The Absurd Fallacy that Both Sides are Really the Same

A few days ago, I posted a flyer on Facebook. It was a little spoof on the old dance craze “The Limbo.” In it I suggested that Trump’s supporters were constantly “lowering the bar” and that, as a result, we were all “dancing to the same tune” (i.e. reacting to Trump’s nonsense) and would all eventually have to “take a knee ” (or end up “on our backs.”)

It was sad, but inevitable I guess, that a Trump supporter would respond with the lame argument that ‘the same was true of liberals.’ Let me quote his exact words, so there is no misunderstanding.

“Interesting how if you change “Trump supporters” to “Progressive Liberals” it perfectly describes what’s happening to the left, right now. And, if both are true, what does that say about us?”

To start with, there is no way you can reasonably exchange “Trump supporters” for “progressive liberals.” They stand for two completely different things. But if you fall for that nonsense, then it’s easy to go along with the equally specious reasoning that the same thing “perfectly describes what is happening to the left.” It is only then that you can get to the idea that this is about some mysterious “us” In short, it is a nonsensical version of the argument that we are all the same, regardless of the positions we take or the moral choices we make. It is a sly version of “all lives matter.” Nice if it were true but…

I guess there is no way to explain how absurd this argument is except by comparing it to a legal trial. This trial is hypothetical, but real murder trials happen every day. In this hypothetical case, a policeman has brutally murdered a “suspect.” The facts are clear: the “suspect” was doing nothing wrong. There is also clear proof that the accused policeman is guilty. Of course, each side has a lawyer, who will argue the case.

Now, because they have absolutely no real case at all, the defense for the guilty police officer makes a desperate and absurd argument. The defense lawyer claims that because “both sides” are arguing, they are essentially THE SAME! Therefore, the whole case should simply be dismissed…

Of course, this reasoning just avoids the real substance of what the whole argument or trial is about. In both legal and ethical terms, it is beyond absurd. It wouldn’t last a second in front of a qualified judge. (And I guess that is exactly why Trump is nominating so many completely unqualified judges and getting them confirmed by Mitch McConnell and his GOP minions.)

We might add a further example. At some time in the legal proceedings a supporter of the prosecution yells out something stupid, offensive, and (maybe) even threatening. The defense lawyer then seizes on this behavior to move for a mistrial. It is, he says, proof that since there are some stupid people supporting the prosecution, the whole case is stupid and should be dismissed…

This of course ignores the fact that the idiot responsible for this inflammatory remark has no formal connection with the prosecutor or his case.

My original poster referred to the fact that, as Trump has careened from very bad to extraordinarily worse, many of his supporters have stuck with him. It’s important to remember that arc. It started with ‘Hispanics are rapists,’ went on to the “Muslim Ban,” then went on to attacks on Dreamers, the child separations, a defense of white supremacy at Charlottesville, and rhetoric that inspired attacks on synagogues, etc. Now it has come to the incredible response to the murder of George Floyd—and Trump led GOP “pushback” against addressing police brutality and systemic racism.  In every case here, Trump’s supporters remained silent or tacitly supported him—they kept “lowering the bar” for presidential behavior. Also, in every case, liberals and progressives (and even just sane conservative leaning moderates) decried the lowering of the bar. So really, the two sides are not the same at all.

More broadly, Trump has undermined attempts to solve serious national problems like climate change, healthcare, wealth inequality, brutal over-policing, white supremacy, racism, voter suppression and so on. At the same time, he has abused his power, undermined the rule of law, and attacked his own military, intelligence apparatuses, judiciary, the constitution and so on. And at every turn his supporters have lowered the bar and said it just didn’t matter. Meanwhile, the liberals have consistently and loudly objected to all these efforts to “lower the bar.” There simply is no equivalence between the two sides.

It is useful to take a longer view of all this history. The facile argument about “both sides” harks back to the constant complaint that for many years extreme “partisanship” has paralyzed our government. It’s true, but usually people take the simplistic line that (since there are two parties) they are equally to blame. Norm Ornstein* (even while working for the conservative American Enterprise Institute did great research which really refutes this notion. His conclusion was that the real toxicity of extreme partisanship began with Newt Gingrich and his ‘scorched earth’ tactics during his tenure as house speaker.

I think if you really want to come to grips with this issue, you must go back even further—to the time of the American Civil War (1860-65).

At that time Abraham Lincoln led the Republican party, which fought hard for emancipation. The Democrats had their base in the south. Over the years, ideas changed. By the early 1960’s Democrat Lyndon Johnson made a fateful decision to throw his full support behind passing the “Civil Rights Act” and the “Voting Rights Act.” Both were instrumental in starting to correct some of the horrible effects of “Jim Crow” and systemic racism. 

Johnson was painfully aware of the political consequences his position would have. He knew very well that his stance would lose democrats millions of votes and many elections in the coming years. He said that the Democratic Party would ‘pay for his choice for generations.’ And he was right. But he did it anyway because he was able to put political consideration aside and do what was morally right.

Most historians stop there, and don’t quite tell the rest of the story. The fact is, the Republicans, too, then made a fateful choice for the future. They could have claimed that they had been on the side of right all along and had won a historic debate. They could have then continued to claim real leadership in the struggle against racism. What a different country we would have if they had. We might be reasonably united. But they took a completely…and tragically different tack.

It was called Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” It entailed cozying up to disenchanted racist southern democrats and playing the race card themselves. This resulted in Nixon’s “Law and Order” campaign. And from that day on, Republicans have steered more and more blatantly into the race baiting politics of division.

And ever since that time, the Democrats have steered more and more towards the liberal progressive and compassionate policies that are really the only real hope for eventually building a true and sustainable sense of community in this country. Yes, they have some useless, lagging members of their own, but the general direction of the party is quite clear—and quite distinct from the direction of the GOP. One is the partly of MLK and Jesse Jackson and the Obamas, the other is the party of David Duke, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan—and Trump.

So, when you see sly arguments that “both sides” are the same just because ‘both sides’ are arguing, don’t buy it. They are as different as night and day.

To sum it all up, it seems to me we all have a choice. To simply avoid assessing the truth by saying that “both sides are the same” is a cheap way of avoiding that choice. When you take that path, it doesn’t seem to me that you are “free” in any real sense of the word. Rather, you are like a dead, dry, broken, spineless leaf blowing in the wind.

*Norman “Norm” J. Ornstein is an American political scientist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a Washington D.C. conservative think tank. He is the co-author (along with Thomas E. Mann) of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. Foreign Policy named Ornstein, along with Thomas E. Mann, one of its 2012 Top 100 Global Thinkers “for diagnosing America’s political dysfunction.” (abstract from Wikipedia)

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