‘Whataboutism’ in American politics

‘Whataboutism’ is part of the American conversation

By Edridge D’Souza, Collegian columnist

As the midterm season draws closer, we are seeing an increase in political speech that comes close to what we saw before the 2016 election. As tends to happen, the midterm after an election year sees a shift away from the party that won the presidency, and the pendulum is now swinging back to the Democrats after over a year of President Donald Trump.

To Democrats, the scope and severity of the Trump administration’s corruption is a central talking point, especially as it relates to the Russia investigation, the president’s personal affairs and, more recently, the ethics scandals involving Jared Kushner and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. In any other presidency, these focal points would be ample ammo for the opposition party to make a comeback. But as we’ve been seeing since July 2015, none of the usual rules that we expect from politicians seem to apply to Trump.

In particular, it looks like over time, supporters of the president only become more and more ingrained in their views. This isn’t surprising, as psychologists have found that people’s opinions often tend to be based on feelings rather than evidence. And so, defenses of the president often center about the idea of “whataboutism:” deflecting criticism of the president by bringing up the Democrats, particularly President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Whataboutism evades the question and shifts the focus to an irrelevant party. The Republicans control the House, Senate, presidency and a majority of state governorships and legislatures. It would stand to reason that, for anyone who cares that our public officials conduct their business in an ethical way, we should focus our attention on the administration in power. There are more than enough ethical concerns for the media to focus on in this administration, yet one of the most frequent conservative responses to any of these questions is to simply deflect the question to the Democrats.

It’s a technique used by some of President Trump’s most vocal supporters. Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, upon the revelation that he had used his platform to advocate for an end to the FBI investigation of Michael Cohen despite being Cohen’s anonymous client, simply asked, “​What about George Stephanopoulos’ Clinton connections?” Rather than give an honest answer regarding journalism ethics, he simply avoided the question and shifted the question to someone else.

This should come as no surprise, given that the president himself is one of the biggest public purveyors of whataboutism. A quick look at his Twitter account brings up several examples of him accusing Clinton and Obama of many things that his critics scrutinize him for. In response to his ties to Russia he asked, “What about all of the Clinton ties to Russia?” When asked to condemn violent neo-Nazi demonstrators at the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally, he asked, “[W]hat about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt right?” When Russian President Vladimir Putin was referred to as a killer he said, “We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”

For the party of “personal responsibility,” the rampant use of whataboutism seems like an easy way to avoid taking any responsibility for their own actions, merely shifting the blame to somebody else and acting as if this makes them morally justified. The subtext of this is that people should believe that if the other party is corrupt then, by extension, it’s alright and acceptable to be corrupt and that we should simply accept this as the way things are.

This is a hallmark of Russian propaganda, and this is no coincidence. In response to criticism for his 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, Putin simply deflected, saying that the West had been “permitted” to intervene in Kosovo. This dates back to the Soviet era, where any accusation of the USSR’s human rights abuses could be deflected by saying that the United States was just as bad.

The danger of this mindset is that it forces people into a state of complacency. To the Russian populace, the Russian government’s corruption is justified because every government is surely just as corrupt. Whataboutism forces a moral equivalency, even when the things being compared aren’t at all equivalent.

This is what cost Clinton the election. In the days leading up to the vote, Clinton’s email scandal was her largest topic of coverage. The familiar refrain of “What about her emails?” pushed a false narrative that both candidates must be equally bad. This ultimately led to a widespread apathy that lowered Clinton-voter turnout and drove would-be Clinton voters toward the Green Party ticket.

Political apathy comes at a cost. Pretending that “both sides are the same” is not only inaccurate, but it is also a dangerous pillar of Russian-influenced propaganda. Saying that we shouldn’t hold our leaders to any standards simply because someone else is supposedly just as bad goes against the values we hold as Americans. Whataboutism is a threat to our public discourse. The American public should be informed of this dangerous tactic, lest we unwittingly let the U.S. become more like Russia.

Edridge D’Souza is Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]