Over the weekend I got shanghaied into a political discussion with a teenager, a high-school senior. Don’t ask me how this happened; just bear with me. It became clear fairly early on that this young man — who comes from a very wealthy family — (a.) has strong political opinions but practically no relevant knowledge; (b.) already refers to the RNP as “my party” even though he is not quite old enough to vote; and (c.) more importantly, is deeply committed to and invested in the idea that Both Sides® are Equally Bad™.
His primary argument in support of this ubiquitous, noxious notion was that if the Democrats won the presidency without winning the popular vote (which has, historically, never happened) they would be in favor of keeping the Electoral College and would not be trying to abolish it (which they haven’t actually done) or talking about abolishing it.
I know, I know.
At some point in the conversation I brought up my go-to metaphor for Both Siderism: “If one Side uses shovels to plant trees, and the other side uses shovels to bash people’s brains in...” He interrupted me and finished the metaphor, in a way I didn’t expect: “Then, Both Sides use shovels.” Of course Both Sides use shovels, I said; the point is that that fact is unhelpful and unimportant. Not only did he insist that it was important, indeed that is was the most important (or the only important) factor, he went on to claim that whether the thing each Side uses shovels for — i.e., tree-planting, or brain-bashing — is “good” or “bad” (i.e., praiseworthy or blameworthy) “depends on your point of view.”
I know, I know.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with anyone who was that committed to Both Siderism, let alone someone that young, although most committed Both Siderists I’ve encountered are Republican partisans who know little or nothing about either major party’s actual governing agenda and actual governing record (at the national level) in recent decades. I suppose that Both Siderism and false equivalence are where you go when you don’t actually know anything; as driftglass always says, for every Republican atrocity the default position that everyone must take is that there must be some equally-atrocious equivalent on the Democratic side, even if one can’t name, identify or specify such a thing, and barring that, it must be assumed that if the shoe were on the other foot, Democrats would behave equally badly whether there’s any actual basis for believing that or not.
The troubling part is this idea that there’s no objective difference between planting a tree with a shovel and bashing someone’s brains in with a shovel, so long as — indeed, because — both goals are pursued and both tasks are accomplished using the same tool. This kid simply could not be convinced and would not acknowledge that bashing someone’s brains in is bad, let alone that it’s a worse thing to do than planting a tree, or that the difference between bashing someone’s brains in and planting a tree is what’s important, not the fact that the brain-basher uses the same implement as the tree-planter. Again, “it depends on your point of view.”
In other words, the “point of view” that tree-planting is good and brain-bashing is bad is no more true, correct, valid, or laudable than the “point of view” that tree-planting is bad and brain-bashing is good. If you think that tree-planting is good and brain-bashing is bad, that’s merely a product of your own “bias.” Well, OK, but so what? I never claimed to be “unbiased”; everyone has biases. I happen to be “biased” in favor of things that benefit everyone (like planting trees) and against wanton cruelty (like bashing someone’s brains in). What could possibly be wrong with that?
I have little doubt that this kid’s parents are Republicans who watch a lot of Fox News; he didn’t become a committed Both-Siderist on his own. And I should also acknowledge that I myself was a fan of the Republican Party (Reagan in particular) when I was that age, and supported Bush, Sr. against Dukakis in 1988, when I was not quite old enough to vote. Knowledge, experience, observation, research, etc. gradually brought me to the other Side, where I belong. As I told this young man, as I tell everyone I talk to about these topics, I’ve been watching this movie for 30 years, and paying very close attention to (yes) Both Sides. I didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to take one Side or the other; I’m on the Side I’m on (and not the other) for a reason:
In 2020, as in previous elections, I didn’t vote for “cancel culture” or “wokeness.” I voted for solidarity and compassion, instead of selfishness and cruelty; I voted for expanding health care coverage, for addressing and mitigating climate change, for investing in public and higher education, for regulating Wall Street and industry in order to protect workers and consumers, for shifting the tax burden back to those who can afford it, for respecting women’s and LGBT rights, and for governing based on science and pragmatic considerations instead of religious and political dogma.
When I read the Democratic Party Platform … watched the Democratic National Convention [last] summer … [and] the Presidential and Vice-Presidential debates [last Fall] … I [read and heard] plenty of answers and explanations about expanding health care coverage, addressing climate change, protecting workers and consumers, LGBT and women’s rights, investing in education, taxing high incomes and corporate profits, and science-based pragmatic policymaking.
The “message” that I get from Democrats is one of solidarity, compassion, pragmatism, altruism and competence. The “message” I get from Republicans is one of selfishness, cruelty, dogmatism, ignorance, self-admiration, paranoia and resentment. To me, the choice is clear.
This kid wasn’t even aware that the Republican Party doesn’t even have a policy platform, let alone what might be in it. His only understanding of the Democratic platform is, in his words, “Eat the rich.” Which no Democrat has ever said. When I asked him what each of the two parties has actually done in recent decades, he had absolutely no idea.
Unfortunately I didn’t get to follow up on this conversation; my hope is that this young man’s takeaway was that he needs to learn more and to think things through, the latter of which he acknowledged at least once he hadn’t done. But I doubt that will happen unless he gets over this prion disease of reflexively Both Sidesing the Shit out of everything, chalking up any and every meaningful difference between the two Sides as a matter of subjective “point of view” or “bias.” At his age, it’s not his fault that he doesn’t know anything — about either Side — or even that he has “opinions” that aren’t grounded in reality. Those are symptoms of adolescence, not Both Siderism. The fault, as I told him, lies in not thinking things through and not asking himself the right questions, or even considering examining these topics in a critical way.
As many of us have observed, Both Siderism is only ever deployed in defense of Republicans and their cohort. When your only defense of your own Side is that the other Side is, or must be, Equally Bad™, you allow your own Side to, literally or figuratively, get away with murder.