Guilty by Association: An Internet Political Game That's Fun for Everybody!


The swirling mess surrounding the private racist comments by Clippers owner Donald Sterling prompted Nick Gillespie over the weekend to compare the calls for his ouster to what happened to Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich.

But for some folks, the most important question was: What political party does Sterling belong to? There's nothing about this scandal that suggests Sterling's political affiliation means anything whatsoever. Nevertheless somebody tried to tag him as a Republican, prompting former Reason editor and current National Review Editor Tim Cavanaugh to point out his very short history of political donations (two whole candidates) is to the Democrats. (Update: Mother Jones notes that he is nevertheless registered as a Republican)

That means the Democrats are racists unless they all take to the press and thoroughly disavow Sterling, right? No, no it doesn't. And it wouldn't say anything about the Republican Party had he donated to two Republicans.

Running alongside the constant engine of Internet outrage at the behavior of the political opposition is the rush toward guilty by association, even when it's not relevant to any sort of policy proposal or connected to the political platform by any party. The line of argument appears to just be "X did a bad thing and X is a [Republican/Democrat] and therefore his party is [racist/hypocritical/corrupt/et cetera]. Every major political figure of that party must publicly disavow him now! Right now!"

This is exactly what happened last week when it turned out Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who had been fighting with the Bureau of Land Management over grazing on public lands, had said racist things. It prompted some stupid musing about whether everybody who opposed government power was racist and political figures who otherwise supported Bundy's efforts to disavow his comments. J.D. Tuccille has previously responded to this sort of absurd, ahistorical argument; everybody should read what he had to say.

When Democratic Calif. State Sen. Leland Yee was arrested on suspicion of corruption and participation in an international gun-running operation, I saw outrage from the right over the fact that his political affiliation was not in the headline of the story and was buried further down, not mentioned in the lede. Tweets declared that if Yee had been a Republican, his political affiliation would be right up there. The outrage was further compounded when his story, an outrageous tale of a progressive gun control advocate's hypocritical double-life, failed to get much national attention. Would the same had been true had he been a Republican?

The analysis of Yee coverage is an important piece of media criticism, but watching these online debates makes me want to ask conservatives and libertarians: Is the problem that conservatives and libertarians are all being tarred by their worst adherents or is the problem that progressives aren't? Yee's alleged corruption and hypocrisy is outrageous; but does anybody really think there's any possible way to reflect his sins upon the entire Democratic Party? Of course not, because abuse of political power is not unique to either party, even with the sexy gun twist.

Republican congressman Michael Grimm of New York is facing criminal charges today that may be related to his own campaign finances. Over the weekend, I saw conservatives in my Twitter feed pointing out what a terrible score he has gotten from Club for Growth, disavowing him by pointing out what a terrible conservative he is anyway.

One of the more absurd manifestations with this effort to tie bad behavior to political affiliation I've experienced happened earlier in the month when I noted that the mayor of Peoria, Illinois, asked the police to investigate who was responsible for a Twitter account that parodied him, resulting in a raid and national embarrassment. Hit and Run commenters wanted to know his political party. I even received e-mails asking me if I knew whether he was a Democrat or a Republican. Peoria is a city of less than 125,000 whose name is famous as a part of a disdainful observation about entertaining the masses who live in flyover territory. It's ludicrous to think that his oversensitivity and egotistical abuse of authority could be assigned to represent any political party. There is nothing partisan about his behavior. It is a reflection of how politicians see their communities as their own personal fiefdoms and examples can be found in towns all across the country from people all across the conservative-liberal spectrum. The problem is that the power exists, not which party has control of it.

Perhaps it's because I'm such a "pox on both their houses" kind of guy, but I really don't see what conservatives and libertarians hope to gain by trying to fight fire with fire here. If you're opposed to communal responsibility or socialist groupthink, there's absolutely no value in falling into such an easy-to-avoid "guilt by association" fallacy other than to reinforce base attitudes toward the opposition. That may be the entire point, though, to rile up the Democrats against the Republicans, and vice-versa, which may well explain why more and more people are identifying themselves as independents.