Misinformation: In the current political and cultural conflicts in the U.S., both sides are equally to blame/wrong/dishonest.
Information: People have a natural tendency to seek balance, and most of us would rather stand aside from a conflict than jump into it. One way to do that is to choose not to take sides. Sometimes that’s the right thing to do, sometimes it isn’t. To rationalize that decision when it isn’t, you’ll often see people saying “both sides are equally bad” or “there’s always two sides to an argument” or some such.
This is a logical fallacy known as false equivalence. The problem with it becomes obvious a few examples: just because some people think the earth is flat doesn’t give them equal footing with those who say it’s round; the claim that a sociopath is no worse than his victims because victims are also always guilty of something, etc., etc.
Another fallacy that often underlies false equivalence is two-valued logic, which divides people into groups of “good” and “bad” and doesn’t differentiate within those groups. People in the two-valued camp point to instances in Biden’s long political career in which he was on the wrong side of an argument, or occasions when he put his hands on a woman’s shoulders, and say that these are equivalent to Trump’s disastrous record on COVID or his record of sexual abuse of women: both equally bad. Or they point to one of the failings of the Democratic Party and say that the well-documented Republican efforts to suppress minority voters are just part of the dirty political game that both sides play.
I’ve written before about the moral differences of the two sides. Democrats have far from a spotless track record; if you go back 60 years you’ll find Southern Democrats acting despicably. But right now it’s Republicans who have completely abandoned respect for truth and the condemnation of criminal acts while embracing tactics that increase division and factionalism—any tactic, really, that they believe enables them to acquire or retain power. This trend didn’t start with Trump; it began almost 3 decades ago and has since grown to an extreme level of partisanship under McConnell. Trump has catalyzed it to unprecedented ugliness.
The “logic” of such immorality is the conviction that one’s own goals are so morally superior to the goals of an opponent that they justify whatever means are required to achieve them. But the truth is that outcomes are always defined by the means by which they are achieved.
However, that’s perhaps a little abstract, so let’s put moral differences aside, and consider some aspects of non-equivalence that are quite concrete—existential threats to the nation. Here are four:
- Global Climate Change: What was obvious 30 years ago is even more obvious now; humankind is degrading the ability of our planet to support life and in particular to support our own civilizations, through atmospheric pollution that’s driving global climate change. The evidence of this is omnipresent, to the degree that those who do not see what’s happening must have chosen to be blind to it, due to ideology, self-interest, fear, or all three. On one side of the current political contest are people who have made the choice to be blind, on the other are those who are trying to minimize the disaster we will be inflicting on our children and grandchildren. There is no equivalence.
- Wealth Gap: Currently, the richest 1% of individuals in the US own about 1/3 of the country’s total wealth, the bottom 50% own 1/50th. This gap has been steadily increasing for the past 40 years, accelerated by federal tax legislation that tilted the economic table further and further in favor of the wealthy in 1981, 1986, 2001, 2003 and 2017. A national economy whose success depends on the productivity of people who are not wealthy, and yet is structured to primarily reward only the wealthy, is not sustainable. The image that comes to mind is the dystopian future envisioned in H. G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine, with Morlocks laboring below ground to provide an idyllic existence to the above-ground Eloi.One side in this election has been acting to exacerbate this problem for 4 decades and will continue to do so; the other side has a record of fighting for the unwealthy (among other things, by making health care more affordable) and has a plan to tax those who have benefited most from the tilting of the table, so as to infuse money into the middle and working classes, by investing in infrastructure and construction projects aimed at reducing carbon dioxide pollution. There is no equivalence.
- Injustice: The Founders, and many American leaders since then, have voiced high ideals, including the right to vote, the right to justice, the right to equal opportunity, and the right to life for every citizen. They are ideals that inspired the world and of which we can be proud, but we’ve got a long way to go to live up to them. Every time one of our national leaders abandons the efforts to do so, and in fact embraces opposite values, we lose a little bit of the America that many of us thought we were living in. One candidate in this election has voiced support for those fighting for the Founders’ ideals; the other has voiced support for the group that the FBI has labelled the nation’s primary internal terrorist threat: white supremacists. No equivalence.
- Corruption of Democracy: Only one side in this election has consistently operated to suppress voting in elections in recent history, to the degree that they were placed under judicial supervision 40 years ago to inhibit their “poll-watching” operations which were in reality thinly veiled voter intimidation tactics. That court order was allowed to expire in 2018, and Republicans are planning to be out in force with the same tactics this November. No equivalence.Let’s not ourselves be guilty of two-valued logic—all Republicans aren’t evil, all Democrats aren’t saintly. Trump is not 100% wrong, and Biden isn’t 100% right. But the differences couldn’t be more stark—a vote for Donald Trump in this election is a vote against an environment that sustains life, against a stable economy, against justice, and against democracy.
Republicans are counting on fear, self-centeredness, and fixed ideological belief to win. Democrats are counting on courage, generosity, and intelligence. The future hangs on who Americans choose, and who we choose to be.