False Equivalence: Going to the Source

More times than I would like, I have turned to the Washington Post's editorial page to illustrate classic "false equivalence" thinking. E.g.: one party filibusters all nominations; therefore "both sides" are to blame for jobs going unfilled. Last month I mentioned a WaPo pinnacle of this mentality.

If you would like to eliminate uncertainty about the origins of this view, I direct your attention to a signed contribution from the editor of the Post's editorial page, Fred Hiatt, on why "Obama could get things done by governing today." Please read this and see if your reaction is other than ... wow.


Yes (the essay itself says), the Republicans are wrong in their extremism, and in their refusal to consider any increase in taxes, and in their willingness to filibuster anything. And, yes, the president has been offering compromises, in atmospherics and in substance. But still all sides are necessarily to blame for a partisan stand-off. And the president could solve this mess if he decided to "govern." The payoff of the column, in the form of an open-letter appeal to the president:
And beyond politics, on many of the biggest challenges you're going to need ideas from Column A and Column B... [Y]ou can't solve the debt challenge without raising more revenue and controlling entitlement costs... Eventually, in other words, you're going to have to wheel and deal and compromise -- you're going to have to govern. It might as well be now.

OK. Let's suppose you believed this. What, exactly, does it mean? What does Obama do tomorrow? Or, better, "today"?

  • Does he propose a budget plan modeled on ideas from revered centrists like Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, or Robert Rubin? Oh, wait, he's already done that.
  • Does he propose dealing with entitlement reforms? Oh, wait, that was in the State of the Union address.

How about if you, WaPo, try setting out what you consider a "balanced" package of budget reforms -- and then, after giving the details, see if the Administration and the House Republicans agree. My money is on the administration saying, let's look at this, and the House Republicans saying, No. And then ... what? The twin reflexes of D.C. centrist thinking are assuming (a) that a president can "lead" or "govern" his way out of any corner, and (b) that [except for provision (a)] you can't ever really declare one side in a dispute "wrong." Therefore this scenario would presumably end with another plea to the president to "take control."

For more on the intractability of false-equivalence thinking, see this today from Greg Sargent in (another part of) the WaPo:

Imagine that Mitt Romney had decisively defeated Obama in the 2012 election on a platform of tax cuts for the rich and deep cuts to government as the only way to reduce the deficit, dramatically repudiating the President's call for higher taxes on the wealthy, continued implementation of the biggest expansion of the safety net in 60 years, and more government spending to boost the economy.

Then imagine that Democrats in the Senate (the only part of government they controlled) responded to this by proposing to dramatically expand health care and stimulus spending and pay down the deficit only with 100 percent tax hikes -- and not a single penny more in spending cuts -- and on top of that, then suggested President Romney has failed to sincerely try to find common ground with them.

The reassuring aspect of this signed piece is insight as to whence the unsigned editorials arise.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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