Damning Democrats With False Equivalence Is Bad, But This Is Worse

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Posted in: Politics

Did you know that the Democratic Party is not in complete agreement about its policy priorities or its political messaging? If that is somehow surprising to you, then The Washington Post has just the article to bring you up to speed: “Despite Recent Wins, Democrats Remain Divided About What They Stand For.”

But why would anyone find this surprising? Millions of voters and thousands of strategists, party professionals, and officeholders at all levels are trying to figure out how to respond to the most shocking turn in American political history, and they continue to try to find the best path forward. They have not settled on a perfect strategy yet. If that is not a dog-bites-man story, I cannot imagine what is.

The Post’s reporters admit that things are moving in the Democrats’ direction (and this was before the big upset in Alabama on December 12), but they assure us that “pulling those advantages into a coherent message remains elusive in Trump’s tweet-driven Washington. Instead, Democrats are continuing to argue among themselves over how to present themselves to voters.”

Shocking, I know. Politicians arguing among themselves during the period between elections is clearly unheard of and thus newsworthy, I guess. What should be a sign of health in a major political party is somehow presented as dysfunction.

That is not to say that the Democrats cannot sometimes be justly criticized for being dysfunctional. I do it all the time, from saying that Barack Obama needlessly imposed a federal hiring freeze early in his presidency (without getting anything in return from Republicans) to noting that some party leaders are now making a mistake by taking seriously the claim that Democrats should reject so-called identity politics.

Those criticisms, however, have content. They amount to the claim that Democrats are making, or are considering making, bad choices. At worst, they are variations on the old aphorism that “Democrats never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” because the party has a history of paralysis-by-analysis accompanied by a frequent lack of commitment to its core convictions.

By contrast, The Post’s recent article is merely one example of a genre of content-free pseudo-analyses in which supposedly neutral sources say, “Boy, those Democrats are just pathetic because they are thinking through difficult questions.” Why are supposedly objective news outlets so comfortable framing obvious editorializing as news analysis—and relying on such cheap shots to do so?

The Tax Debate and Gratuitous Bashing of Democrats

The supposedly liberal-leaning press does not merely take opportunities to offer empty criticisms of Democrats’ political debates. When it comes to political strategies, Republicans are far too often presented as brilliant manipulators while Democrats are portrayed as hapless losers. The ongoing debate about the Republicans’ proposed tax cuts for corporations and the ultra-rich offers some very recent examples.

As Donald Trump’s term began in January of this year, everyone knew that the Republicans had the numbers in Congress to do whatever they could agree amongst themselves to do. Even though the Democrats had picked up six House seats and two Senate seats in 2016—contradicting the nonstop Democrats-as-losers meme that has become all but required in 2017 news coverage—that was not enough to give them the majority in either house.

This necessarily means that the only thing stopping the Republicans from unilaterally imposing their will is their own willingness to live within various limitations created by longstanding Senate rules. Those rules, however, can be changed by majority vote. That is how Republicans completed their theft of the open Supreme Court seat earlier this year, and if they wanted to do so, they could get rid of the filibuster for all other matters as well (as Trump has urged them to do.)

For the tax bill, Republicans decided not to burn down the Senate entirely but instead to use a rule that allows them to pass a tax bill with fifty votes (plus Mike Pence’s tie-breaking vote). As obvious as that move was, here is how an article in The Post described it:

Democrats panned the bill as a ‘tax scam’ that gives away a ton to the wealthy and corporations, but they were not able to stop the bill. Republicans were able to pass this massive legislation with just 51 votes. Normally it would take 60 votes, but Republicans side-stepped any trouble from Democrats by using a clever tactic known as reconciliation where they are allowed to tack one major bill a year onto the budget and pass it with a simple majority vote.

“Clever tactic”? Again, Republicans have a majority of the votes in the Senate, and the existing rules—rules that are known by anyone who has paid any attention at all to U.S. political debates over the past few years—allow them to use their majority to pass a completely partisan bill. Yet the quoted passage in The Post’s article presents this as proof that the Democrats are among the “losers” in the tax debate.

Is it just The Washington Post that has an annoying tendency to make Republicans look shrewd and Democrats clueless? Hardly. A recent article in The New York Times offered a similarly vapid take on the Democrats’ inability to magically turn 48 votes into 51 votes:

Democrats have found themselves outboxed in the most sweeping tax rewrite in generations. While Republicans in both chambers have allowed Democrats to offer amendments to the legislation, they have universally rejected those provisions. That has left Democrats with little recourse other than publicly pillorying the bill.

Maybe the reporter meant to write “boxed out,” but outboxed suggests that the Republicans came up with a better strategy than Democrats and executed that strategy more effectively. But again, in a body with 52 Republicans and 48 Democrats, it does not take superior boxing skills for Republicans to win. They merely have to get their own act together, which they are fortunately not always able to do.

Democrats Actually Believe the Negative Narrative About Democrats

Does any of this matter? I think it does. When half the country thinks that The Post and The Times are liberal rags, it is meaningful when those news sources falsely present the Democrats as bad at their jobs. Yes, one can point out that Democrats have lost the elections that they have lost (although acknowledging the role of voter suppression and gerrymandering is also important), but presenting a current lack of votes as a lack of strategy or savvy creates and reinforces a false narrative.

This tendency even shows up in coverage by sources that are openly liberal. For example, former “Daily Show” correspondent Samantha Bee earned a spot in the late-night lineup with her own show on TBS, which premiered in early 2016. Unfortunately, Bee has a tendency to trash Democrats and liberals for no particular reason, mirroring the false narrative that we see in the top-tier newspapers.

The worst case of this was a segment this past summer in which Bee sent correspondents to cover a rally in Los Angeles where liberal activists were calling for Trump’s impeachment. Nearly every aspect of the segment presented liberals and Democrats in the worst light possible.

First, Bee asserted that the protesters were ignoring the unfortunate “fact” that Trump had not done anything impeachable. You can’t impeach someone just because you don’t like him!

Mind you, this was after Trump had fired James Comey as FBI Director and after Trump admitted on national television that he did so because he was upset about Comey’s handling of the Russia investigation. Constitutional scholars had already called for Trump’s impeachment on that ground alone (to say nothing of Trump’s flagrant violations of the Emoluments Clause). While Republicans resist those conclusions, there was certainly plenty of reason for people to say that Trump was impeachable.

Even more absurdly, Bee’s correspondents mocked the protesters for wasting their own time, saying that nothing that happened at that rally was going to get Trump impeached, so why bother? The correspondents then joined the rally, carrying signs telling people to vote in the next election rather than pointlessly protesting.

It is certainly true that liberals and Democrats need to show up at the polls more reliably, especially in non-presidential elections, but one of the ways that people become energized to vote is by remaining engaged with the issues and even simply by blowing off steam and bonding with like-minded people when horrible things are happening.

At the very least, we need to ask what is the harm of a political protest that does not have immediate consequences? Why say, “See, those stupid liberals are at it again, talking to themselves and not doing anything useful”? When did political engagement become evidence of being pathetic?

Somehow, when Democrats and liberals do what citizens need to do—indeed, what they must do—to change the political future, mainstream news outlets and snarky liberals say, “What the hell is wrong with you people? You keep losing, so you must be doing something wrong. But when you try to gather yourselves to do things better, we’ll call you losers anyway simply for trying.”

False Equivalence’s Uglier Cousin

The phenomenon that I am describing here—and there are countless additional examples beyond the handful that I detailed above—is a toxic extension of the concept of “false equivalence,” which is the both-sides-are-equally-bad default position that too many journalists have adopted as a substitute for critical thinking.

For example, imagine that an independent analysis had found that the tax bill would reduce middle-class incomes by between 10 and 15 percent. If Republicans were to say that the tax bill would increase incomes, many (but not all) decent news organizations would point out that the Republicans were ignoring reality. So far, so good.

False equivalence would involve finding a way to criticize Democrats in order to appear balanced. So, for example, if a Democratic politician were to give a speech saying that the tax bill could reduce incomes by as much as 15 percent, a falsely equivalent rendering would read something like this:

An independent group of experts has found that the tax bill would reduce middle-class incomes by 10-15 percent. Republicans have ignored that finding and said that incomes would rise, but Democrats have also misrepresented the findings by emphasizing only the worst-case 15 percent outcome and by not mentioning that it was for middle-income earners only.

We see this kind of nonsensical reporting all the time, of course. What makes the “Democrats are being outmaneuvered and can’t get their act together” reporting described above worse is that it completely misrepresents reality in the service of reinforcing a preexisting story about Democrats’ and liberals’ fecklessness.

The easiest way to understand the fundamental dishonesty of that narrative can be seen by asking what would happen if the Democrats were doing something else entirely. Imagine, for example, that Democrats were currently not having conferences to discuss which issues to emphasize and which strategies to use to maximize voter turnout.

Would that end the criticism? After all, The Post could no longer disparage the Democrats for “arguing among themselves.” Forgive my cynicism, but I find it impossible to imagine that the coverage would then become: “Democrats show strength by agreeing on message and strategies.” It is much easier to imagine headlines like this: “Democrats Shut Down Debate More Than a Year Before Polls Open.”

Similarly, if there were no rallies against Trump and no evidence of people becoming involved in politics even when there are no elections in the immediate offing, I strongly suspect that people like Samantha Bee would be saying: “What’s wrong with liberals? Do they think that people will just magically care enough about the world to show up on election day without the Democrats having done the hard work of connecting with people in advance? Why aren’t they doing something . . . anything?!”

One expects to be “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” by one’s enemies. But when the supposedly neutral arbiters in the press and even one’s nominal allies are presenting positive action as evidence of inherent loserdom, there is a real problem.

Yes, liberals and Democrats should debate and criticize themselves and each other. They should decide whether, for example, abortion rights should be a litmus test for Democratic candidates. (Yes, they should.) They should decide how to target winnable seats and allocate resources appropriately. Ideas should be hashed out, and the bad ones should be rejected. Democrats should connect with people.

The left should, in short, try to move things in a better direction. They should try to win! They do not, however, deserve to have everything they do—and especially the things that they cannot control—spun as evidence of ineffectiveness or bad decisions. Playing catchup should not be mistaken for being irredeemable.

Posted in: Politics

Tags: Legal, News Media

  • Brett

    If any blame leveled against Democrats that is false is bad, then the same false blame leveled against Republicans is just as bad, especially the abundant false information about Republicans that pours from the “mainstream” media (and misinformation about the tax bill is one such example, as well as many examples of misinformation about President Trump, including several in the past week). The “mainstream” media is also so fixated on its, frankly, hatred of President Trump that it barely mentions all of the accomplishments in the past eleven months, such as: the lowest unemployment in the past seventeen years; a strong increase in jobs; a decrease in the colossal size of the federal government workforce; a decrease in over-regulation that strangles the economy; ISIS is finally on the run; steadily low gas prices; many record highs in the stock market; a decrease in illegal immigration; someone who has finally stood up to North Korea; federal judges who believe in the Constitution and not their own ideas of what it should be; and soon, tax relief for many millions of hard-working Americans.

  • Frank Willa

    Professor, thank you for this spot on analysis. I would like to offer, some of my views in concurrence. I think that the false equivalence is corrosive tool that the conservatives rely on to deflect responsibility from harmful or destructive things they get caught doing. The all too familiar refrain is that “everyone does this too, so we are not so bad”; this is not the same as acknowledging their own bad behavior. But rather, it deflects the responsibility, and reduces the criticism to “meaninglessness”. For example, if someone violates the speed limit on the actual D.C. beltway, as many do, a conservative would use the false equivalence to say ” others do it, so what is the problem?” – that is that speeding some how is ok. This does not change the reality that they violated the law, and that it is wrong no matter how many others do likewise. The beltway media have bought into the conservative narrative in this and many other ways. Again, as you point out, the complex nature of many issues the nation faces require thoughtful consideration and are not just simplistic, and easily disposed of by snap and impulsive quick fixes. The conservative agenda is simplistic, and so they do always have the quick response- the catchy slogan-; and because it is ideological; it is the same answers year in and year out. It presents the perception of being “sure” about the response, and standing for something. But the reality falls far short of solving the nations problems. Look as this current tax plan. It is supply side all over again and raises the deficit – something the Republicans said never again after the Bush 2 era of cuts with no benefit to the national debt and no increase in the wages of the average worker. But, the beltway media, having bought into the framing of the conservatives seem to have lost their way; no longer actually researching issues and past results, and just accepting what the Republicans say as preemptively true and what the Democrats say as suspect until proven true to a mathematical certainty.