Flip-Flops, Double Standards, and Other Political Sins: A Citizen's Guide to Hypocrisy in Politics

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People detest hypocrisy, and one of the reasons people hold politics in such low regard is that politics appears rife with hypocrisy. The proliferation of hypocrisy in politics can leave many feeling disenchanted and cynical about political affairs. Yet even those with a strong aversion to political hypocrisy are likely to admit there are occasions when an act that has been characterized as hypocritical is actually acceptable in politics. In some cases, the offense of hypocrisy may not be very serious, or conditioned by circumstances; in other cases, the accusation may not even be valid.

This study examines the question of when hypocrisy is more or less acceptable in politics. This issue is explored through a series of case studies drawn from events that occurred in American politics between 2014-2016, an era characterized by high political polarization, high-stakes showdowns between congressional Republicans and the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama, the 2016 presidential primaries, and 2016 presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The study is organized by type, with a focus on basic violations of principle; logical inconsistencies; double standards involving partisan competition; discrepancies between the public affairs of public officials and their private lives; and flip-flops. The study finds that the most useful and powerful accusations of hypocrisy are those that effectively assert that a political figure has inappropriately prioritized narrow partisan concerns over a broader commitment to principles related to democratic norms, the exercise of civic virtue, and public-spiritedness.