The Fallacy of Shame

You are educated and politically aware. You check your social media accounts several times  a day. You “keep score” by unconsciously tallying the number of headlines that reinforce your political views. You see a headline calling out those you disagree with for being inconsistent or hypocritical. In your mental tally, this counts as a “win”. It makes you feel that the enemy has suffered some form of defeat.

The trouble is that your enemy couldn’t care less.

This is a common scenario: A politician makes a statement critical of the opposition, and some commentator points out that the politician is criticizing behavior they’ve indulged in themselves. This makes the reader feel good because there’s an unspoken assumption that the politician, having been identified as a hypocrite, will feel shame and walk back their statement or modify their behavior in some other way. This is based on the idea that politicians will feel shame if their integrity is called into question. Unfortunately, that’s not true.

Politicians may feel shame, but not because they get caught in lies, or accused of unethical behavior, or even implicated in illegal activities. Politicians really only feel ashamed of one thing: losing.

Most politicians are incredibly competitive people. Why else would you subject yourself to the grueling ordeal of political campaigns, the endless grind of fundraising, and the interminable meetings with colleagues? They go through all that because it’s the only way to win, and winning is the most important thing in their lives.

Every politician talks about moral principles. The specific flavor of morality changes depending on the constituency the politician needs to win over. Winning over conservatives usually entails appealing to some combination of nationalism, free-market economics, and traditionalist religiosity. Liberals respond better to messages valuing inclusiveness, fairness, and compassion. In any case, the politician makes those appeals because they are shown to work. If at any time a different appeal seems likely to be more effective, most politicians will adopt it.

Moral principles are just another weapon in the politician’s arsenal. They don’t guide political strategy, and they certainly don’t act as a behavioral restraint on the politician’s actions. Accordingly, expecting a politician to modify their behavior out of shame when they appear to violate their supposed principles is deeply foolish.

Next time you see a social media post decrying a politician’s hypocrisy, ask yourself, “What impact will this post have this politician’s behavior?” If the answer is something other than “none at all”, you should go away and think again. If you want to impact a politician’s behavior, threaten their ability to win their next campaign. That will get their attention nice and quick.

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