There is a type of a bias that is so common in political commentary that it deserves a name. An example of this bias is exhibited by Brian Tamanaha over at the Balkinization Blog. Tamanaha notes that many Republicans in 2003 asserted strong arguments against judicial filibusters. But now that the Republicans will only have a minority of the Senate, with a Democratic President, they will have an incentive to engage in judicial filibusters. Tamanaha sarcastically writes, there is “nothing to worry about” because the Republican will no doubt continue their previous position opposing judicial filibusters. Obviously Tamanaha is charging the Republicans with hypocrisy, predicting that they will not conform to their stated principles.
So far there is no bias, just a prediction of hypocrisy. The bias occurs when one realizes that the prediction of inconsistency is equally applicable to the Democrats. If the Republicans choose to filibuster, one could equally expect the Democrats to criticize such filibusters, even though the Democrats defended judicial filibusters in 2003. So the charge of hypocrisy against the Republicans is equally applicable to the Democrats. Yet, Tamanaha says not a word about the Democrats. He can only see the hypocrisy of his opponents: hence the bias.
Once one identifies this bias – accusing one’s political opponents of inconsistency or hypocracy, but ignoring its equal application to one’s political friends – it seems to pop up everywhere. It is committed by Democrats, Republicans, liberals, and conservatives.
What is going on? Obviously, people are both good at discovering, and bothered by, the inconsistency of their political opponents. They are not so quick to discover their own team’s inconsistencies.
One way to think about this is that commentators who commit the hypocrisy-charge bias are not commenting on political events but are actually engaged in them. When Tamanaha suggests that the Republicans will not follow their stated principles, he is, as a Democrat, attacking Republicans. That his criticism also applies to Democrats does not matter. That is not his point. It is only a observer of political events who would be concerned in this situation with the fact that both parties are likely to change their principles because their interests have changed.
Posted by: Mike Rappaport