False Equivalence, Bothsidesism, and the Confusions of Being a Left-Behind Republican
by Neil H. Buchanan
[Note to readers: My latest Verdict column, "Will Biden Finally Neuter Republicans’ Debt Ceiling Demagoguery?" was published this morning. This is one of those occasions where I am departing from our usual practice by writing my Dorf on Law column on a different topic entirely. Nonetheless, I do hope that some readers here will click through and read that other piece as well.]
It has become a cliche to refer to "tribalism" in American politics, a description that has become commonplace because there is a great deal of evidentiary support for it. Because the Republican tribe has moved into such extreme territory over recent years, however, the term "cult" is unfortunately the best description of what is happening on that side of the divide.
Even so, the notion of all politicians being part of one tribe or another does capture an element of political partisanship that long predates recent unpleasantness. Even when there was a great deal of overlap between a center-right party and a center-left party in the U.S., and even when lockstep voting was not the norm in Congress, politicians understandably viewed their tribe as the good guys and the other tribe as the bad guys.
Among other things, the notion of changing parties has been (and certainly continues to be) generally unthinkable. Yes, Ronald Reagan famously became a Republican "not because I left the Democratic Party, but because the Democratic Party left me," but changing parties after one had launched a political career was rare indeed. In part, this is because the people who have worked with and for a now-wavering politician continue to view the other side as the bad guys, so switching sides loses one's core of friends and supporters.
Meanwhile, the side to which one might switch is filled with people who have long memories and grudges from campaigns and policy battles in the past. Oddballs like former New York mayor Ed Koch or former Pennsylvania Senator Arlen "I'm invoking Scottish Law" Specter might make news by turning against their longtime allies, but the natural order of things is to maintain party loyalty, for reasons of both habit and survival.
Increasingly, however, even some loyal Republicans who are extremely conservative have found themselves in an impossible position. They actually do care about some fundamental beliefs, so they are not going to sign on with the MAGA cult, but they cannot figure out what to do next or how to think about their longtime foes who actually believe in the Constitution. What to do?
One answer is to claim that the other party is bad, too. "Yes, my party has become unrecognizable to me, but those Democrats ... yikes!" As regular readers of this blog know, I have become (not intentionally, I assure you) a bit obsessed with the tropes of false equivalence and bothsidesism. For example, my two most recent Dorf on Law columns (here and here) criticized a Georgia election official who claimed that Democratic President Joe Biden, just like his predecessor, was using political rhetoric in a way that threatens to stir up violence. Scrolling through years of Dorf on Law's archive would find many examples of columns in which I call out some example or another of false equivalence or bothsidesism.
It is worth taking a moment to ask whether those two things are the same. The neologism bothsidesism is a much more recent addition to the political lexicon, and it is possible that it is merely a new term for the same phenomenon that used to be called false equivalence. After all, "cancel culture" is indistinguishable from "political correctness," but the former has become a useful way for the Trumpist right to rebrand their old complaints about changing social expectations.
Are false equivalence and bothsidesism also identical twins, or are they merely siblings? Perhaps the answer to that question is of no consequence, but I do think that there is some non-overlap. As a recent example, former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough provided some bothsidesism last week that left me slack-jawed. Both on his own morning talk show and again the same evening during a guest appearance on Stephen Colbert's show, Scarborough argued that Donald Trump deserves credit for creating the COVID vaccines while Biden deserves credit for getting shots in people's arms. See, he said, both sides can be proud of something!
But of course Trump deserves no credit at all for the creation of the vaccines, except, as I pointed out recently, that he finally acted like any president would have and threw some money at scientists (rather than actively stymieing their efforts, as he had done on every other aspect of the pandemic). Scarborough is thoroughly anti-Trump, which made this "to be fair" moment all the more surprising. And of course, Trumpist Republicans are eagerly claiming that their Dear Leader is the hero of the story.
In any case, the point here is that, even if Scarborough were right, this is an example of bothsidesism but not false equivalence. He is saying that both sides did something -- in this case, something good, which is rare in these discussions -- but he is not saying that both sides are the same. False equivalence involves, say, arguing that Joe Biden telling Donald Trump to "shut up, man" during a presidential debate is just as bad as any of Trump's degradations of the political ecosystem.
Again, there might be no need to make these fine distinctions. What matters is that apostate Republicans -- or, as I describe them in the title of this column (in a nod to the apocalyptic religious book series), left-behind Republicans -- too often act is if Democrats are bad, just like Republicans, and that makes everything okay. It is a comforting thought, I suppose, but it is simply false. I say this with confidence, because I am not at all saying that Democrats are never bad or are above reproach. In order to win this argument, one only needs to rely on manifestly obvious facts, including that Democrats are still a center-left party while Republicans are busily denying and excusing an insurrection by Trump supporters.
Interestingly, it is not necessary for a left-behind Republican to do any of that. I have never been a fan of Liz Cheney, the only high-ranking Republican to have voted to impeach Donald Trump for inciting the insurrection. She has been every bit her father's daughter, and I assumed that she would act like another Republican daughter, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in supporting anything that Trumpist Republicans do. But while Sanders included nonsense about "cancel culture" in her announcement of a run for governor in Arkansas, Cheney has steadfastly said that Trump is a threat to the Constitution and an abomination to what she believes in.
To be clear, I am not saying that Cheney has not engaged in name-calling, distortion, or even bothsidesism and false equivalence. I do not follow her on a regular basis, and I assume that she otherwise fits into her caucus. She is no moderate, and she is on every other topic the opposite of the voice of reason. Even so, she does recognize that she has become an apostate, and she is sticking to her principles. If Wyoming is going to have a Republican in Congress -- and it will -- I am glad that she was their choice. We will see if that continues.
Scarborough is an example of a former politician who has the freedom to criticize his former colleagues. He continues to spout nonsensical ideas about budget deficits and other matters on a regular basis, proving his conservative bona fides, but he puts nothing on the line by showcasing his apostasy. Cheney is a current politician who is even more right-wing than Scarborough, but she has the confidence to say and do what she believes, knowing that doing so might end her career. I suspect that her attitude about losing her next primary is: "Sure, it could happen. Whatever."
A third example is in some ways more interesting. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is what counts these days as a moderate Republican. That does mean that he was comfortable enough to stay in his party even as it went through the Tea Party cataclysm (and the debt ceiling disasters, to bring this back around to today's Verdict column) and the emergence of Trump, which drove a lot of other Repubicans to the exits. Still, Hogan is genuinely popular in a very blue state, and he can claim to have been an important part of trying to respond to Trump's January 6 disaster.
Hogan even appears to harbor some ambition to be the anti-Trump alternative in the next presidential race. Unlike Cheney, then, Hogan will need to find a way to tell a national electorate of Republicans who overwhelmingly supported Trump in 2016 and 2020 that he is a Republican even as he criticizes their hero and tells them that maybe there was a better path. How can he do that?
Bothsidesism, of course. In a recent appearance on CNN, even as Hogan decried the Republicans' embrace of conspiracy theories and outright lying, he lapsed into this: "I think there's a whole lot of crazy going on in Washington, and a lot of extreme partisanship on both sides of the aisle." He then touted a "problem-solvers" group that he met with, touting its bipartisanship, concluding, "I can't speak for all the crazies on either end of the spectrum." Jake Tapper's reponse: "Fair enough."
More to the point, Hogan then said that in his group, both Republicans and Democrats are
"... all in agreement that [an infrastructure] bill needs to be bipartisan, ... and it should focus on real infrastructure -- not just roads and bridges, but also digital infrastructure, also about energy and the grid, green energy opportunities, anything that's about building something or fixing something. But it should not include things that are totally unrelated to infrastructure."
He added that the way to split the difference between Republicans' $600 billion bill (which is actually less than $200 billion, but never mind) and Biden's $2.3 trillion bill is "about half" of the distance between the bills at $900 to $1.1 trillion. Those two numbers are, of course, less than half of the way between Biden's bill and zero, but who notices? Finally, Hogan offered this: "We can talk about massive tax hikes, we can talk about family infrastructure, ... but let's deal with that later." So much for bipartisanship. One could almost see the scare quotes when Hogan uttered the term "family infrastructure."
In the end, then, Hogan disparages nonexistent Democratic extremism (seriously, where is the equivalence between Bernie Sanders and AOC and, say, Ron Johnson and Matt Gaetz?) and then says that the only way forward is for both sides to agree to be conservative Republicans (taxes are bad, spending on anything for humans is not a priority), all the while calling it bipartisanship. He never explains why the label on a bill -- the infrastructure bill, in this case -- should dictate what is included in it, nor does he grapple with the fact that "real infrastructure" very much goes beyond "building something or fixing something."
Hogan, then, has decided that the path forward from Trump is for even purportedly reasonable Republicans like him to lie about the state of their party, to lie about the Democrats, to dishonestly invoke bipartisanship as a totem, and to lie about what it means to invest in the future. Oh, and to condemn tax increases on the wealthy. As perverse as all of that is, he might be right that the Republicans will move back to that pre-Trumpian version of dishonesty.
Hogan has, in other words, decided to stick with his tribe and to reinforce the narratives that got us here in the first place, defining moderation down to the point that it merely means "not espousing conspiracy theories." If that is the path forward for apostate Republicans, we can only hope that they will all be left behind by the public -- assuming that elections actually matter in the future.