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Not What They Do

The New York Times recently made the alleged hypocrisy of red-state voters front-page news. A Bill Carter piece, which ran under the sneering headline "Many Who Voted for 'Values' Still Like their Television Sin," observed that ABC's show "Desperate Housewives" ranks high in the Nielsen ratings in many red states. Carter described the puzzle this way: "[I]f it is true that the public's electoral choices are a cry for more morally driven programming, the network executives ask, why are so many people, even in the markets surrounding the Bush bastions Atlanta and Salt Lake City, watching a sex-drenched television drama?" Kevin Reilly, the president of NBC Entertainment, provided Carter with an answer: Values voters are hypocrites. "We say one thing and do another," Reilly told Carter. "People compartmentalize about their lives and their entertainment choices."

But the Nielsen ratings for "Desperate Housewives" reveal hypocrisy only if we incorrectly assume that everyone in red states voted; that everyone who voted in those states cast their ballots for Bush; and that all Bush voters were values voters. Consider the Salt Lake City market, where, Carter points out, "Bush rolled up 72.6 percent of the vote," even though "Desperate Housewives" is fourth in the Nielsen ratings. Only 53 percent of the adult population of Utah voted, so the 72.6 percent of voters who backed Bush actually constitute 38 percent of all adult Utah residents. (For the sake of simplicity, I'm leaving aside residents of other states who are in the Salt Lake City television market.) We don't know how many of these Bush voters were values voters--but even if we assume generously that all of them were, we still can't conclude that they are hypocrites. "Desperate Housewives" has been garnering about 20 million viewers nationwide, roughly 9 percent of the adult population. Let's assume that the proportion of viewers is the same in the Salt Lake City market--even though the program's fourth-place showing in Salt Lake is lower than the show's national average. Isn't it possible, even likely, that the 38 percent of Utah adults who might have voted for Bush based on values, and the 9 percent of Utah adults who watch "Desperate Housewives," are, by and large, different people?

To assume otherwise is to commit a common error in reasoning, known to logicians as the fallacy of composition--conflating the parts with the whole. All residents of red states don't think or act in the same way. This reality is simple enough to acknowledge; but once taken into account, it is devastating to the assumption that red-state voters are hypocrites.

But there's another, more troubling, logical problem here. Pointing out instances of conservative hypocrisy has become something of a post-election pastime for liberals, and in this case, it might have some basis in fact, no matter how exaggerated the Times story made it seem--after all, there is surely at least some overlap between Bush values voters and "Desperate Housewives" fans. Liberals have become fond of noting such contradictions: We've heard a lot recently about how red-state residents favor smaller government while benefiting disproportionately from federal largesse; and how they value the sanctity of heterosexual marriage while divorcing more often than the residents of blue states. To be sure, these arguments also suffer from the fallacy of composition: Red-state divorcees may not be Bush voters; and those areas of the red states that consume the largest portions of federal tax money may in fact be liberal enclaves in otherwise conservative regions. But put aside those details and assume that red-state voters really are hypocrites. Even if true, it is still a lousy line of argument for liberals to indulge.

Rather than attacking the specific policies promoted by values voters--policies that can, and should, be fought on their merits--the charge of hypocrisy attacks the voters themselves. But it's an elementary point of logic that a claim's validity is independent of the character of those who advocate it. A truth is a truth, no more or less true because of who believes it. The whole issue of hypocrisy, then, for all the importance it routinely assumes in political discourse, is a red herring.

If a professed atheist secretly worships God "just in case," we're entitled to say that he lacks the courage of his convictions. But we aren't entitled to say that those convictions are false. God exists, or doesn't exist, regardless of what any atheist secretly believes. The same goes for the beliefs of values voters: They are valid, or they aren't, irrespective of whether a voter who believes in their validity succeeds in bringing them to bear when he turns on the TV set. And that voter has a right to impose those values on others, or he doesn't, regardless of whether he himself adheres to them. By the same token, John Kerry and Ted Kennedy's redistributive instincts are justified, or they aren't, irrespective of the wealth they enjoy, despite conservative charges that they're hypocrites; and Bill Clinton's professed feminism is right or wrong in principle, regardless of how he treated women in his personal life.

Unfortunately, hypocrisy baiting is good politics, even if it's poor reasoning. True, liberals may alienate values voters by calling them hypocrites. But the hypocrisy charge also reduces complicated issues to tangible imagery--and in politics, few images are as tangible, or as damning, as that of the self-righteous hypocrite, failing to practice what he preaches. Such an image is easily understood--even if, upon reflection, the hypocrite's actions are as irrelevant to his preachings as Nielsen ratings are to election results.

Jeffrey Friedman is an assistant professor of political science at Barnard College and editor of the journal Critical Review.

By Jeffrey Friedman