If you’ve been looking into politics for any length of time, you’ll notice that the most ideologically idealistic politicians are always the most susceptible to accusations of political hypocrisy.
There are few political things more tenuous than the reputation of a Tea Party Republican. If you preach low taxes, small government, individual liberty, family values, and free market capitalism—and you are running against a mainstream incumbent in bed with a corrupt system—you better make sure all your ducks are in a row. Even if you aren’t a two-faced political opportunist, you are going to be painted that way.
People will assume there’s a mask to remove, and if you give even an ounce of credibility to that claim (with present or past compromises), you won’t ever shake it. If you have ever voted for a local earmark—even one—it’s going to come out. If you have ever said anything that could be considered racist or sexist, it’s going to come out. If you have ever voted for government regulations, corporate bailouts, or higher taxes—you are going to be accused of political hypocrisy.
This is the biggest plight of the political purist—if you are not perfectly pure, you are going to be lambasted for it. And you are going to lose. Because no matter how bad your opponent is, people hate hypocrisy far more than they have ever hated a transparent lack of scruples.
Think about Ron Paul. The man is about as much of an ideological perfectionist as you’ll ever encounter this side of Paradise. After decades in Congress, he had compiled one of the most consistent voting records in American political history. But what did people focus on? The fact that he proposed earmarks for his home state a few times. ((This was at the bidding of his constituency. Very few people mentioned the additional fact that he always voted against those same measures if they were taken up by fellow Congressmen.)) Or that some obscure remarks buried in correspondence from three thousand years ago could have been misconstrued as racist or homophobic. Or that his foreign policy “extremism” was at odds with his claims of patriotism. Or that his states-rights stance on homosexuality was contrary to his claim to uphold family values.
And the recent record against current Tea Party candidates indicates the same trend. Consider these statements in The Atlantic on the waning power of “fringe” Republicans:
But with [Republican] incumbents now keenly aware of the danger they face in a primary, . . . Tea Party-aligned hopefuls are finding themselves under more scrutiny than ever. And oftentimes they’re not holding up well.
“Inevitably, in a statewide race, any issues in any candidate’s background would come to the forefront,” said Brian Walsh, a former NRSC communications director. “And we’re seeing incumbents who aren’t taking anything for granted.”
But you barely hear of moderate Republicans being accused of political hypocrisy. The reason? They have few real values or ideals to betray. And you basically never hear of Democrats being accused of political hypocrisy—for the same reason. They have no values, principles, or convictions that they wouldn’t jettison to gain a few more votes.
So this puts true conservatives in a bit of a pickle. In some ways, the candidates that are most maligned in the public eye might just be the most honorable people in politics—though it rarely seems that way. But that is not something in which Tea Party idealists can or should take comfort.
Instead, we need to take the words of Solomon to heart: “Like a trampled spring and a polluted well is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked” (Prov. 25:26). If we hold to a higher ideological standard, we are all the more accountable to stick to it without wavering. The stakes are very high, and no one else really has to play by the rules. So even one compromise is one too many.