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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Fallows on False Equivalence

In a fine riposte to Ross Douthat, who claimed that just about everyone in politics has flip-flopped on privacy and civil liberties issues based on the partisan identity of the administration, James Fallows of The Atlantic shows otherwise:

The anti-security theater alliance has always included right-wing and left-wing libertarians (both exist), ACLU-style liberals, limited-government-style conservatives, and however you would choose to classify the likes of Bruce Schneier or Jeffrey Goldberg (or me). I know of Republicans who, seemingly for partisan reasons like those Douthat lays out, have joined the anti-security theater chorus. For instance, former Sen. Rick Santorum. I don’t know of a single Democrat or liberal who has peeled off and moved the opposite way just because Obama is in charge.
A harder case is Guantanamo, use of drones, and related martial-state issues. Yes, it’s true that some liberals who were vociferous in denouncing such practices under Bush have piped down. But not all (cf Glenn Greenwald etc). And I don’t know of any cases of Democrats who complained about these abuses before and now positively defend them as good parts of Obama’s policy — as opposed to inherited disasters he has not gone far enough to undo and eliminate.

Douthat, of course, is engaging in the everybody’s-doing-it argument that the disingenuous habits of Republicans these days are just a subset of a generalized plague of partisanship in which they are no more guilty than their enemies. But saying it’s so doesn’t make it so, and in fact operates as a way of excusing bad behavior and misunderstanding real-life events. And Fallows calls out Douthat and others who depend on false equivalence exercises as a substitute for actual judgment:

So: it’s nice and fair-sounding to say that the party-first principle applies to all sides in today’s political debate. Like it would be nice and fair-sounding to say that Democrats and Republicans alike in Congress are contributing to obstructionism and party-bloc voting. Or that Fox News and NPR have equal-and-offsetting political agendas in covering the news. But it looks to me as if we’re mostly talking about the way one side operates. Recognizing that is part of facing the reality of today’s politics.

To put it another way, false-equivalence arguments are pernicious not only because they distort reality and misallocate responsibility for misdeeds, but because they reward perpetrators by perversely blaming their victims. The “everybody’s-doing-it” impulse can be as damaging as the conduct it rationalizes.

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