In politics, personal biases blind us to rule of law

In politics, personal biases blind us to rule of law
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A few weeks ago, FBI agent Peter Strzok testified before two House Committees. It was one for the books, the “here’s what not to do if you’re an elected official” kind. Whatever your feelings may be about the FBI or the Mueller investigation or the Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonIdentity politics and the race for the Democratic nomination O'Rourke’s strategy: Show Americans the real Beto Conservatives pound BuzzFeed, media over Cohen report MORE email investigation (full disclosure: I’m a former Clinton campaign staffer), it is undeniable that Strzok strongly disliked then-candidate Donald Trump and displayed a political preference for Clinton.

While I have made great strides in breaking out of my liberal bubble since 2016, I found myself asking my Flip Side co-editor at 3 a.m., “I don’t see it. Sure, his texts were ill-advised, but can anyone point to any explicit wrongdoing on his part? Why are we so focused on his words and not his actions?” He replied, “I think you would feel differently if it were President Obama instead of President TrumpDonald John TrumpDACA recipient claims Trump is holding ‘immigrant youth hostage’ amid quest for wall Lady Gaga blasts Pence as ‘worst representation of what it means to be Christian’ We have a long history of disrespecting Native Americans and denying their humanity MORE.”

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Less than a week later, following the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the political tables had turned. Citing a 2009 article in which Kavanaugh argued that indicting a sitting president “would ill serve the public interest, especially in times of financial or national-security crisis,” Democrats claimed his view on the issue is clearly prejudiced and, should such a case come before the Supreme Court, he cannot be trusted to rule objectively. Republicans, by contrast, cautioned against the idea that Kavanaugh’s personal beliefs would impact his ruling.

 

Some on the left went so far as to argue, “Without an absolute and unequivocal commitment to recuse from any deliberations involving Trump’s alleged wrongdoing, which no one expects Kavanaugh to make, this nomination cannot possibly be seen by Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, as a credible choice to serve on the Supreme Court.” Those on the right responded, “Read any of the more than 300 cases that Kavanaugh has decided and the judge consistently strives to interpret the law as it is written, not as he would like it to be.”

Politics is treated like sports, with loyalists on each side unwilling to question their own team or hear out the other. Rather than seeking objective truth, we move the goalposts to suit our partisan agendas. The question becomes not about the merits of a given issue, but rather which position will help advance our side’s cause. If you want to legitimize the investigation into Trump, then it’s important that Strzok’s work not be seen as biased. If you want to make sure Kavanaugh is confirmed, then it’s important that he appear impartial.

The effects of these biases can be longstanding. For decades, conservatives and liberals have fought over the issue of defining free speech. Today, Republicans argue that liberals are assaulting First Amendment rights by trying to pass laws regulating speech and behavior. However, conservatives are no stranger to trying to limit free speech and expression in the United States. According to a 2017 poll from the Cato Institute, 36 percent of Republicans would support prohibiting offensive public statements aimed at military service members and the police. In a 2017 NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll, 42 percent of Republicans said we have gone too far in expanding the right of freedom of the press.

To cite another example, let’s examine how each party selectively claims to value the rule of law and the agencies that enforce it. When Trump and his allies speak against the FBI, Democrats sound the alarm about undermining the rule of law. When Democrats speak against ICE, Republicans sound the same alarm.

At present, neither liberals nor conservatives have a consistent answer to the question of personal bias, and whether it affects a person’s ability to do his/her job fairly and correctly. Did Strzok “leave [his] political beliefs at the door” and apply equal rigor to both investigations? Can Kavanaugh put aside his personal views and make an impartial ruling on an investigation involving the president?

There are no easy answers. The very nature of bias itself makes it easy to see it in others and difficult to see in ourselves. It is easy to see prejudice if that prejudice is against values we hold dear. It is easy to spot impropriety on the part of our opponents if we spend all our time searching for them. But before condemning the other side, let’s take a step back and acknowledge our own inconsistencies. Let’s ask ourselves why we are quick to forgive some people for their indiscretions but not others; why we dismiss some late-night texts and tweets as inconsequential but not others; why we assume the best intent on our side but the worst in the other.

Let’s continue to demand better from our opponents, but also take a critical eye in evaluating ourselves. Let’s call out bias and prejudice as vigorously when it hurts us as when it helps us. Let’s do better.

Annafi Wahed is founder of TheFlipSide.io, a daily digest of liberal and conservative commentary. She is a former field organizer for the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign in New Hampshire. Follow her on Twitter @AnnafiWahed.