)

For a more general defense of hypocrisy, see here.

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