False Purists and Their False Equivalence Dodge

Rarely are both sides equally wrong. Rarer still is one side 100 percent right.

From left to right: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speak to the media at the White House on November 16, 2012.
National Journal
Ron Fournier
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Ron Fournier
Oct. 9, 2013, 7:22 a.m.

“It’s a struggle with no her­oes,” de­clared The As­so­ci­ated Press in re­port­ing its poll on Amer­ic­ans’ at­ti­tudes to­ward the par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down. The coun­try is hold­ing Re­pub­lic­ans primar­ily re­spons­ible, the AP-GfK sur­vey shows, “but the situ­ation is flu­id nine days in­to the shut­down and there’s plenty of dis­dain to go around.”

In oth­er words, it is a pox on both houses.

Par­tis­ans des­pise pox-on-both-houses stor­ies. On the right and left, from the White House to the House speak­er’s of­fice, politi­cians spend their time, en­ergy, and cred­ib­il­ity on nar­row-minded quests to de­fend their in­fal­lib­il­ity. One way they do it is to ac­cuse journ­al­ists of “false equi­val­ence.”

A false equi­val­ence is to de­scribe a situ­ation as hav­ing lo­gic­al and ap­par­ent equi­val­ence when in fact there is none. For ex­ample, I be­lieve it would be false equi­val­ence to say Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats are equally to blame for the gov­ern­ment shut­down and the pos­sib­il­ity of a debt de­fault. Re­pub­lic­ans en­gin­eered the shut­down to protest a three-year-old health care law, know­ing their de­fund-or-delay de­mands were un­at­tain­able. False equi­val­ence is a form of in­tel­lec­tu­al lazi­ness.

There is no false equi­val­ence in the AP story or the pub­lic at­ti­tudes it re­flects — 62 per­cent blame Re­pub­lic­ans for the show­down. About half said Obama or Demo­crats in Con­gress bear much re­spons­ib­il­ity. Noth­ing equal about it.

At the same time, voters don’t ab­solve the Demo­crat­ic ma­jor­ity in the Sen­ate or Pres­id­ent Obama him­self. Only 37 per­cent ap­prove of the way the pres­id­ent is hand­ling his job, an an­em­ic num­ber. Demo­crat­ic Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id has a fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ing of just 18 per­cent, the same as House Speak­er John Boehner. The pres­id­ent was un­able or un­will­ing to gain GOP sup­port for Obama­care in 2010, he failed over the last three years to sell the pub­lic on the law’s many mer­its, and his peev­ish rhet­or­ic this month has at times been less than pres­id­en­tial. In oth­er words, Obama isn’t per­fect.

“Some­body needs to jerk those guys to­geth­er and get a solu­tion, in­stead of just say­ing ‘no,’” in­de­pend­ent voter Martha Blair told AP. “It’s just so frus­trat­ing.”

When I tweeted this story with a pox-on-all-houses teas­er, the re­sponse was pre­dict­able. Lib­er­al par­tis­ans clutched their cliché. False equi­val­ence! A typ­ic­al re­sponse (from a reg­u­lar and thought­ful lib­er­al read­er):

“@jack­thec­at11: @AP Way to find a poll that looks bad for Obama to bal­ance GOP’s cata­stroph­ic drop. You’re pretty dug in on this false equiv.”

That is wrong. The story and poll as­sess blame un­equally, which is the ex­act op­pos­ite of false equi­val­ence. What the poll re­flects is the abil­ity of voters to look bey­ond na­ked ideo­logy and de­mand bet­ter of their lead­ers — to hold them ac­count­able fairly, if not equally, re­gard­less of party or slice of blame. As I wrote the day be­fore the shut­down began, both parties are in danger of los­ing the fu­ture if they aren’t ac­count­able today.

Some­where along the line, par­tis­ans star­ted con­flat­ing false equi­val­ence with any thought that chal­lenges their ri­gid, ab­so­lut­ist points of view. In polit­ics and in every­day life, rarely are both sides equally wrong. Rarer still is one side 100 per­cent right. In this era of zero-sum gain polit­ics, the lo­gic­al fal­lacy more pro­nounced than false equi­val­ence is false pur­ity. It is in­tel­lec­tu­ally dis­hon­est.

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