False Equivalence: Where It Came From

By James Fallows

You know the syndrome. And, hey, if you've forgotten, check these two recent examples. Today several hypotheses about its origins. First, from a reader in Colorado, the idea that the false-equivalence reflex -- "extremists on both sides are blocking progress on the budget" -- comes from a kind of mirror-image mentality:

I've had a similar reaction to politicians and pundits (virtually always on the right, it seems these days) who assume that just because they are for something, the people on the other side must be against it, or vice versa.

So, if they think there should be "less government," then the rest of us all think the answer to every problem is "more government." Or because they purport to be single-mindedly focused on less spending, the rest of us are for out-of-control spending. It puts a straw man front and center and then bashes it, which the press doesn't call out enough either.

A reader in Connecticut says we are seeing a grown-up, political-world version of schoolyard bullying:

I am particularly amused by the current meme that somehow the blame lays at Obama's, and by extension, the Democrats' feet.  So they have to give in because everyone understands that the Republicans are so set in their views that they won't change, so it's up to Obama to compromise?

I think that this ties in with the new attention that Emily Bazelon has given to the problem of bullying with her book [and related Atlantic article] Sticks and Stones.  One thing that hasn't been pointed out is that bullying exists, even in adults.  Furthermore, bullying by supposed adults often works at the highest levels of politics and business.  In sum, if a group of kids acted like the Republicans in Congress, refusing ever to even even acknowledge that there are legitimate points of view that contradicted their own, and refusing to do anything unless they got their way completely, wouldn't the teacher think that they were attempting to bully the rest of the class?

Another reader, Shreeharsh Kelkar of MIT, offers a social-science explanation:

I share your frustration with the false equivalence that's practiced by the big newspapers.

But I wonder if I might offer a perspective on bipartisan think based on my discipline: the history and sociology of science.

You say in one of your posts that the thinking behind it seems to be that reality is somewhere between the positions of the two parties. And there's something to that. But I think one of the ways of explaining it is using a concept called "boundary work.

Boundary work is a kind of rhetorical work that is performed in public argument: something is asserted to be science by stressing what it is not (pseudo-science, or faith, or religion, or what have you). Even Tim Geithner did it in his exit interview when he painted his own work as just a kind of technocratic problem-solving rather than politics, see this analysis

It seems to me that our political discourse also contains a similar kind of boundary work -- between "politics" and "policy." Our politicians will always say: what I'm doing is just plain old common sense or the right thing or just good policy, or just the solution to a problem; whereas what my opponent is doing is playing politics. And if one sees politics as actually a way of managing relations between conflicting groups of people, one can see why they do that. 

For instance, reforming the American health care system is almost certainly a matter of redistribution: taking money from older people and giving it to others (the uninsured, younger people, etc.). But one can't say that if one is a politician, and so there is a delicate balancing act: one's own work is constructed as problem-solving and policy-making, the opponent is portrayed as playing politics (where politics is understood to be trading off between different social groups).

I think this kind of boundary work exists in journalism too (and more on why it exists later); it's what you call false equivalence (and Yglesias calls bipartisan think). Here the newspaper is seen as above politics, which is what grubby politicians do. And therefore the contrast between the policy that the newspaper is advocating (which is not politics but merely good moral sensible stuff), and that what the politicians are doing. It is imperative, I think, in this model that both parties be painted in the same brush. Because if you don't, then you agree with one of the parties, which therefore makes you political.

Why should the newspapers practice this kind of boundary work? My sense (which comes straight from Paul Starr's history of the media) is that it's a holdover from the times when the newspaper industry changed. As we all know now (from arguing about partisanship), newspapers in the 19th century were unabashedly partisan. They also catered to niches, and made money from subscriptions. And that changed sometime in the 20th century when newspapers started to make money from advertisements -- and therefore they had to be less partisan and attract more people. Hence the objective tone of the reported stories (he says, she says) -- and also I think the false equivalence of the editorials.

Interestingly enough, we're now back in more partisan times, thanks to the Web. And it's interesting to me that you, Matt and others who call the editorials on their false equivalence operate in a completely different new media ecosystem; you have readers of a certain kind and stripe (but lots of them thanks to the reach of the Web), you don't really need to be bipartisan. But I think the example of Ezra Klein proves my point: ever since he's moved to the Washington Post, he's a lot less rough(er) on Republicans than he used to be. He won't fall into the false equivalence trap for sure but he's certainly adapted to a different audience. (I think it's great that he's reaching more people).

So - I don't think the WaPo is ever going to abandon its false equivalence model; not unless it becomes a completely new kind of WaPo (which it might very well become!).

I don't mean to suggest of course that all editors are dumb actors acting out a premediated sociological script; just that the roots of false equivalence go pretty deep into our current system.

I suspect this analysis is not particularly new to you (with some jargon added!).

Indeed this is an analysis I've thought about before -- thanks to Starr's book, and Jay Rosen's, and many others', and Breaking the News back in the 1990s. But I had not known about the "boundary work" label, which is usefully clarifying. It's a long road ahead.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/03/false-equivalence-where-it-came-from/274082/