False Purists and Their False Equivalence Dodge

Rarely are both sides equally wrong. Rarer still is one side 100 percent right.

From left to right: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speak to the media at the White House on November 16, 2012. (National Journal)

"It's a struggle with no heroes," declared The Associated Press in reporting its poll on Americans' attitudes toward the partial government shutdown. The country is holding Republicans primarily responsible, the AP-GfK survey shows, "but the situation is fluid nine days into the shutdown and there's plenty of disdain to go around."

In other words, it is a pox on both houses.

Partisans despise pox-on-both-houses stories. On the right and left, from the White House to the House speaker's office, politicians spend their time, energy, and credibility on narrow-minded quests to defend their infallibility. One way they do it is to accuse journalists of "false equivalence."

A false equivalence is to describe a situation as having logical and apparent equivalence when in fact there is none. For example, I believe it would be false equivalence to say Republicans and Democrats are equally to blame for the government shutdown and the possibility of a debt default. Republicans engineered the shutdown to protest a three-year-old health care law, knowing their defund-or-delay demands were unattainable. False equivalence is a form of intellectual laziness.

There is no false equivalence in the AP story or the public attitudes it reflects -- 62 percent blame Republicans for the showdown. About half said Obama or Democrats in Congress bear much responsibility. Nothing equal about it.

At the same time, voters don't absolve the Democratic majority in the Senate or President Obama himself. Only 37 percent approve of the way the president is handling his job, an anemic number. Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid has a favorability rating of just 18 percent, the same as House Speaker John Boehner. The president was unable or unwilling to gain GOP support for Obamacare in 2010, he failed over the last three years to sell the public on the law's many merits, and his peevish rhetoric this month has at times been less than presidential. In other words, Obama isn't perfect.

"Somebody needs to jerk those guys together and get a solution, instead of just saying 'no,'" independent voter Martha Blair told AP. "It's just so frustrating."

When I tweeted this story with a pox-on-all-houses teaser, the response was predictable. Liberal partisans clutched their cliché. False equivalence! A typical response (from a regular and thoughtful liberal reader):

"@jackthecat11: @AP Way to find a poll that looks bad for Obama to balance GOP's catastrophic drop. You're pretty dug in on this false equiv."

That is wrong. The story and poll assess blame unequally, which is the exact opposite of false equivalence. What the poll reflects is the ability of voters to look beyond naked ideology and demand better of their leaders "“ to hold them accountable fairly, if not equally, regardless of party or slice of blame. As I wrote the day before the shutdown began, both parties are in danger of losing the future if they aren't accountable today.

Somewhere along the line, partisans started conflating false equivalence with any thought that challenges their rigid, absolutist points of view. In politics and in everyday life, rarely are both sides equally wrong. Rarer still is one side 100 percent right. In this era of zero-sum gain politics, the logical fallacy more pronounced than false equivalence is false purity. It is intellectually dishonest.