Political Discourse and Impugning Motives

Published November 11, 2011

Commentary Magazine

The Herman Cain​ sexual harassment charges have raised an interesting issue beyond the charges themselves: political discourse and personal motivations. An intra-conservative dispute that’s arisen in the last two weeks helps shed some light on this matter.

Some on the right have decided that the charges against Cain are false, and he’s the target of a smear campaign. They are so convinced of Cain’s innocence they cannot fathom how other conservatives don’t rally to support him. The case is so open-and-shut, in fact, that Cain’s lack of support among conservatives can only be explained by factors other than the evidence. And so it’s said that those on the right who have concerns about Cain—either as they relate to the charges or in how Cain has handled the story—must have a rooting interest against him. The other possibilities are that these conservatives are cowardly, RINOs (Republicans in Name Only), part of the “establishment.” They’re afraid to defend Cain because, this argument goes, they want to ingratiate themselves with the dominant, liberal press. They are ashamed of true conservatives like Cain and the Tea Party more broadly. And if these (nominal) conservatives want to be invited to dinners and cocktail parties in Georgetown, they have to show their independence from true conservatives. They are even willing to leave the wounded on the battlefield in order to win favor with the political class.

This technique of calling into question the motivations of those with whom we disagree certainly isn’t confined to conservatives. President Obama, for example, does it on a routine basis. He has said time and time again that Republicans, in opposing his agenda, are putting their party ahead of their country. No rational person could possibly oppose his policies; they are self-evidently correct. And so the motivations of Republicans are always suspect, unlike Obama himself, who cares only for the country and has not a concern in the world about his re-election. He, and he alone, puts the common good ahead of narrow partisan interests. Or so the Obama story goes.

What are we to make of this tactic?

It’s important to concede at the outset that in fact motivations sometimes are worth calling into question. Some individuals are weak and unprincipled; others do put their interests ahead of those of the nation. It would be silly to deny that in some instances, motivations are both transparent and dishonorable. In addition, and to complicate matters a bit more, none of us is blessed with untainted motivations. The human heart is constantly divided against itself; our decision-making process is the product of different, and sometimes competing, considerations. And any person who finds himself in elected office takes into account how certain decisions will affect his career. That doesn’t mean it will necessarily be the main factor in how one decides on an issue. But it would be naïve to pretend that various (and less-than-selfless) factors don’t enter into the calculations of politicians—and for that matter non-politicians.

With that said, though, the words of the philosopher Sidney Hook are worth taking into account. “Before impugning an opponent’s motives, even when they may rightly be impugned, answer his arguments.”

The truth is that often it’s much easier to attack another person’s motivations than it is to answer his arguments (especially when the arguments are compelling and difficult to refute). The tendency to attack motivations, then, is frequently a sign of intellectual laziness. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that it’s an ineffective strategy. Sometimes it’s very effective, especially when you’re preaching to the choir. It can be rollicking good fun to create strawmen and cartoon figures together. (Keith Olbermann very nearly perfected this technique on his MSNBC program.)

One of the reasons I have such high regard for Jonathan Rauch, for example, is that in his advocacy for same-sex marriage, he never resorts to this approach. Rauch employs measured, reasoned arguments; he respects his interlocutors (and political discourse) enough to do justice to their positions, sometimes articulating them better than they do. This is a rare thing to find, especially in a debate as sensitive and emotionally-charged as gay marriage can be.

The habit of placing question marks around the motivations of those with whom we disagree can also be a sign of arrogance. The (unstated) feeling is, “How can that person possibly disagree with me?” This assumes, of course, that all wisdom resides on one side and none on the other. Now sometimes that’s the case, but more often than not the words of Lincoln apply. “There are few things wholly evil or wholly good,” he said. “Almost everything, especially of government policy, is an inseparable compound of the two, so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded.” Yet once we’ve decided on a position, the tendency is not only to become an advocate but to argue as if all the arguments line up on one side and none on the other. (I know of what I speak.)

There’s also this: debates in politics can easily move from the grounds of policy/philosophical disagreements to personal contempt. Many of us who are involved in politics have, at one point or another, experienced strained relationships based on political differences. (It happened to Jefferson and Adams, to Burke and Fox, and to Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.) Some of this is understandable; when deep, passionate convictions collide, it’s not easy to contain the frustration and the fallout.

This whole matter is quite a complicated mix, then, since what’s involved is a balancing act. Most of us would agree that it would be unwise to completely exclude motivations as a factor in explaining political differences. But as a general matter, when it comes to attacking the motivations of others, the burden of proof should be fairly high, the frequency to which we resort to it fairly rare. Having been involved in politics for most of my adult life, I can testify that in the heat of the moment, it’s not easy to believe that one’s political opponents are hardly as bad as we portray them to be, even as our political allies may be more flawed than we imagine.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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