False Equivalence: We Have a New Champ

By James Fallows

This took place while I was on the road in China, so I didn't catch up with it until just now. It is an editorial in (surprise!) the WSJ ten days ago that represents a certain kind of perfection in false-equivalence / black-is-white thinking. As a reminder:

  • Through most of American history, the elaborate checks-and-balances that went into the U.S. Constitution included the Senate's function as a body that over-represented the minority (two votes for even tiny-population states) but that itself operated by majority rule. Super-majorities were required only in certain exceptional cases -- impeachment trials, treaty ratification, etc. The rest of the Senate's business was meant to run, and for 200+ years of American history had in fact run, on a simple-majority basis.

  • Starting six years ago, when the Democrats regained control of the Senate, the Republican minority under Mitch McConnell dramatically ramped up the use of threatened filibusters, toward the goal of establishing 60 votes, not 51, as the norm for appointments and legislation rather than an exceptional last-gasp measure.

  • The goal was not only to make this obstructionist practice routine but also to have it described as such by the press, which increasingly has gone along in saying that it takes 60 votes to "pass" a measure, rather than to break a filibuster.

  • An auxiliary goal is to make "gridlock," "dysfunction," and "logjam" in the Senate seem to be a caused-by-no-one phenomenon for which everyone is equally to blame -- especially a president who has failed to "lead" -- rather than an explicit blocking strategy by the minority party.
Comes now the Wall Street Journal, which interestingly chastises the bumptious freshman Senator Ted Cruz for threatening a filibuster -- and follows that with a passage that is either astonishingly un-self-aware or quite formidably cunning.

CruWSJ2.png

In case you can't read it from the photo above, the passage says (emphasis added):
The strategy of Mr. Cruz and his comrades was to use the filibuster to block any gun control measure from even getting votes on the floor. We criticized that as misguided, since it would let Senate Democrats avoid difficult votes and open Republicans to Mr. Obama's criticism that they were obstructionists for blocking a Senate debate and votes.

In the event, Mr. Cruz's GOP colleagues agreed with us. They helped to override his filibuster attempt and let the bill proceed to the floor. Whereupon a bipartisan coalition emerged that defeated the gun-control amendments, as each one failed to get 60 votes.
In other words, the Republicans high-mindedly broke Ted Cruz's filibuster attempt -- so the measure could come to the floor and then be filibustered. If it had come up for a "normal" vote, it would have passed. The beauty part is that the editorial is devoted to criticizing Cruz for being sloppy with his facts.

Thumbnail image for OrwellTyping.jpgI don't know which interpretation is worse: that the WSJ editorialist doesn't see what is dishonest and preposterous in this passage -- or that he or she does, and doesn't care. These lines from George Orwell's Politics and the English Language come unavoidably to mind:
"If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better."
Thanks also to many readers who pointed me to Charles Pierce's elaboration of the false-equivalence instinct at work in a recent column by Bill Keller, who I generally agree with except when he is endorsing war in either Iraq or Syria. Keller wrote in this latest column, "think tanks on both the right and the left have set up explicit lobbying arms, anointed leaders known not for academic credibility but for partisan ferocity, and picked their fights at least in part to help drive their fund-raising." But as Pierce points out, the real-world examples he gives all come from ... the right. The "partisans on both sides ..." reflex is very strong.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/05/false-equivalence-we-have-a-new-champ/275819/