‘Both-Sidesism’ is Killing Us

Earlier this month, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria hosted former Vice President Al Gore for an interview where the two discussed the choice Americans will be making in the presidential election. During the conversation, Gore retold the Abrahamic story of Solomon, a judge faced with two women claiming the same baby as their own. Initially, Solomon ruled that the baby be split in half between the two women. But when one of them relinquished her claim to save the baby’s life, he reversed his decision and ruled in her favor; it was clear she was the child’s mother.

Gore goes on to draw a parallel between this story and Americans’ choice on November 3rd. If Trump is threatening to reject an unfavorable result, then he’s no different from the woman who didn’t mind cutting the baby in half. In other words, vote for the candidate that isn’t threatening to tear the country apart.

But the story of Solomon doesn’t just speak to the presidential election. We are living in a political moment in our two-party system, where one contingent increasingly prioritizes its own well-being and interests over those of the country through a strategy that often employs deliberate misinformation. In spite of this, the Republican party regularly earns the label of “side” by the media, political pundits, and policymakers. I am not talking about matters of political debate and opposing viewpoints within the realm of fact. Gun control, immigration, and abortion, just to name a few, are issues where advocates on both sides typically draw upon objective information to establish their positions. On these issues, “both-sidesism,” can be helpful, as it allows critics or policy makers to wake up and say “hey, both sides have good points, and neither wants to split this baby in half, so let’s focus on the facts and find a common denominator that meets our national, mutually shared interests.”

This type of bi-partisanship has become a relic of a distant era. How can you find a common denominator if one side is coming to the table with egregious falsehoods in the interest of self-preservation? In 1731, Benjamin Franklin wrote about a version of both-sidesism that pits truth against error:

“Printers are educated in the Belief that when Men differ in Opinion, both sides ought equally to have the advantage of being heard by the Publick; and that when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter.”

Was Franklin wrong? Throughout our history, we’ve had our bouts with misinformation and self-interest being falsely purported as counterweights to fact and national interest. Consider the brand of partisanship of the 1790s or the 1850s, opponents of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, or even some of baseless communist allegations of the Red Scare. But even in these moments, the degree of distortion of fact, personal attacks, accusations, and criticism oscillated within a smaller range of truth and national interest. Today, the errors Franklin referred to aren’t just more egregious but also more widely accepted.

Where Republicans and Democrats of the 1980s may have differed on how to respond to the reality of climate change, today we have a party that is increasingly centered around denying its existence to begin with. The same goes for “anti-maskers,” people who believe that Bill Clinton is a lizard and that his wife, a former presidential candidate, senator, and Secretary of State, runs a child sex ring under a pizza shop. Or others, like our president, that have placed “Antifa,” a nebulous movement comprised of a wide range of individuals and organizations with ambiguous goals, opposite of actual White supremacists that are running over people in their cars, murdering Black and Jewish Americans, and sporting Nazi symbols while doing so. Thanks to giving both sides an equal voice, the issues have morphed into a debate on whether climate change is happening, whether masks actually work, and whether White supremacy is just as bad as Antifa. Meanwhile, the problems themselves fester, with over 8 thousand acres of our land burned, 220,000 of our citizens dead at the hands of the coronavirus, and one of the most active periods for violent White supremacy in our history. Putting my own policy goals aside, we don’t have to pass the Green New Deal, issue a national mask mandate, or revamp our domestic counter-terror operations, but if we could settle our differences as two actual sides within the realm of objective information, we are better positioned to serve our supposedly shared national interests in safety, security, and public health.

Pitting these viewpoints as warring peers hasn’t just hurt our national interests, but allowed the side that’s running off with half of the baby to prosper at its expense. In Ezra Klein’s book, Why We’re Polarized, he describes today’s Republican party as “scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understandings of fact, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition...” He goes on to address both-sidesism, stating that the “asymmetry between the parties, which journalists and scholars often brush aside or whitewash in a quest for ‘balance,’ constitutes a huge obstacle to effective governance.”

Consider some of the significant political showdowns of the past four years. In 2018 the Republican “side” shutdown the government for the sake of securing funding for a border wall. The wall’s effectiveness as a means of deterring immigration is a legitimate matter that “both sides” can rationally debate. But putting a border wall on the opposite side of the scale from funding the government indicates the prioritization of one side’s interests over those of the country. The shutdown cost all of us $11B due to lost federal output, reduced demand, and government spending, but mass media still referred to Republicans and Democrats as “both sides,” which masked Republicans’ self-interested tactics as politics.

Statehood for Washington, DC is another recent example. Representation is perhaps the most basic, essential element of American Democracy, a principle that is in our national interest to extend to all citizens. And yet, 680,000 residents of Washington, DC are being denied statehood that would give them representation in Congress because Republicans are fearful of two Senate votes that are likely to be for Democrats. If two Democratic senators accurately represent the political views of the citizens of Washington, DC and their existence aligns with the basic principle of representation for all, shouldn’t that matter more than your self-interest in gaining power? Perhaps the most salient example of all is the issue of voting. The current Republican Senate has blocked H.R. 1, a bill that expands voting rights, requires donor transparency, and puts restrictions on lobbying. Meanwhile, the President and prominent Republican politicians have spread falsehoods about mail-in voting, going as far as to kneecap an American institution, the US Postal Service. How can we describe actors that want to limit our constitutional right to representation and erode the credibility of apolitical institutions the same way we describe actors that want to expand and support them?

It would have been nice if Benjamin Franklin was right or if we had a Judge Solomon. But as it turns out, truth doesn’t have a supernatural property to defeat error, and there’s no neutral authority out there we can count on to reset the parameters of both-sidesism for the sake of our shared national interests. We are on our own. So it is up to us to make the distinction — in the way we vote, the way we use social media, and the way we converse with our friends family, and colleagues — that freedom of speech is not the equivalent to freedom of ignorance and that self-preservation can not transcend national interest. So long as we fail to reset these skewed parameters with the supremacy of fact and simplest tenets of American democracy, our crises will be left to intensify and our safety and security to be further compromised, all while one side runs off with whatever remains.

Reflections on government, culture, politics, and society.