Don’t get fooled by politicians’ false equivalencies

Published 7:07 pm Monday, August 26, 2019


The Advocate-Messenger

Politicians use lots of different rhetorical tricks to make themselves sound good and paint their opponents in a bad light. We don’t like any of them, but there’s one in particular that seems to be growing in popularity. We’d like to see it eliminated.

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The trick has a name — it’s a logical fallacy known as “false equivalency.” It’s used more and more often these days when a politician conflates his or her opponent with someone who is widely unpopular among the politician’s target audience.

You’ve probably heard plenty of people who don’t like Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin say he is “just as bad as Trump.” Republican politicians often attempt to malign Democrats by claiming they are in lockstep with Hillary Clinton.

Just this week, Bevin released a video claiming his Democratic opponent, Attorney General Andy Beshear, shares a “communist” ideology with presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

You might be thinking right now, “But Bevin is just like Trump!” or “Lots of Democrats do share similar ideals with the Clintons!”

That misses the point. You’ve latched onto the grain of truth that’s used to smuggle the lie past your ears.

Politicians never use false equivalency arguments to make any real points or better educate constituents. False equivalency is used almost exclusively to shut down debate and turn your mind off so the politician doesn’t have to make any real arguments or present actual solutions. It’s a cop-out, and a lazy one at that. But unfortunately, all too often, it works.

Let’s look at Bevin’s Twitter video from Sunday as an example. Bevin tweeted that Sanders was in Louisville “spreading his hateful class warfare and communist ideology” in support of Beshear, then asked, “Kentucky voters …. Which side are you on? Do you support socialism or do you still believe America is the greatest nation on earth?”

Bevin’s video claims Beshear is “in line” with Bernie Sanders and they share the same ideology and values.

“They strongly believe that you are people who should be punished if somehow, you’re out there pursuing the American dream,” Bevin says in the video. “These are the kind of things that we want to reject here in Kentucky, not only with crazy Bernie but with Andy Beshear.”

Let’s set aside the false choice Bevin is demanding voters make between communism and the American dream, and the obvious mischaracterization of both Beshear’s and Sanders’ views. Bevin’s ultimate goal is to get as many people as possible to think, “Well, I definitely don’t support Bernie Sanders, so that means I can’t support Andy Beshear.”

The truth is there are people who do support Beshear but aren’t too keen on Sanders, just like there are people whose support flows to either Bevin or Trump, but not both. That’s because all four people are different politicians with different perspectives and ideas. Some of them may share more in common with each other than others, but that’s  mostly irrelevant and not a very useful topic of discussion.

Bevin doesn’t want voters actually studying Beshear’s platform and comparing it with his; he wants them to think Beshear is unfit for office and then shut their brains off to any further thought. That is exactly what the false equivalency fallacy accomplishes if the target isn’t aware of what’s going on.

Our democracy would be healthier if politicians would scrap the false equivalencies and address the actual ideas of their opponents head-on. But that would require leaving room to admit you agree with your opponent on some things; and it would increase the possibility of losing if your opponent actually has better ideas. Neither prospect is likely to entice political tricksters away from the tricks that keep getting them elected.

That leaves it up to the people to take away the tricks as a viable strategy. Educate yourself on the most common logical fallacies politicians use; and call them out when they use them. Our politicians won’t clean up their acts until we make them.