False equivalence – also recently described in a terrific Washington Post piece as “the symmetry of sin” — works like this: Candidate A has made an error. Candidate B has made an error. With little or no exploration or thought, the errors are judged to be equally egregious, and therefore the candidates are equally damned.
The problem is the errors committed by Candidate’s A and B are almost never equally egregious. The errors are only treated as equal because reporters and voters are too lazy, uninformed, dim and/or self-righteous to form and express an opinion about which error is more significant.
What types of errors am I talking about?
Candidate A votes with a particular interest group 5% of the time. Candidate B votes with the same interest group 90% of the time. Therefore, a judgment is made that “they both vote with that interest group, and are therefore equally bad.”
Candidate A makes an argument that is correct at it’s core, but contains a relatively small technical error. Candidate B makes an argument that is at its core is completely, knowingly and demonstrably false. A judgment is made that “they both are liars and equally untrustworthy.”
Candidate A has been fighting for Issue Z as part of a political institution. Candidate B has been fighting against Issue Z as part of the same political institution. Therefore, a judgment is made “that the candidates are equally blameworthy because they are part of the institution that failed to enact Issue Z.”
By the way, I’m stating these as abstruse hypotheticals in a probably futile attempt to focus on the method of reasoning, and not get bogged down on the factual basis of particular debates.
As a frequent practitioner of false equivalency, I can tell you it feels darn good. It makes us feel wise, noble, and above the fray. It makes us feel more mature and measured than the people with those messy opinions. It makes reporters feel “balanced.” It liberates us from the brain cramps and pulled Googling muscles associated with digging below the surface rhetoric.
But the error of false equivalence may be the most dangerous phenomena facing our democracy, because it frees us from the burden of thought, robbing democracy of its most essential fuel.