The False Equivalence Trap

Why "Both Sides" Thinking Fails in the Face of Authoritarianism

As America gets closer to putting an authoritarian back into power, and this time with the legwork done to genuinely dissolve our democracy and liberal institutions in the name of populism, nationalism, and right-wing grievance politics, lots of very serious people are maintaining a position that reactionary populism is not that bad or that the other guys aren’t any better. This is, by any objective measure, nonsense. But it’s compelling nonsense to plenty of quite smart people.


Here’s a common line of thinking that goes a fair way to explain it.

  1. To be thoughtful and wise is to be above the fray.

  2. To be above the fray is to be non-partisan.

  3. To be non-partisan is to not favor one side over the other.

  4. To not favor one side over the other is to be equally critical of both sides.

  5. To be equally critical of both sides is to view both sides as equal in their badness.

  6. To view both sides as equal in their badness is to not admit when one side is clearly worse.

  7. To not admit that one side is clearly worse is to understate the badness of the worse side or to overstate the badness of the less bad side.

This has as much traction as it does, among the quarters that it does, in part because, for much of recent memory, it was possible to argue that the sides differed primarily in their policy preferences, and each side had some good policies and some bad. And so being thoughtful and wise (and above the fray, etc.) was to simply point out when those individual policies were good or when they were bad. (Or, in a specifically journalistic context, to focus your attention on the horserace: Which side was winning and why.)

But with the GOP’s turn to the hard-right, and with its clear and explicit efforts to undermine basic institutions like free and fair elections, the peaceful transfer of power, and a general commitment to a pluralistic and open society, this old framework breaks down. Yes, both sides have some good policies and some bad, but the far-right, which has become the mainstream right, wants to undo the democratic process in which those policies used to get made.

America is on the cusp of becoming a very dark place, and it might be tempting to pretend that away in order to maintain a sense of above-the-fray-ness. But right now all our thoughtfulness and wisdom needs to instead be directed at protecting our very democracy—so we can have the opportunity to argue about good and bad policies in the future.

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