Humans have a natural tendency to divide each other into “us” and “them”, which provides the foundation for the two sides problems. If one side has a power advantage over the other and elects not to be overly constrained by law or morality, this can be very bad for the weaker side. Paradigm examples include American slave owners and their slaves, Nazis and their victims, and Stalinists and their victims. If the two sides are roughly equal in power and are willing to abide by certain limits, this division can provide benefits to both—or at least to the elites of each group.
When people are divided into us and them, the usual course is for the us group to see itself as good and superior to the them group. This helps cement group identity and serves various psychological needs. In times of identity stress or fear, people in the us group quickly accept the demonization of the them group.
The American political system is a Two Sides system of the more equal sort and one of increasing demonization. While the Republicans have gained the upper hand in many states through being better at gerrymandering and voter suppression than the Democrats, the two parties are still roughly on par. While this does have some negative consequences for the party elites, it also confers many important advantages. On the minus side, a politician from one party is unlikely to win over voters from the other party, unless they can create another us-them paradigm. This is something Trump managed to do. While doing this initially caused some splits in the Republican party, most Republicans quickly accepted the situation and Trump’s embrace. As such, almost all Republicans are on Trump’s side. On the positive side, the us-them situation means that the party elite can use the various cognitive biases, rhetorical devices and fallacies that are fueled by the Two Sides Problems. Another advantage is that the party elite can expect that their misdeeds will often be defended by fellow party members—even when these misdeeds are a clear violation of professed principles. This is because group identity and political advantage are accepted as more important than almost any professed principle—although some people do have limits even within the upper reaches of the parties.
One unfortunate consequence of this aspect of the Two Sides Problems is that an American elite can commit misdeeds that damage the norms of the country and still count on their fellows to defend them. One excellent example of this occurred when NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro interviewed Indiana Rep. Jim Banks about Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria. In a rare break with Trump, some Republicans were quite critical of his action. This is, in part, because Trump’s base tends to not care about foreign policy, but it is also a case in which Democrats and Republicans form an us group against another them group.
Prior to the interview it had been announced that Trump would be committing a crime and violating the emoluments clause by hosting the G-7 at one of his Florida resorts. Garcia-Navarro asked:
When we look at something like this – the president’s resort – for many people, it speaks to sort of a larger issue with this president about him blowing through every acceptable norm of behavior. And so I wonder for you, what happens when you want to object to something a Democratic leader does someday? Don’t you worry that this sets a precedent that will make that very difficult?
Banks replied, as politicians are wont to, by using a Red Herring. He switched the issue and avoided the questions: “Again, the president decided to retreat from the position of holding it at his property. And I appreciate that the president made that decision. Whether that sets any norm moving forward, it shows that the president is taking the advice of his advisers to do so. And I appreciate that type of leadership.” Garcia-Navarro’s question about Trump’s plan to profit from the G-7 and inquiry about future consequences shifted Banks back into the two sides mode involving Republicans and Democrats rather than the two sides of Americans and foreign foes.
Garcia-Navarro raises excellent questions that should be asked whenever Democrats or Republicans refuse to act against one of their own party members when they are clearly doing wrong. This matter splits into a logical part, a practical part, and a moral part. I will address the practical part because that is the easiest.
Obviously enough if a Democratic president commits misdeeds in the future, then the Republicans will rush to criticize them—even if they rolled over like chubby puppies when Trump did the exact same thing. This is because doing so will be advantageous—it will hurt the Democrats and they know that only a few people, like NPR reporters and philosopher professors, care at all about consistency. If anyone brings up how they rolled over for Trump, they will deny it—and then John Oliver will do a show juxtaposing Republican chubby puppies for Trump turning into rabid pit bulls when President Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pushes to hold the G-7 at her vegan-hipster coffee bar (co-owned with vice-president Corey Booker). The simple matter is the political elite and their followers do not really care about principles; it is all about their side winning and the other side losing. Witness how the Republicans were so focused on the deficit and the Constitution when Obama was president; now they are happy to hemorrhage money and rarely talk about the Constitution.
From a logical standpoint, the way the Republicans roll over like chubby puppies for Trump has no bearing on the merit of future criticisms they might advance against President Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. To think otherwise would be to fall victim to an ad hominem fallacy. So, suppose that a chubby puppy Republican goes full pit bull when President Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tries to hold the G-7 at that vegan hipster coffee bar. They would be right that she would be in the wrong—even though they refused to criticize Trump on this matter. Their past actions and words have no bearing on the truth (or falsity) of his future criticisms of President Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
From a moral standpoint, Garcia-Navarro is right to be concerned that tolerating bad behavior because your side is doing it will erode norms and prove harmful for the country. While the Republicans will certainly go back to their righteous stances when a Democrat is in office, their past tolerance of misdeeds will rob them of the moral authority to criticize Democrats. Democrats will be able to point, correctly, to Republican moral inconsistency and hypocrisy. While this will not impact the truth of Republican claims, they will be devoid of moral authority—they will be seen, rightly, as hypocrites who pretend to play at virtue when doing so is convenient. They will be the opposite of the boy who cried wolf; they said nothing too many times.
Democrats will, of course, tend to defend their fellows when they commit such misdeeds and they can engage in their own fallacious reasoning by dismissing Republican criticism because the Republicans defended Trump in his misdeeds. And with each cycle it will get worse—whoever is in power can say that the other side has no moral authority to be critical now since they tolerated such misdeeds when it was their guy.