Wayne M. O’Leary

False Equivalence

One of the really annoying features of contemporary political life is the notion, perpetrated by the mass media and the elite commentariat (and accepted by much of the public) that there is equal blame to go around for America’s partisan gridlock and dysfunctional governing institutions. According to the chattering class, both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans are equivalently at fault for Washington’s inability to “get things done.”

Presumably, if only the two sides would stop bickering and compromise, there is an achievable golden mean somewhere between their respective positions, situated halfway along the ideological spectrum from Left to Right. If it can just be pinpointed and agreed upon, all our problems will melt away, and we will live happily ever after.

This difference-splitting approach owes much to the fact that many Americans hate politics and would prefer it disappeared. It’s far easier to imagine there’s some strife-free middle course that will magically eliminate controversy than to figure out where one stands on the issues. Developing a coherent worldview that makes sense of politics and creates order out of apparent chaos requires the sort of concentrated thought that all but the most committed reject out of hand.

Without such a framework, however, people are left to fall back on their reflexive anti-politics bias against parties and partisanship that views the truth as always midway between what the contending forces want. Triangulating presidents love to capitalize on this mindset by telling the public that since criticism is coming from both directions, their pragmatic leader must be doing exactly the appropriate thing.

It is the desperate yearning for compromise and bipartisanship that, in the present political environment, has led to the idea of equivalent blame. Despite the obvious philosophical shift of Republicans from center-right to extreme right and their enthusiastic embrace of radical obstructionism, the Democrats, unchanged and ever attuned to deal making, are nevertheless held equally responsible for Washington’s inability to govern. In fact, Democrats, especially in the White House, have offered everything but the kitchen sink since 2010 to achieve workable policy agreements with their hard-line opponents.

Somehow, Democrats are expected to be “responsible,” sacrificing what’s left of their principles by marching steadily rightward in an increasingly futile effort to meet the shape-shifting GOP halfway. Republicans, on the other hand, can’t be expected to give an inch; they’re “angry,” after all, and who knows what they might do if provoked? Shut down the Government? We can’t risk agitating these children of the darkness, so Democrats should give in to their tantrums and acquiesce lest they share the public’s disapprobation for gridlock and dysfunction.

Meanwhile, a select breed of nonideological politicians, variously called moderate or centrist or independent, has captured the imagination of the media establishment, which inflates them at every opportunity. Watch David Gregory, Fareed Zakaria, or Charlie Rose at work, pushing deficit reduction and entitlement reform, their favorite causes, and gushing over the latest personification of legislative bipartisanship. They mourned the political passing of Maine’s GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe, who voted with the Democrats once in a blue moon (after extracting sufficient tribute in the form of watered-down liberal legislation); wait until they meet her likely replacement, Independent Angus King, a self-proclaimed maverick and millionaire ex-Democrat who glories in Lieberman-like contrariness.

King is the kind of politician elite opinion lusts after in its dreams; he’s a social liberal and economic conservative, a “No Labels” former businessman born to advance the false equivalence myth and seek compromise with the GOP, no matter how far over the horizon toward Tea Party Land it’s positioned itself. And he won’t challenge big business (he’s already criticized the mild Dodd-Frank banking reforms), a prerequisite for getting invited on corporate-sponsored network talk shows. When this certified 1 percenter slides into Snowe’s old seat, chalk up another vote for Simpson-Bowles or any other bipartisan fiscal-hawk proposal that comes along.

But King is next year. This year, the hero of the false-equivalence media crowd is “moderate” Democratic Mayor Corey Booker of Newark, N.J. Booker, Wall Street’s favorite mayor, takes exception to the Obama campaign’s focus on Mitt Romney’s misadventures at Bain Capital; it makes him nauseated, he says. Private-equity managers, such as Romney in his previous incarnation, are just hard-working executives trying to make a buck — or a billion bucks, as the case may be. Supposedly, attacking them is attacking capitalism; it’s a form of unwarranted Democratic partisanship. They may have helped cause the financial collapse and the Great Recession, but hey, nobody’s perfect.

Booker is one of those Democrats who crave bipartisanship as an avenue toward political advancement. He’s a pal of fellow New Jerseyite and onetime securities-industry lobbyist Chris Christie, the Garden State’s liberal-baiting Republican governor. What could be more expressive of hands across the trenches? Those who think both parties are equally culpable for dysfunctional politics must be thrilled at this Entente Cordiale.

Booker is not alone in chasing down the radical Republicans to hug them as they race to the right. His supporters among the Democrats include, predictably, ex-congressman Harold Ford (late of Tennessee and now of New York and Wall Street) and, sadly, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. Ford has always been in the conservative, pro-corporate wing of the Democratic Party. Rendell, on the other hand, though never a populist, seems more motivated by a belief that accepting the premise of false equivalence and tailoring Democratic positions to a compromising tolerance of the financial sector is the smart political play. Bill Clinton, long close to the private-equity community, seems to be in the same camp.

So far, Barack Obama, in full campaign mode, has resisted the siren call and kept off the right-wing rocks, having apparently learned the lesson (for now at least) of last year's dalliance with excessive compromise. If he avoids “going wobbly” between now and November, much of the credit will certainly be due to the influence of Joe Biden, who has emerged as the closest thing Democrats now have to Ted Kennedy.

In a bland, bloodless, technocratic administration, the fighting vice president is a welcome throwback to what his party used to be and could be again. He’s correct that the GOP and the media mavens “don’t get” the middle class. That’s the Democrats’ best hope for November.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history.

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2012


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