One of the common claims I see made on the left is false equivalency. For example, I detested the type of demonizing former President Trump used to engage in. Then on September 1st President Biden gave his famous “MAGA Republican” speech which also was a dreadful demonizing speech. I held him to the same standard I held Trump. Yet several of my more progressive friends accused me of false equivalence. They argued that it was not the same and even if it was similar to a Trumpian speech that this happens so little on the left that it is not worth mentioning. Hence the claim of false equivalency.
This is an attempt to claim a false equivalence fallacy to cover up the dysfunctions of one’s political allies. While I have seen conservatives use this fallacy from time to time, it seems to be much more prevalent among progressives.
There are serious shortcomings with this fallacy. First, I find that often the equivalence is not quite as false as individuals like to think that it is. For example, we hear claims that Republicans do not support democratic norms. If someone mentions Abrams as a counter-example then one would be hit with the false equivalency charge. But a recent poll shows that resistance to democratic norms among Democrats is not less common than it is for Republicans. This survey shows that Democrats are more likely to say that in-party officials should ignore out-party judges (13% to 12.2%), in-party should reduce polling places in out-party areas (8.4% to 4.5%), and in-party presidents should use Executive orders to circumvent out-party controlled congress (52.5% to 18.6%) than Republicans. Republicans are more likely to say that Government should censor media that attack out-party more than in-party (19.3% to 15.8%) and during election challenges that in-party loyalty is more important than loyalty to the constitution (16% to 13%). This is a mixed bag in which neither party can claim the mantel of being superior in supporting democratic norms. Yet to point this out is to be accused of false equivalency.
Perhaps a better example can be seen in the horrible attack on Paul Pelosi. Many commenters on the left state that politically inspired violence is a problem on the right. Pointing out the attack on Scalise only gets you an accusation of false equivalency. Yet this same poll tells a different story. Democrats are more supportive of politically inspired protesting without a permit (36.6% to 31.6%), vandalism (8.1% to 3.6%), assault (3.5% to 1.1%) arson (2.1% to .9%), assault with a deadly weapon (2.1% to .8%) and murder (1.6% to .1%) than Republicans. It is easy to make the case that attitudes supportive of political violence are much more of a problem on the left than on the right.
But let’s admit that there are times when conservatives are more in the wrong than progressives. Is that still justification to run behind a false equivalency argument to ignore the sins on the left? It is not. A society where men are allowed to hit their wives is better than a society where men are allowed to kill their wives. However, they should not hide behind arguments of false equivalency to avoid the obvious problem that they should not be hitting their wives. Even in cases when false equivalency may be accurate, progressives would do well to ask hard questions about whether the accusation they face is accurate and to attend to the problems in their own communities.
The real danger of the use of false equivalency is the creation of a double standard in behavior and actions. If our focus is only on when conservatives do not hold to democratic norms or support political violence then we will create a society in which we punish conservatives much more than progressives. This will incentivize progressives to engage in undemocratic norms and political violence since they can escape sanctions. Ironically by applying this double standard those who show concern for democratic norms and political violence will produce more of it by giving those on their side a “pass.”
Obviously, nothing I have written here suggests that we should ignore the lunacy that occurred on January 6 or excuse minimizing politicized violence as recently done by Donald Trump Jr. If political conservatives use the misuse of false equivalency to ignore the problems within their own ranks. Indeed, until individuals on both sides of the aisle are willing to call out our own in-group then we will only perpetuate problems of undemocratic norms, politically inspired violence, and other shortcomings that emerge due to the polarization in our society.
My hope is that as we deal with the shortcomings of the false equivalency copout that all of us develop a level of introspection where we admit to our needs to improve our own groups instead of focusing merely on tearing down our ideological enemies. I know that is a tall ask in a society that is as polarized as ours is today. But it may be one of the only ways we can move beyond polarization and towards a community that can address issues without immediately running to recriminations and dehumanizing of our out-groups.