While the term “whataboutism” may be relatively new — coined within the last few decades, and newly prominent in the age of Donald Trump — the logical fallacy it denotes is as ancient as politics itself.
The rhetorical trick goes something like this. A political leader or group is accused of doing something wrong. In response, a defender tries to change the subject. “You say President Trump lies,” for example, “but what about when President Obama said that under the Affordable Care Act, people could keep their health plans if they wanted? He wasn’t telling the truth, and you didn’t go after him!”
As it happens, Obama wasn’t telling the truth about that, as he and anyone else involved in health policy must surely have known. I lost my own health plan because of the Affordable Care Act.
But that example does not establish a defense of Trump’s dishonesty. In fact, to grant that it is wrong in principle for politicians to tell falsehoods is obviously to strengthen the case against any particular politician telling falsehoods, not to weaken it.
Indeed, whataboutism is formally known as tu quoque (“you also” in Latin), the appeal to hypocrisy. Hypocrites may deserve all sorts of scorn. But their inconsistency doesn’t disprove the value of the ethical standard they are violating. It’s a separate infraction, one might say.
Consider the election-fraud allegations in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. Operatives working for the campaign of Republican Mark Harris allegedly went beyond the legal distribution and collection of absentee-ballot requests and illegally “harvested” the absentee ballots themselves, opening up the possibility that the ballots were tampered with or discarded in ways that benefited Harris.
Republicans have variously responded by pointing out that there are also credible allegations of ballot harvesting and other questionable tactics by Democratic operatives in Bladen County this year; that the key Harris contractor in question, McCrae Dowless, had also done absentee-ballot work for Democrats in recent election cycles; that his 2018 tactics may have been motivated by a broad perception that previous Democratic election fraud had never been seriously investigated, much less punished; and that Democrats in states such as California have actually fought to legalize and expand the use of ballot harvesting, which they used to great effect in defeating Republicans in 2018.
These are all correct statements, as far as I can tell. If made to provide context, and to challenge the absurd overstatements and “guilt by association” claims made against all North Carolina Republicans in the aftermath of the 9th District fiasco, they are warranted. But to the extent these claims have devolved into whataboutism, they fail. If Dowless did what is alleged, and Harris exercised poor judgment at the very least in hiring and incentivizing the Dowless crew, then they deserve what may be coming to them. That others may also deserve criticism or consequences for their own choices doesn’t change that.
If it is to stand for anything at all other than short-term electoral victories or “owning the libs,” the conservative movement must stand for standards, for the rule of law as well as for rules that may be tacit and lack the force of law yet make it possible for people with differing interests, values, and political beliefs to coexist in relative peace and security.
It’s not easy to defend rules when they feel inconvenient, delay immediate gratification, or provoke hypocrisy. The Silent Sam controversy at UNC-Chapel Hill is a case in point. Wherever you think the statue should ultimately reside, do you really want to live in a society where people think they can take the law into their own hands if they conclude that following the rules will not immediately get them what they want?
If you believe that the “other side” is being unreasonable or hypocritical, by all means call them out. But don’t lapse into whataboutism. Don’t let explanations become excuses. And don’t call people chumps for following the rules — particularly if your goal is to advance conservatism.