The recent arguments over the GOP's determination to block President Obama's constitutional obligation to appoint a new justice to the Supreme Court have tended to return to the old canard that "both parties do this." Both parties are not equally extreme or rigid or prejudiced or hypocritical. One party is causing most of the dysfunction, even if, sadly and unfairly, most Americans have a habit of blaming everyone in elected office.
Which makes it worth re-reading an op-ed from a few years ago by two of the more clear-eyed political observers, Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann.
Saying both parties are to blame for the dysfunction we’ve seen in recent years is the result of public laziness. Or perhaps it's exhaustion. Either way it flows from a bad habit in our journalism and the news media who are supposed to moderate and referee our public discourse. I’m referring to the bad habit of false equivalency or false balancing.
“Both sides do it” was Nixon’s defense when a bit of political spying exposed the massive corruption in his presidency. It's also the defense given by five year olds who want to misbehave like the friends their parents don't want them to hang around with.
I’m reminded of something that happened at a friend’s house when I was eight or nine. The older brother was in the rec room pounding the hell out of my friend when their mother came in. She didn’t drag the older brother off and send him to his room; she yelled at both of them and punished both of them for fighting. This is false equivalency: if one party is doing wrong, whether beating or lying or cheating, it is somehow “unfair” to punish or rebuke the one that is offending without also rebuking and punishing the other, the victim. Both were fighting. "It takes two to make a fight." If one party does wrong something in our sense of fairness requires us to say, “Well, both were probably to blame.” This is why we hear people say that the victim of a crime probably asked for it, the beaten wife probably shouldn’t have provoked her husband, the rape victim should have dressed more primly or not gone outside after dark. This kind of lazy rationalization licenses the wrongdoer.
A lot of Americans have expressed disappointment with President Obama because he "doesn’t fight hard enough" for what the Democrats want to achieve, because he doesn’t go full-on political with the Republicans who have embargoed his presidency from day one. But when Obama was elected most Americans breathed a giant sigh of relief because he promised to preside as a moderate, as someone willing to look for common ground, willing to get things done, willing to avoid the bitter partisanship which had disgusted Americans in recent years. Americans applauded his promise to keep away from the nastiness that obsesses the other party. When others got ugly, he did not. When a freshman congressman called him a liar at the State of the Union, he answered civilly and without rancor, because it was a ludicrous and ugly remark. When idiots like Donald Trump questioned his birth certificate he laughed; it was the only sane response to a stupid charge that was provably false and proven to be so.
We’ve heard it seriously suggested by Republicans that Obama has been a divisive president. And there has been no moderate voice to point out what a stupid suggestion this is. The news media has simply reported the Republicans are saying it. They have reported it endlessly without invalidating it or even questioning it. (Just as they have covered Donald Trump’s candidacy without examining his statements or positions for validity or falsehood or bigotry or contradictions.) Calling Obama divisive is a bit like blaming the black family down the street for the burned spot in their front yard. True, that cross would not have been burned there if they had not been black and had not lived in that house. But it is deeply wrong and dishonest to blame the victim for the offenses committed against him. These things are an offense to all of us; perhaps we are all to blame.
All the evidence––the comments, the obstruction, the disrespectful comments by Republican officials, the outright hatred in the comments sections in newspapers and websites––tells us that the Republican base believes Obama was divisive simply because he was elected as a black man. Having a black family living in the White House upsets and somehow “insults” the base of the Republican Party––therefore it was “divisive" of Barack Obama to win the office. And twice as "divisive" to win it twice. That this ludicrous charge isn't greeted with broad disgust shows how corrupted our public conversation has become. Other ugly ideas flow from this unrepudiated and racist sentiment in the Republican base. It now seems the Republicans feel––since the Constitution stated that black Americans were only 3/5 of a human being––that any black American president should have a similarly limited presidency, say three years instead of four. This is difficult to dispute if you believe the Constitution was perfect as written, as if it was a sacred text from God, complete with its slavery provisions, and this is what most Republicans seem to believe. Especially canvassed en masse. One member of a mob will tend to uphold the consensus of the entire body no matter how ugly it is.
This core belief among Republicans that Democrats––and especially Democrats of color––are illegitimate is a deep seated, habitual, and outright form of bigotry. And it is a core part of the Republican brand. It has been so ever since the Democratic Party embraced civil rights and the Republican Party happily invited all the racists to join the GOP. It was written into the party’s campaign strategy in the Southern Strategy that elected Nixon to the White House twice.
A good short piece on the Republicans' Southern Strategy from Bloomberg.
Because Americans prize civility we are barred from calling this racism or bigotry, and we are barred by our news media’s habit of false equivalency from calling the Republican Party racist and bigoted, even when it is, but failure to call out bigotry tends to license it. When we (or our news media) accept a political extremist’s values without opposing or rejecting them we see the political middle skewed toward that extremism.
The center shifts. The standards of validity are rewritten to accommodate what was formerly unacceptable. Just as failure to call out a lie against science and reason shifts public opinion toward the lie and away from the scientific truth. People have a habit of balancing opposing arguments, and if the false argument is not repudiated, whether out of politeness or laziness or cowardice or bad habit, it corrupts the public conversation and the public conception of what is true. Barack Obama has chosen to match political extremism and bigotry and anti-science unreason and outright dishonesty with moderation and reason and tolerance and honesty.
Reason has a disadvantage when it is confronted by unreason. Unreason is louder, it is more fanatical, it is more stubborn, it is narrow minded and will not listen to dispute. President Obama has responded reasonably and tolerantly to the unreason and bigotry of his opponents. Does answering intolerance with tolerance make him a hypocrite? No. He was only tolerant in allowing the bigots the freedom to speak. As Voltaire put it “‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Which puts truth and science and reason and tolerance at a tactical disadvantage. When the Democratic Party repudiated racism the Republicans seized that opening. Knowing that no politician would win by calling the voters bigots, the GOP decided to embrace the bigots and this tactical advantage.
Which means that reasonable people need to engage in the argument instead of relaxing in the comfortable belief that they are right and the comfortable habit of not getting angry about someone else’s offensive beliefs. We cannot relax and feel confident that falsehood will be evident to everyone hearing it. We cannot be confident that everyone will see and repudiate racism or unreason or hypocrisy or unAmerican values without our taking the trouble to point them out. We are obligated to repudiate bigotry and unreason and dysfunction and to place the blame for these things squarely on those causing them. If we do not we are making it likelier that the ugly dishonest things we deplore will become the norm.
Labels: "both are to blame", bigotry, dysfunction, false balancing, false equivalency, Obama, racism, Republican extremism, Republican hypocrisy, Republican Party, Supreme Court, the Southern Strategy