Stuart Zechman describes how "false equivalence" has come to mean
something very different during the Obama administration than it
meant during the Bush administration. Recorded March 13, 2012
I'm Stuart Zechman, and I've been hearing the phrase "false equivalence" being used lately in ways I've never heard before.
You remember what "false equivalence" is, right?
It's when someone points out what appears to be a similarity between two things that are, in reality, not equivalent at all.
I'm pretty darn familiar with the expression, because, especially during the 2000s, the national press corps would put their centrist biases on display by manufacturing false equivalences all the time.
The centrist media would routinely couch its reporting in language like:
"...the extreme rhetoric from both liberals and conservatives in the debate over the Iraq invasion became even more heated than usual this week, as Ann Coulter's new book 'Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism' topped the New York Times best-seller list..."
And we'd say, whoah-whoah, hold on a minute there...we movement liberals are saying that, in addition to it being weirdly immoral to invade a country for basically no reason, and then spend the next decade occupying hostile foreign lands, it's a stupendously bad idea in policy terms, because it makes America less safe to bankrupt ourselves whilst inspiring more and more people around the world to dedicate themselves to blowing us up than would otherwise. Like, say, if we weren't pointlessly blowing up people who are just trying to go about their lives in their homes day after day, year after year.
The movement conservatives, on the other hand, were saying that, by definition, liberals are traitors. During wartime. Also, Joe McCarthy was right, and McCarthyism was a good thing...because liberals really are traitors who would love to sell out their country during a time of war, because we don't like America or Americans. Ann Coulter would say things on television and in print like “Liberals have a preternatural gift for always striking a position on the side of treason,” and “Everyone says liberals love America, too. No, they don’t.” That was June of 2003, by the way. It was just a few months into the Iraq war, and just a year and a half after 9/11, and that's what movement conservatives were saying about their fellow Americans, that we were trying to betray our country just because of who we are.
Now, anybody can see that these two sets of arguments aren't the same. They're just not equivalent. That would be false equivalence.
And so it became a pretty widely accepted critique of the centrist media on the left, for good reason.
But I've noticed something: "false equivalence" now means something else entirely.
When I've said that prime time MSNBC sounds sometimes like the same partisan, propaganda channel devoted to the political empowerment of a single Party we liberal Democrats used to mock, I'm now told that I'm engaging in "false equivalence."
And when I've said that Eric Holder's declaration based on a secret legal memo that when it comes to the government assassinating American citizens, "due process" doesn't necessarily mean "judicial process," sounds like John Yoo at a "24" DVD drinking party, I'm now told that I'm engaging in "false equivalence."
It now means "When Democrats do the same thing that Republicans do, pointing out those facts is engaging in false equivalence, because, although it may appear to be similar policy regimes, Democrats are basically good, and have people's interests at heart, while Republicans are nasty, evil racists and misogynists who motivated purely by hatred of liberals like us."
According to this view, Democrats in power can't possibly be like Republicans, even when they do identical things, because, by definition, liberals are good, and, by definition, conservatives are bad.
But when Paul Krugman accurately writes that Mitt Romney's "signature achievement was a health reform identical in all important respects to the national reform signed into law by President Obama four years later," it just can't be "false equivalence" to call the Affordable Care Act "Romney-Care," even if that makes some Democrats mad to hear it described that way.
You know, we liberal Democrats like to say that we're "the reality-based community." If that term is to continue to have any meaning at all, and not become the tragic joke of the 2012 election cycle, we movement liberals should probably spend less time yelling about false equivalence between Democrats and Republicans, and more time pointing out the actual equivalence between some Democratic and Republican policies...no matter which party happens to be in charge at the time.
I'm Stuart Zechman, and this has been the Z-Files.
Stuart Zechman organizes public commentary at legacy media political blogs, such as TIME Magazine's Swampland. A movement liberal, entrepreneur and technologist, Stuart uses Twitter as a primary communications tool. He posts at Avedon’s Other Weblog and Yves Smith’s Naked Capitalism. He occasionally provides short audio commentary. • Follow @stuart_zechman