The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What to do about whataboutism in politics

A few humbly suggested rules

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), along with fellow chairs Maxine Waters, Carolyn B. Maloney and Eliot Engel, gather to speak in December. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Deflection is hardly a new tactic in our politics. But in recent years — and particularly with the increasing prominence of social media — it has become both a lifeblood and a cudgel. Whataboutism has infected our politics like few things have.

What is whataboutism? It goes a little like this: “Yes, this politician/party might have done XYZ, but here’s this other thing someone else did. What about that?”

It’s near-ubiquitous today, particularly among conservatives who have long complained of media unfairness. Few arguments are as appealing in those efforts as whataboutism, given both how easy they are to make and how potent they can be. Persecution — whether real or perceived — is a powerful motivator, and combating such allegations of double standards is hugely difficult given that it’s almost always, to some degree and often to a large one, apples-to-oranges.

Many of the most popular recent examples of this include comparing things President Biden did to what President Donald Trump was pilloried for (on things such as “kids in cages”), comparing the Capitol riot to Black Lives Matter protests, and comparing rhetoric about protesters and violence between members of the country’s two major parties, which was a heavy focus of Trump’s most recent impeachment defense. Over the weekend, conservatives alleged a double standard in the reaction to Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who told racial-justice protesters to “get more confrontational” and “stay on the street” if former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin isn’t found guilty of murdering George Floyd. It was likened to Trump allegedly inciting violence at the Capitol.

We won’t delve into each of those examples in this post in detail, though the links above and the text below provide some context.

But just because this complaint is often overwrought doesn’t mean it has no place. As with any argument, allegations of whataboutism can invite real and valuable reflection. With that in mind, I’ve been thinking about a few rules for how to deal with whataboutism — in good faith.

1. Just because something is worse doesn’t mean something less bad isn’t news

While much of whataboutism involves alleging that This Other Similar Thing that was as bad or worse got relatively short-shrifted, sometimes it goes in a different direction: Why are you focusing on this while another completely unrelated and more important thing is happening?

A common recent example involved why the media was covering Biden’s lack of news conferences and availability when there were much more important things happening, like a pandemic. The media then did itself few favors by, when Biden did ultimately hold a news conference, not asking him about that particularly vital topic.

Along with other forms of whataboutism, this often ignores the fact that This Other Thing has indeed been dealt with extensively. But it seems to begrudge any focus on things that aren’t, for that moment, the most pressing issue.

But just because something worse exists doesn’t mean something less bad or objectionable isn’t worth paying attention to. Indeed, there’s almost always something worse happening or that has happened. To the extent that we ignore certain things in the name of focusing more exclusively on other, more pressing things, it gives leaders license to do what they will as long as there’s something else that’s worse that they can point to. That’s not a great system.

2. The similarities must go deep

As noted at the top, this is an extremely effective tool largely because it’s so difficult to refute. We all have somewhat subjective views of what’s a valid story and what’s worse than something else. People who think This Other Thing is worse often can’t be convinced that it’s not, even if you show them data and delve into the irrefutable facts.

Take the most recent big example of whataboutism: The Capitol riot and its circumstances compared to various other things, such as racial-justice protests.

You can point to the relatively little per capita violence and deaths that occurred during last summer’s racial-justice protests, for example, but those who watched looped videos of fires at those protests and of violent protesters on Fox News will never believe that’s the full picture. They’ll be convinced that the level of violence at those protests is much greater than the numbers suggest. On a baser level, they’ll also be less convinced about the moral rectitude of the cause, which colors all other perceptions.

At least racial-justice protests and the Capitol riot carry some similarities, in that you can compare their scales. But the former was based upon real and majority concerns about police treatment of African Americans, while the latter was based on a lie.

But then we have things such as the recent comparison of the storming of the Capitol to a demonstration by Black Lives Matter supporters at the Iowa Capitol earlier this month. The allegation was that this was another storming of a capitol, this time by the other side. Both sides do it! Except these demonstrators had a permit and were subjected to security screenings. And as with the racial-justice protests, this also didn’t involve a literal attack on democracy and attempt to overturn an election. The motivation matters, just as the methods employed matter.

Or what about the Democrats like Waters who say things about their allies getting in the faces of and pushing back on those they disagree with? Did they do so based on a lie? Did they explicitly and/or suggestively refer to the idea that their supporters might get violent like Trump repeatedly did? Did they have the same kind of influence as he did? Did their words presage actual violence that could be plausibly tied to their comments like in the case of Trump, in which even top Republicans made that connection?

Lots of members of Congress and elected officials say lots of things. Some of them are more extreme than others and go further than they perhaps should in ways that you can have a debate about. Comparing motivation, influence, frequency, explicitness and actual impact should always be part of it, as should how representative the comments are of a broader movement.

3. Hypocrisy is key

One bit of whataboutism that cropped up this weekend was when Biden went golfing for the first time as president. But the media wrote a ton about how much Trump golfed, and almost always in a negative light! They also complained more about Trump golfing than President Barack Obama golfing!

Yes, but that also came after Trump had repeatedly excoriated Obama for golfing as president … and then proceeded to do it significantly more frequently as president himself. Trump set a seemingly high-minded standard for how much a president should golf, and then bulldozed his own standard as if it never existed. It was pure hypocrisy. And that’s to say nothing of how much government money his golf outings, which often were at his own properties, drove to his businesses — another key and very valid difference.

This is a more superficial bit of whataboutism, but it’s a telling example. When it comes to comparing things, it’s important to look at when one side or the other has sought the moral high ground on something and then failed to live up to it. If one side says certain types of rhetoric or actions are over the top and then fails to police its own members making such statements, that’s valid.

4. Nobody is without blind spots

One thing we should never lose sight of is the fact that we all have blind spots. We’re all a product of our own experiences and might have more sympathies toward the purity of the motivations of those with whom we most closely identify.

Some events unquestionably get less coverage and criticism than they should, while some get more. Those who allege massive media conspiracies to play up or down a given story often misunderstand just how disorganized the news reporting process often is. But that doesn’t mean there’s no imbalance.

It’s tempting to look at whataboutism dismissively, as I’m certainly guilty of, and it is unquestionably used plenty of times by overzealous partisans who are operating in bad faith. But sometimes there’s a valid point to be made. People shouldn’t be too accommodating to those trying to “work the refs” when there is just no real comparison to be made, but it never hurts to reevaluate yourself. You might never satisfy many of your most ardent and bad-faith critics, but you shouldn’t assume all such criticisms involving whataboutism are in bad faith, either.