Dear media, centrist politicians of all stripes, onlookers, pundits, and anyone else who’s tempted by the easy and shiny but false equivalency of “both sides do ____” (behavior X in politics):
No. They don’t.
Oh, there are certainly behaviors that all politicians and partisans engage in. Most politicians will portray every situation to their advantage. Most will puff up their own experience and denigrate their opponents, and similar behavior. If you find that sort of behavior reprehensible, then perhaps following politics isn’t for you, because that’s called “campaigning,” and yes, virtually all of them do it. That’s not what I’m talking about.
What drives many of us nuts here on the left isn’t the garden-variety campaigning awfulness and sleaze that’s an endemic, inseparable part of political campaigning, it’s the way a whole subset of behaviors and attitudes which lately have come to be exclusively the province of the right wing in this country are still being most-often portrayed in the media as if they’re something “both sides” do. The grain of truth in this observably false but currently pervasive narrative that “both sides do it” is that of course there have always been crazies at the fringes of all political movements. That statement is about as non-controversial as the previous one that most politicians recast every event they tell to portray themselves in the most-positive possible light. And yes, even considering only this subset of more-extreme notions and behaviors, you can almost always find at least a single example on the left of some roughly (sometimes very roughly) analogous behavior or thought to whatever outrage-du-jour the right has perpetrated recently. But here’s the thing: you can only do so if you stretch your definition of “the left” to include anyone who behaves badly and has ever had anything besides right-wing thoughts.
A few of the more lucid and fair-minded observers who are not “lefties” still have the integrity to point out this fact. In their recent, appropriately-though-grimly titled book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, veteran political observers Norm Ornstein of the right-leaning AEI and Thomas Mann of the center-left Brookings Institution unequivocally place the responsibility for the bulk of the current mess squarely at the feet of the Republican party. Ornstein and Mann call the modern Republican Party (note: not just the fringe of out-of-power right-wing nuts, but the party proper itself) “an insurgent outlier in American politics.” They show how the nutty, violent and destructive ideas that are indeed prevalent among a small faction on the fringes of all political parties – their extremes – has, in the modern Republican party, been welcomed with open arms into the very center of the respectable inner circle and handed the keys to power…or at least, the keys to setting policy. Critically, Ornstein and Mann follow this up by insisting that, in such a debased and lopsided political landscape where one of only two major parties has essentially invited the inmates to run the asylum, if the media wishes to provide accuracy instead of the false “balance” of continuing to claim that both sides are equally to blame, they must admit that both sides are NOT equally blameworthy.
Unfortunately, I debate often enough with right-wingers on the Internet to know that any seasoned right-wing keyboard warrior reading either this post or Ornstein and Mann’s well-argued thesis would be able to produce quotes from various times and places where putatively lefty figures had done or said reprehensible things. And, if you were unschooled in the constant bending of reality that goes on within right-wing circles, you, too might be tempted to conclude that “both sides do it.”
At least, you might if you only looked and listened to the proffered right-wing “rebuttals” superficially. And that’s where the problem lies: once the surface is scratched on those quotes the right wing will provide as if they have them in ready-to-dispense form in a clip-file somewhere (which they probably DO), the similarities and the “balance” evaporates like dew at noon. The examples are either of anonymous Internet commenters whose identity and seriousness cannot be verified (as opposed to major Republican figures who say these things on the right), or they are seventy years old and from Stalinist Russia, or they are misattributed or have been taken out of context – sometimes deliberately – by either the right-winger offering the quote as a rebuttal or by some earlier right-winger who intentionally elided portions of the example that change the meaning entirely.
The trouble is that the most well-known of such disseminators of “rebuttal” examples of supposed left-wing misbehavior which proves “both sides do it” are themselves already established media figures, and the only people with a megaphone big enough to call these noveau-emperors on their nakedness – the traditional press – no longer do so. This famously jaw-dropping quote made by Mark Halperin (who frequently appears on political TV shows as nominally a “liberal”) and former Washington Post political editor John Harris in their 2006 book “The Way To Win” best embodies the abdication of judgment now endemic to the nation’s elite media:
Matt Drudge rules our world . . . With the exception of the Associated Press, there is no outlet other than the Drudge Report whose dispatches instantly can command the attention and energies of the most established newspapers and television newscasts.
So many media elites check the Drudge Report consistently that a reporter is aware his bosses, his competitors, his sources, his friends on Wall Street, lobbyists, White House officials, congressional aides, cousins, and everyone who is anyone has seen it, too.
I use this mothballed quote from over six years ago because its relevance is undiminished today, and because it’s rare to see the truth admitted so freely (if potentially inadvertently). Matt Drudge’s specific, personal ability to exert a Rasputin-like influence on the nation’s media may have diminished somewhat since the publication of The Way To Win in 2006, but he is still around, still churning out the same unabashedly GOP-enabling propaganda as he always has. And in his place, even more malicious and ethics-free followers in Drudge’s footsteps, like the late Andrew Breitbart and his acolytes like James O’Keefe (he of the the ACORN-pimp and Shirley Sherrod-is-a-racist video fame) have arisen to fight alongside Drudge and others to keep alive the notion that it is not, as Ornstein and Mann correctly discern, the GOP who is at the root of most of the dysfunction.
A fair point of objection to the above might be that Ornstein and Mann are specifically scholars and observers of congress and official Washington – both Democratic and Republican Washington, whereas Drudge and Breitbart and the seeming legion of imitators operate more in the media sphere and the ongoing partisan political/cultural war spheres, and so it’s not really fair to try to shoehorn Drudge and Breitbart into the critique that Ornstein and Mann make. But that’s exactly the point, I’m afraid: though it’s true enough that Ornstein and Mann restrict themselves to the more official demesnes of congress proper, the intentional blurring of the lines between the ever-present fringe radicals of the right and the Republican party proper itself make such shoehorning unnecessary: the fringe, in large measure, IS the center of the GOP today.
Let me give you an example of that blurring. This is what the official right in this country has become, and there is no mirror-image of it on the left. This is a few months old at this point, so you may have already seen it; indeed, since it was discovered by Right Wing Watch, it has attracted sufficient attention that the web masters at the Greene County, VA Republican Committee must have noticed where their traffic was coming from, since they have pulled the entire original newsletter which contained the piece I’m about to reference offline. Luckily, the text lives on in Right Wing Watch’s May 8th commentary on it. The fact that the GCRC was sufficiently embarrassed (or at least frightened) to pull their official newsletter which contained this outrage means, in one sense, that this specific event is over. But it serves to make the larger point here that “both sides” do NOT say things like this; the following words were written by the editor of the GCRC newsletter, Ponch McPhee:
The ultimate task for the people is to remain vigilant and aware ~ that the government, their government is out of control, and this moment, this opportunity, must not be forsaken, must not escape us, for we shall not have any coarse [sic] but armed revolution should we fail with the power of the vote in November ~ This Republic cannot survive for 4 more years underneath this political socialist ideologue.
If that doesn’t send a chill down your spine, it should. Because – and this is where the lazy adherents of the “both sides do it” mentality go wrong – this isn’t simply an anonymous commenter, 137 comments deep on some backwater blog post somewhere. It was an official Republican Party of Virginia document, written up by officials of the Greene County Republican Committee, edited for content, and then approved for publication and dissemination to the world at large, using the Internet and, likely (though I haven’t checked) the US Postal Service to its subscribers. And the only reason it isn’t proudly available for viewing today on the Greene County Republican Committee’s web site is that the people who keep a vigilant eye on such noxious nonsense like Right Wing Watch called enough attention to it that the GCRC took it down (or perhaps was ordered from above to take it down?).
However, note that Right Wing Watch is a project of the left-wing People for the American Way. They’re the ones who caught this, not the major news media. That by itself isn’t particularly remarkable: I don’t blame the national – or even local Virginia – media for not having caught this first. Often, the major outfits rely on scoops from individuals in local areas who see newsworthy items or from groups like RWW to provide them with information they otherwise might not have noticed. Even the national media can’t have eyes everywhere, all the time. But this story never really became news at all in the national or the local media, and it should have. Yet a Google News search today on the words “Greene County Republican Committee” and the name of the writer of the above call to armed revolution turns up only the Right Wing Watch article.
That’s the state of the right wing’s capture of not just the levers of power within the GOP, but of the major media as well: a deceptively-edited (and ultimately proven more false than a three-dollar bill) video of a minor government official, Shirley Sherrod, rocketed around the major media, dominating the news cycle for days, because Andrew Breitbart put it out and those types of agents provocateur “rule the news media’s world,” yet a factually accurate story about a call to violent revolution should the GOP lose the Presidential vote this fall from the editor of a county Republican party newsletter passes by completely unremarked-upon, except at left-wing hate-watch organizations.
This is exactly why major-media pieces like Dana Milbank’s recent whiny prevarication that I recently railed against are so wrong-headed: because although both sides (in fact, ALL sides, throughout history) have always had a small coterie of crazies at their fringes who self-identify with the more-mainstream party, in today’s America, both sides do NOT do it. Throughout most of history, major parties have usually had the good sense to ignore the crazies who say they’re part of the party proper. In America today, the GOP – and only the GOP – has allowed (heck, welcomed) the crazies into the debate, making the Faustian bargain to use the zealots’ energy to help try to propel just enough anger at nebulously-defined “gubmint” to win close races nationwide. Sometimes, that’s worked, other times, it’s backfired, as when voters in Republican-leaning Nevada in a heavily Republican year (2010) rejected extremist tea-party candidate Sharron Angle in favor of the vulnerable, beatable Harry Reid, in large part because Angle publicly stated the same desire for “second Amendment remedies” (i.e.: violent Republican revolution) should Republicans fail at the ballot box in 2010. But one thing’s certain (to quote the Qur’an, which will piss off the righties even more): “…And if ye mingle your affairs with theirs, then (they are) your brothers.” In short: you want to harness the energy of the folks who call for the violent overthrow of duly elected representatives, GOP? Then, win or lose, you OWN their rhetoric.
Or at least, you would if the media would abandon the reflexive, cowardly reach for the easy and false equivalence that “both sides do it.”
Instead, we have a media that’s more interested in horse-race politics (who’s ahead, who’s had a gaffe, etc.) than they are in doing the work scholars like Ornstein and Mann have done, the kind of work that’s required to produce analysis and coverage which is accurate, not which is easy and inoffensive. Because, yeah, it will ruffle feathers to make some of these calls accurately. The GOP’s propaganda machine, which is a well-oiled machine indeed, will puff itself up with how-dare-they fake outrage. Journalists daring to actually stick to the facts and to distinguish between what some anonymous blog poster may have commented, and the continued drumbeat of insurrectionist (and worse) rhetoric coming from official GOP sources will be subject to withering, sustained attacks. Faced with this, many journalists will simply decide to play it safe and not risk such personally-upsetting, career-disturbing trials. Others may actually agree with the GOP propaganda on the issue. But unless we get more major media figures (not just traditional left-wing hate-watch groups) calling things by their right names, we will continue to witness (if we can find it) the spectacle of an emboldened GOP who realize that increasingly, no one is holding them to account for their words and actions; not their own voters, and certainly not the media.
This shouldn’t be hard. Wide swaths of the “respectable” (and by that I mean: mainstream) GOP demonstrably believe flatly that running this country is their right, regardless of what any court or election says to the contrary. There is literally no other explanation for the continued hints of resorting to the violent overthrow of any officials installed into power via an election which doesn’t go the GOP’s way. Politics is always contentious, often bitterly so. It always has been, in America and elsewhere. But until not that long ago – within recent memory, in fact, though that memory is receding in time – ALL the parties in this country agreed to abide by the will of the people, freely handing over the reins of power even in the most hotly fought, divisive contests. It’s what separated us and a handful of other evolved nations from so many countries where the term “strongman” is still often the best term to describe the political leaders, where might still makes right and the winners write both the history books AND the laws.
For now, that universal agreement – that country comes before party and that the people’s will, expressed through fair elections, shall be inviolate – still is what separates us from those countries still struggling to drag themselves out of the violent political swamps of history and into the modern, democratic age. Looking at the drumbeat of violent, insurrectionist urgings and impulses on the right, however, one has to wonder how much longer that will remain true, though, if the fail-safes that have kept it that way for more than two hundred years begin to crumble? If the cooler heads of the GOP no longer understand the need to repudiate rather than embrace the violent lunacies of their fringe (or indeed if there no longer ARE enough cooler heads remaining in the GOP who have the ability to set the party’s course) and if the guardians of the nation’s self-correcting mechanism, the media, no longer have either the clarity of vision or possibly the will to speak the truth plainly and as often as necessary, even when it means they may be accused of “taking sides” (because the facts compel it), then what is to stop the newly-emboldened crazies from taking the nation to some truly ugly places indeed?