Reagan quoque

Now that there has been a decisive ideological shift in American politics, I'm beginning to see a huge proliferation of "arguments from hypocrisy," i.e., arguments that accuse people of hypocrisy.  In a very general sense, such arguments can take two forms: good and bad.  The good ones point out some real case of hypocrisy, the bad ones a specious one.  One variety of bad argument from hypocrisy is the ad hominem tu quoque–this is when you accuse someone of hypocrisy when such a charge is irrelevant.

We've seen plenty of ad hominem tu quoques here.  What makes for a good argument from hypocrisy, however?  Is there some kind of expiration date?  Consider along these lines the following from the Washington Monthly

Right-wing leaders continue to find the strangest things to get upset about.

President Obama paid his respects to fallen U.S. soldiers. This doesn't seem like an especially controversial thing to do. President Bush chose not to greet returning caskets during his two terms, and didn't even want journalists to take photographs of the events, but nevertheless went out of his way to advertise private meetings with the families of the fallen. Was this "narcissistic," too?

For that matter, when 16 Americans were killed in an attack on the U. S. Embassy in Beirut, then-President Reagan not only appeared at Andrews Air Force Base to greet the flag-draped coffins, he brought the First Lady and the media, and then talked about his appearance in a weekly radio address. Did that make it a "photo-op"?

To be a hypocrite, one has to hold the beliefs one criticizes in others or one has to have ideological commitments to beliefs one criticizes in others.  The present case is of the latter variety.  The hypocrisy is inferential, since no is charging Bush or Reagan with hypocrisy, just people who purportedly adore them. 

There are two routes out of this charge, I think.  One is to deny they are adored.  For many of the chatterboxes who make these arguments, however, this is hard to do in the Bush case.  Their silence then would impugn them: they adored Bush, and most never criticized him.

The Reagan case, however, is a bit more difficult.  It happened so long ago, I think, that one might wonder whether the expiration date has passed.  One might wonder this, if it weren't for the canonization of St.Reagan.  So I think "Reagan did it too" or "Reagan quoque" still counts.  So given Reagan's stature within the current Republican worldview, one can use him in charges from hypocrisy.  Nixon, on the other hand, probably not–but that doesn't mean former employees of Nixon can accuse others of being Nixonian.  That expiration date has surely not passed.

2 thoughts on “Reagan quoque”

  1. Hi John,
    I think tu quoque has got a number of interesting deployments, and this one with Reagan is positively fascinating.  Here’s one way I think tu quoque is a useful argumentative tool, instead of always a fallacy: they can point to double standards of evaluation, and hence, require that the critics provide some substantive disanalogy between the cases.
    The Reagan version of is quoque (he too), deployed here with the coffins of fallen soldiers, has also been used in cases of addressing school children, and taxation. It is designed to show, instead of something about the correctness or incorrectness of the evaluation, but that Republicans/conservatives who praised Reagan’s actions and criticize Obama’s  are not fully honest in their evaluations.  This is precisely what the charge of ‘double standards’ amounts to — that one plays favorites in applying evaluative categories that do not seem to admit of such favoritism.  The question the Reagan-lovers/Obama-haters must then answer is how those two seemingly similar actions are different.  If they cannot, then they must accept the charge of being insincere in the exchange, and especially, insincere in their use of the evaluative terms.
    So I think tu quoque has its virtues, but we have to be clear about what its significance is.  I’ll go in for some self-promotion here.  I recently published an overview of what I see as the variety of virtuous uses of hypocrisy in Informal Logic.  Here’s a link to the article:

  2. Hey Scott–

    I think you’re correct about the non-fallacious uses of the tu quoque form of argument.  One thing I might have pointed out here is how quickly some Democrats have been to forget their strident criticisms of Bush (and for that matter, forms of bullying arguments employed by his defenders).  Some of these people are being disingenuous of course, and they should be called out; others, however, are mocking the double standard of Obama’s critics.  It’s pretty easy to tell the difference.

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