Commentary Magazine


Why We Criticize Friends and Foes

My comments critical of what Texas Governor Rick Perry said about Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke have sparked a number of stories that the “Bushies” are lining up against Governor Perry based on some intra-Texas feud. For what it’s worth, I’ve never met Governor Perry and have nothing against him. I’m impressed with his governing record and his skills as a retail politician (though I will confess that I haven’t followed his career closely). And I didn’t coordinate my comments with anyone, including any former Bush aides. My post was in reaction to what John (who did not work in the George W. Bush administration) wrote, with some sites ascribing his words to me. As is often the case, then, real life is somewhat less interesting (and less well-organized) than conspiracy theories.

In any event, the Perry incident does touch on a deeper matter having to do with the mindset that animates political criticisms. Let me explain what I mean.

Many of us who are politically active find ourselves drawn to either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, to conservatism or liberalism. That is where we find ourselves at home politically and intellectually. It’s where many of our (like-minded) friends are and where we find support and encouragement. And so we find ourselves siding with one “team” or the other. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, clustering of this kind is quite normal. We all do it in different areas of our lives (religious beliefs, hobbies, fields of interests, et cetera).

The tension that sometimes arises is when someone with whom we are in sympathy with says or does something wrong or inappropriate. At that point, people react differently. Some folks are inclined to overlook the mistake, believing that we should train all of our critical comments toward the other team. The argument is that it is imperative to beat the other side in order to do what is best for the country — and so whatever differences we might have with those who share our philosophical perspective should be muted.

More than that, though, many of us are simply predisposed to be more critical of those who hold political views different than ourselves. It’s not so much that there’s a conscious double standard at work; it’s that the double standard is unconscious. We’re simply less offended if someone who shares our philosophical point of view uses hyper-partisan and acidic language to describe his opponents. And so if a liberal Member of Congress refers to the Tea Party Movement a  “terrorists,” liberals are relatively untroubled, since they view the Tea Party as a pernicious force in American life. The same thing is true of many conservatives. While liberals who refer to Tea Party members as “suicide bombers” and the “Hezbollah wing of the GOP” may enrage them they’ll excuse the charge that the Federal Reserve chairman is acting in an “almost treasonous” fashion as nothing more than “indulging in irrational exuberance” or “Texas trash talk.”

The truth is we’re all susceptible to this. We’re all inclined to cut our political allies more slack than we do our adversaries. And none of us can claim perfect detachment, perfect distance, on these matters. The question, I think, is the degree to which we attempt to override our pre-dispositions in the name of intellectual integrity. It isn’t easy — but on reflection, in our calmer moments, most of us would agree that it’s what genuine fair-mindedness demands.