Unless you’re very, very, new to political debates, you’re probably familiar with the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.
My favorite practitioner of it is the Twitter account of the Socialist Party of the United Kingdom. Somewhat like Beto O’Rourke’s short-lived, yet somehow oddly interminable, presidential campaign, the account can be relied upon to do the work normally reserved for rhetorical straw men. Let the record show, that over the last 150 years or so, avowed socialist parties and governments have racked up an impressive string of errors, from trivial screw-ups to horrific crimes against humanity. But on Twitter, if you dare associate any of these embarrassments with true socialism, there’s a good chance the @SPGB account will appear, like Beetlejuice upon hearing his name three times, to haunt you. It will shout, “That’s not real socialism!” and then invoke some Platonic definition of the term to “prove” that real socialists would never do the terrible things self-described socialists actually did in the name of socialism.
Anyway, here’s a pithier illustration of the NTS fallacy:
“No true Scotsman likes light beer.”
“Sean Connery likes light beer.”
“Maybe, but no true Scotsman likes light beer.”
In ideological debates, No True Scotsman-ism is an attempt to separate the intellectual or moral infallibility of the omelet from the grubby egg-breaking required to make it. Since the theory is perfect, any disappointing results from applying the theory proves it wasn’t a real application of the theory. (The schematics are flawless, says the engineer; it’s not my fault the doorbell flushes the toilet.) Generations of Marxists who had the intellectual honesty to admit that “mistakes were made” by the Soviet Union could not extend their intellectual honesty to the possibility that their theory was itself flawed. Hence that old standby, “It’s never been tried!” Used by Marxists, socialists, some libertarians, Great Society liberals, and other soldiers in the “War on Poverty,” this variant of True Scotsmanism—Bryan Caplan calls it “The ‘Real X’ Defense”—is like the carrot dangled from a stick just in front of the donkey’s nose: an excuse to keep pressing forward. Or to paraphrase a related equine image beloved by Ronald Reagan, “the Real X” is the pony that’s got to be somewhere under all that manure.
The thing is, conservatives aren’t supposed to do this—for two very important reasons. The first, which I won’t spend much time on here, is that conservatism is anti-utopian and offers only a partial theory of how to live. Political conservatism doesn’t have a lot to say on what you should eat or wear, or what movies you should love. I don’t think one need go as far as the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who said “it is not at all inconsistent to be conservative in respect of government and radical in respect of almost every other activity.” I think there’s some inconsistency if you’re radical in religion, culture, etc., but not in respect to government or politics. But you can see the point. Conservatism, at its heart is comfortable with contradiction, and in utopian thinking, all contradictions are supposed to be wrenched out of society. No two good things need be in conflict with each other.
Anti-utopianism requires acknowledging that life can be unfair, that government can’t do everything, that the market will reward things we don’t like and erase things we love. Every government policy involves some trade-off between competing goods. Freedom will produce inequality not because freedom is unjust, but because freedom will yield different results since people are born with different abilities, have different desires, and make different choices. We will never live in a world where school teachers make as much money as professional basketball players. Of course injustice exists, but the pace of reform must be guided by prudence and cost-benefit analysis. “I must bear with infirmities until they fester into crimes,” as Edmund Burke said.
The second reason is related to the first: Conservatism isn’t supposed to be a tribal identity. There is nothing inherently threatening to the idea of conservatism to say that some conservatives can be evil, stupid, or wrong about some things. Nor is it antithetical to conservatism to concede that some liberals are decent, smart, or right about some things. But tribalism requires drawing a stark line between Us and Them.
Thus, identity politics turns the No True Scotsman fallacy on its head. Whereas the original form protects the ideal of a True Scotsman from the crooked timber that Scotsmen—and all other humans—are made from, identity politics protects Scotsmen from ideals. According to the logic of tribalism, a Scotsman can drink light beer. Hell, a Scotsman can cheat on his wife or his taxes, or whatever, and it’s fine because a Scotsman is always right. This is the corrupting power of misplaced loyalty.
Think about virtually any identity politics controversy over the last few years, or decades. The gist always boils down to group loyalty (or solidarity, in the traditional language of the left). Organizers of the Women’s March won’t denounce Louis Farrakhan for saying things about Jews they would immediately recognize as anti-Semitic from the mouth of a white person. The bumper sticker slogan “Believe All Women,” when taken seriously, means that evidence and facts don’t matter, everyone must stand behind every woman. Moderate Muslims, Jews, and Christians are often reluctant to condemn the extremism of co-religionists because to do so feels a little treasonous. African American intellectuals grapple with the burden of criticizing other blacks.
The same goes for one tribal group after another. The only variable is that the more acute the sense of victimhood and powerlessness, the more intense the pull of solidarity is (which is one reason why whites don’t traditionally feel uncomfortable criticizing other whites—because white identity is actually much weaker than the left imagines it to be). All of this is natural. When the tribe feels threatened, it closes ranks.
That’s because humans can become tribal about any shared identity. Normally, this is where I would invoke the brilliant evolutionary psychologist, John Tooby, and his work on the “coalition instinct.” (I’d also recommend this excellent essay by Jonathan Rauch.) But, rather than cite street gangs, organized sports, or religious factions as standard examples of tribal identity formation—and even though Christmas is behind us now—I’ll just note that the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas grew out of a vicious schism within the now defunct Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas.
Political scientists have been documenting for a while now that in this age of polarization, ideological and partisan affiliation is mapping across society in ways once reserved solely for race, ethnicity, gender and religion. Conservatism is becoming an identity.
“It is never long,” Leon Wieseltier once observed, “before identity is reduced to loyalty.”
And while loyalty is vital in foxholes, friendships, and families, it is often poisonous to the frank exchange of ideas. I am not talking about politicians here. Politicians lie. The currency of politics is often the sort of loyalty that goes by the name of partisanship, and there’s no way to take that entirely out of politics.
But, as I’ve written many times, I think one of the biggest problems afflicting the conservative movement is the degree to which is has become an affiliate of the Republican Party. Pundits are not elected officials, they’re not even political consultants—though they often pretend to be on TV (And vice versa; political consultants often pretend to be disinterested pundits even as they monetize their punditry into lucrative lobbying contracts while condemning “the swamp.”). Some of the smartest conservative writers I know—and nearly all of the dumbest -- often make no distinction between what is best for the GOP and what is best for conservatism. Sometimes they’re even right. But as a group dynamic it all gets very murky, very quickly.
The need to be a team player—psychologically, financially, or socially—is corrupting. I don’t necessarily mean it’s corrupting in a moral or legal sense, though that is obviously sometimes the case. I mean it is distortive and corrosive to honesty and fuel for hypocrisy.
Before I go on, let me, in the words of Barack Obama, be clear. Many of these dynamics apply to the left, sometimes in even greater force, precisely because identity politics and utopianism are much more developed parts of the anatomy of the left.
But part of the reason I feel compelled to say that is to head off the inevitable barrage of whataboutism that distorts conservative thinking like a tumor on the conservative brain. Whataboutism has its place if your only aim is to highlight the hypocrisy or selective moral outrage of the other side. But whataboutism—like “they do it too!”—is not a substantive defense of anything.
Yes, liberals are often profoundly hypocritical when it comes to the issue of impeachment or the sexual misconduct of the president, given their defense of Bill Clinton. But the same standards conservatives use to call Democratic flip-floppers often render them hypocrites as well. Moreover, since when is the misbehavior of your opponents—particularly opponents you routinely demonize as immoral—an excuse for obliterating the very standard you use to condemn your opponents? What is the objective standard involved that allows the condemnation of, say, Al Franken for his sexual transgressions but not Donald Trump—other than “he’s the captain of our team”? We might expect such a standard from say, Lindsey Graham and other Republican politicians and activists. But what is your excuse if your job is to tell the truth to your readers, listeners, or viewers?
Until now, I’ve avoided talking about Donald Trump. But he of course looms over all of this. In the Obama years, conservatives often slid into the “Conservatism was never even tried!” fallacy. That’s all gone now, destroyed by Donald Trump. Second only to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, it’s hard to think an odder destroyer of True Conservatism than Donald Trump, but that’s the form the voters chose. The True Conservatism of the Obama years had myriad flaws, but its primary failure was its almost blind emphasis on purity over persuasion. Conservatives forgot that conservatism actually isn’t that popular. It’s certainly not as popular as being pandered to. And failing to take up the task of persuading others, conservatives decided they were victims. Newt Gingrich’s surprising success in the 2012 primaries based almost entirely on whining about media unfairness should have been more of a sign.
But at least True Conservatism was about a set of ideas and principles, unpopular though many of them might be. Now, those ideas and principles only arouse passion when they are useful for attacking liberals.
How often do we hear conservatives denounce the folly of socialism and corporatism—but only when promoted by liberals? President Trump has given more bailout cash to farmers than Obama gave to car manufacturers. Some of the sleaziest influence peddlers—Corey Lewandowski comes to mind—talk endlessly about “the swamp” while getting rich off of it. Joe Biden is guilty of doing what Democrats say Trump did —and that’s outrageous, some conservatives say daily. But ask them, “What if Trump did what conservatives are accusing Biden of? Would that be outrageous?” Shut up, they explain. Trump is a hero for wanting to get out of endless wars, and he’s a hero for being willing to get us into another one.
It would be one thing if this were all contained within the Republican Party itself. But because so much of conservatism has become a de facto political consulting firm, it’s at times impossible to tell the difference. Heck, First Things, the Catholic intellectual journal, which claims to be concerned with the Highest Good to the point of being willing to rethink the enlightenment, the founding, and the free market, recently ran a piece arguing the best reason to keep Trump president is that it would make liberals sad.
“There is always a certain meanness in the argument of conservatism,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed, “joined with a certain superiority in its fact.” Forced to choose, the new tribal conservatives opted to keep the meanness and throw away the facts.
This all matters, and not just because telling the truth always matters. The arguments for giving into the tribal politics of misplaced loyalty are at this point familiar: We have no other choice, hang together or hang separately, look at how great the judges are, look at how terrible the Democrats are etc. Some of these arguments are not without merit. From a conservative voter’s perspective, Trump’s judicial appointments alone are a powerful case for holding one’s nose and putting up with Trump and many of the second rate goons, trolls, and bros who’ve have risen to prominence as conservative “leaders” on the right, starting with Donald Trump Jr.
But I am not talking about voting. I’m talking about telling the truth. The problem with the argument for holding one’s nose is that at some point, many people grow weary of it and decide to put up with the stench. Some even grow to like it. How many former conservative Trump opponents have gotten used to him, even though he has proved to be precisely the man they opposed?
That’s what happens when you give in to tribalism: It starts to make sense. It even starts to feel natural—in part because it is natural. But part of what it means to be a conservative is understanding that not everything that is natural is good and not everything that is unpopular is wrong.
Photograph of Trump supporters at a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 2017 by Alex Wong/Getty Images.