The Political Philosopher Who Predicted Our Age of Hypocrisy

Judith Shklar observed a world in which hypocrisy was both pervasive and a “universally available insult.”

Schumer talks with McConnell outside, while Pelosi looks to the side. All are wearing masks.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell, and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer talk outside the US Capitol building on July 29, 2020, in Washington, DC. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/Getty Images

Earlier this week, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer took to the Senate floor to remind Republicans what Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had said about filling a Supreme Court vacancy during the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency in 2016: That “the American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice.″ While this no doubt seemed like a clever bit of political gamesmanship, it only served to underscore the weakness of the Democrats’ position. Clearly, the strategy of shaming Republicans into sticking with their principles failed—President Trump plans to name a justice to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Saturday, and he appears to have the votes necessary to get that nominee confirmed.

The Democrats were, as my colleague Tom Scocca put it, “speaking up in defense of the 2016 Mitch McConnell Rule, against the 2020 Mitch McConnell Rule.”  The main Democratic message in this fight seems to be that McConnell is being a hypocrite, despite the fact that McConnell plainly does not care at all about being called a hypocrite. In fact, he countered, blocking a nominee is “precisely what Democrats had indicated they would do themselves″ if they were in the majority. Who’s a hypocrite, now?

The near-constant accusations of hypocrisy may be a warning sign that something is deeply rotten in U.S. politics. The political theorist Judith Shklar warned 40 years ago about the dangers of a “pattern of ideological politics in which charges of hypocrisy are exchanged with unbroken regularity.” She described a form of politics in which rather than arguing over principle, political factions instead tried to prove that their opponents didn’t actually believe their own principles. Her message is well worth remembering today.

Born in 1928 in Latvia, her family fled to Canada when she was a child—escaping both the Nazis and the Soviets. She later moved to the U.S. to study, and became a leading political theorist at Harvard. While less remembered than fellow liberal giants of political theory of her era like Isaiah Berlin and John Rawls, her vision of a “liberalism of fear”—in which preventing cruelty, and the fear it creates, by both public and private actors, is the primary goal of liberal politics, has been garnering some renewed attention lately.

In her 1982 book, Ordinary Vices, she makes the case that cruelty is the primary sin of politics, but also devotes a series of essays to several competing political “vices,” including hypocrisy.

Shklar doesn’t defend hypocrisy, exactly, but sees it as inevitable. The supposed egalitarianism of our society, she writes, “does not arise from sincerity. It is based on the pretense that we must speak to each other as if social standings were a matter of indifference.” She continues: “Our manners are just as artificial as those seen at Versailles in Moliere’s day, but they are infinitely more democratic.”

In her view, democratic debate itself requires us to be a bit hypocritical. It’s less important that we have genuine respect for people with whom we fundamentally disagree than that we act as if we do, and conduct ourselves as if those views are worth of respect.

To Shklar, accusing an opponent of hypocrisy in the course of a political debate is a form of “psychic warfare” meant to “collapse his self-image.”

For instance, it’s common for liberals to accuse evangelical Christians of hypocrisy for supporting Trump despite his numerous documented infidelities, and for conservatives to claim liberals are hypocrites for not taking sexual assault allegations against Joe Biden as seriously as those leveled at Republican politicians. But the debate pretty much ends there.

This weapon becomes particularly popular at times when there are fundamental disagreements about the goals of politics and the moral foundations of society. “When political actors disagree about right and wrong, and everything else, they can only undermine each other with the revelation that their opponent is not living up to his own professed ideal,” she writes. It is, she suggests, “easier to dispose of an opponent’s character by exposing his hypocrisy than to show that his political convictions are wrong.”

In other words, it’s harder to discredit someone’s values than to prove they don’t actually live up to them.

This creates a situation where hypocrisy is pervasive, and in which the accusation of hypocrisy is a “universally available insult.” To Shklar, hypocrisy and the constant policing of hypocrisy are mutually reinforcing: “In the unending game of mutual unmasking, the general level of sham rises,” she writes. “As each side tries to destroy the credibility of its rivals, politics becomes a treadmill of dissimulation and unmasking. To call an opponent evil might boomerang, but he need only be unarmed by charges of hypocrisy.”

Four decades later, “antihypocrisy” has become a cottage industry in our current politics. As is often said about President Trump, “there’s always a tweet” showing him taking a position that diametrically opposes his current one. The president, in turn, denounces the “liberal hypocrites” who “drive their cities into the ground while fleeing from the scene of the wreckage,” “want to eliminate school choice while they enroll their children into the finest private schools” and “want to defund the police while they have armed guards for themselves.” (Not sure how common that last one actually is.)

The current Supreme Court fight exposes the limits of this form of political combat. The hypocrite will always be able to justify him or herself, no matter how blatant the hypocrisy, if the stakes are high enough. As Shklar writes, a cause, if considered vital enough, “can be used to purify any sort of conduct. As long as the “cause,” however remote, is “moral,” the actors who claim to promote it can do whatever they choose.”

Mitch McConnell would seem to be the personification of this brand of hypocrite, one who rather than hiding or dissembling the contradictions of his behavior, simply adjusts his moral arguments to suit whatever goal he’s pursuing at this moment. As Slate’s Lilli Loofbourow writes, it’s a stretch to call this type of behavior hypocrisy at all, and antihypocrisy is uniquely unsuited as a tactic to combating it.

For less plainly Machiavellian political actors, the ends may justify the means. Controlling the Supreme Court for decades to come is important enough to the Mitt Romneys and Chuck Grassleys of the world to salve their consciences.

The most frustrating thing about Shklar’s deeply skeptical view of liberalism is that she doesn’t say much about what’s worth fighting for, rather than against. The “liberalism of fear” is mostly a philosophy of disaster prevention and has little to say about how to build a more equitable society in the absence of disaster. But her admonitions are worth considering at a moment when liberal institutions seem to be on the precipice. At the very least, she suggests, we should focus less on how the enemies of those institutions are inconsistent with their own stated positions, and more on how those positions are actually wrong.