There is an adage—restated many times and by many authors—that you can tell more about a person’s character by how he treats his social “inferiors” than by how he treats those equal to or above him. A middle-manager who abuses the office janitor shows a character defect. The adage holds this abuse reveals more about the manager’s character than if the manager is “nice” to other managers and to his or her supervisors.
A direct political analogue is how groups conduct themselves in rallies and public demonstrations. Do they act peacefully and clean up after themselves, or do they riot and leave a mess for public-sanitation workers? Although there may be many individual differences within any group, the adage suggests far better character, on average, among the former cohort.
A few years ago, Tea Party groups protested widely against the federal government’s overspending and overregulation. These protests could be vigorous and overwrought, but almost invariably the participants acted peacefully and cleaned up after themselves. I asked Mark Meckler, one of the movement’s most prominent leaders, what he and other organizers did to ensure individuals did not leave a mess for others to deal with. Here is what he reported:
“The Tea Party movement was largely self-policing, which was the most amazing part,” said Meckler. “I’m sure that good, neighborly behavior was encouraged, but the reality is that this is just how folks on the right generally behave. We believe in the rule of law. We believe in the right to “peaceably” assemble. We believe in private property rights. And we believe in the Golden Rule. Were we ‘angry?’ Sure, we were—and frankly, we still are. But we were civil, non-destructive, and certainly never criminal. These are hallmarks of conservative protests and are the exact opposite of what one sees on the left.”
Meckler is certainly correct about “what one sees on the left.” The mess created by “progressive” rallies and demonstrations has become legendary. The “Occupy” movement left tons of litter for hapless sanitation workers to clean up after their 2011 protests. More recently, the “Women’s March” did the same. The Black Lives Matter movement has been even worse, adding riots and looting to their mounds of trash.
It is fair to conclude the behavioral contrast tells us something about the character of the participants in these movements, but does the contrast also reflect on their arguments? Strictly speaking, to reject an argument because of the identity of the arguer is the classic ad hominem fallacy. The identity of the person making a claim does not, by itself, prove or disprove the correctness of the claim.
Yet everyone recognizes that the identity of the arguer can be one legitimate consideration for judging an argument. We recognize this officially in our campaign disclosure laws; a principal justification for those laws is the identity, interest, and character of those funding a campaign reflect on the campaign’s merits. The identity, interests, and character of a candidate’s supporters tell us something about the candidate.
You can carry this too far, of course, but all things being equal, would you rather have a person in a position of power who appeals to decent, conscientious people—or one who panders to rioters and metaphorical pigs?
Thus, the stark difference between the conduct of conservative and left-wing protests reflects on the merits of what they say. That difference is also a reason the facile equivalencies some draw between the Tea Party movement and protests on the left are highly offensive.
It is common to say, “Good people can differ.” This is absolutely true, but it does not follow that because they differ they are all good.
Rob Natelson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired constitutional law professor and constitutional historian. He currently serves as a senior fellow in constitutional jurisprudence at The Heartland Institute.