In the world of political argument, the use of deflection by politicians is so universally recognized, it has become synonymous with the profession. The term “dodging the question” makes a regular appearance in nearly every post-debate analysis, and rightly so. Many can agree public figures should be held accountable for their words and actions.
However, this sentiment has been muddied in the past few months with the revival of the term “whataboutism,” a rhetorical tactic most famously used by Russia’s current president, Vladimir Putin. In said tactic, as a response to a moral or legal allegation, the defendant attempts to draw attention to the accuser’s or opponent’s actions, creating an equivalency. The phenomenon can also be tied to the appeal to hypocrisy fallacy.
Those keeping up-to-date with the investigation into the Trump campaign will recognize this strategy as one that often appears on the president’s Twitter page and across the White House podium.
“The Uranium to Russia deal, the 33,000 plus deleted Emails, the Comey fix and so much more. Instead they look at phony Trump/Russia,” Trump said in a tweet in July. These talking points and many other sentiments from the president have often been repeated by Trump’s defenders such as Sean Hannity.
When talking about this subject, it’s tempting to stop here and gleefully run circles around the president for his repeated use of what is basically a dressed up “I know you are, but what am I.” After all, Trump’s behavior has sometimes been used as a get-out-of-jail-free card for the left to argue however they like. However, as the term continues to make its way into the public lexicon and into our increasingly polarized political conversations, it’s pertinent to discuss why this diversion tactic has been so useful in Trump’s hands in the first place, and how we can tighten up our discourse to discourage its use.
In 2008, The Economist ran an article discussing this term and what could be done to combat it. The author came to two possible solutions: use the what-abouter’s own words to counter them and be more critical of one’s own side.
The former is something we have no shortage of today. Especially in the case of Trump, new media such as the internet allows us to keep track of pretty much everything a public figure says, such as Trump’s “both sides” argument around the Charlottesville protests, which has continued to be a pain point in press conferences since.
The latter defense is the much more challenging of the two, given our political climate. The idea of exercising self-criticism in the face of “whataboutism” is if Trump, Putin or any other politician attempts to deflect the conversation, one can retort that such subjects have been appropriately covered and insist they stay on topic.
In an ideal world, doing such a thing would be easy. However in a time of extreme partisanship, criticizing one’s own side (or what is perceived to be one’s own side) is more difficult. Since the 2016 presidential election, the U.S. political left has begun to consolidate in a number of ways. This is a stark contrast to the inner turmoil that was caused by the Democratic primary elections between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
During this time, many on the left were more internally critical of their party, or specifically, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) after allegations that the DNC had rigged the primaries in Clinton’s favor. This was most apparent with the lack of enthusiasm from Sanders supporters in supporting Clinton. And while more division is the last thing we need in the U.S. right now, this self-criticism was actually a much-needed voice from the left and one that could be useful in combating “whataboutism” and even toxic political discourse at large. Regardless of whether the DNC tampered with the primaries, the structure and activities of the Democratic Party should be scrutinized by its members if we want things to improve.
Moving forward, learning to defend against the standstill of ‘whataboutism’ presents an opportunity to be more honest in our political considerations. At least on this one side of the isle, if we really want to keep the president true to his word, it’s up to the left to call foul play when CNN threatens a 15-year-old over a Reddit post—and to not pull punches when more liberal-leaning figures and celebrities are accused of sexual assault. That way, when Trump or anyone else tries to use partisanship to turn the conversation around, we can confidently and accurately say that the issue is either not equivalent or has been properly addressed. Now, about that investigation.