The Frame Game
How to close the institutional empathy gap

False equivalency

Not-equal-to-mdAn open micrphone caught some interesting byplay between senators Paul and McConnell the other day.  

Paul told McConnell: ""I just did CNN and I just go over and over again 'We're willing to compromise. We're willing to negotiate.' ... I don't think [Democrats]  poll tested 'we won't negotiate.' I think it's awful for them to say that over and over again."  

The whole clip is here but you'll have to watch a commercial to view it.

The local station that broadcast the pols hushed conversation said it showed how much the government shutdown is really about messaging as far as congressional legislators are concerned.

That's not exactly news, even though it is startling to see two senators confirm it so blatantly.

To me, the real story is how easily logic can be twisted in political discourse.

The technical term for the GOP's apparent messaging strategy is "false equivalence." It consists of attributing the same term to two parties without examining the underlying meaning of the term in context. The example my logic professor used in philosophy class years ago was:  "Rats have four feet. Dick is a rat. Therefore, Dick has four feet."

The example Messrs. Paul and McConnell are using is: "We're willing to negotiate. The Democrats aren't."  

Sadly, their analysis of the likely polling for such an argument is correct. Americans like their representatives to get along and to compromise. Politics is just another word for negotiation, as far as they're concerned.

But there really is no equivalence between the parties in this case.

The Democrat-dominated Senate passed a 2014 discretionary budget of $1.12 trillion.The Republican-dominated House of Representatives approved a budget of $986 billion, a $13 billion reduction. But they also attached an amendment that would defund the Affordable Care Act. The Senate approved the House budget, but stripped out any reference to Obamacare.

That sounds like negotiating to me. In fact, on the numbers, it's essentially capitulation. (Even leaving aside that the GOP budget includes savings that the "revoked" Affordable Care Act is supposed to produce.)

Of course, few people know these numbers. All they've heard is that the two sides have dug in their heels. And -- from the GOP -- that the Democrats "refuse to negotiate."

But if a hijacker says he'll blow up a plane unless he's taken to Cuba are we supposed to negotiate a shorter flight? Like to Jacksonville?

Is it accurate to say one side has "dug in its heels" when it has already made concessions?

I don't blame the average voter for falling for this stuff. But political reporters are supposed to know better. And when they run headlines like "Both sides have dug in their heels," they demonstrate that they don't.



Good column. For reasons that deserve an entire conversation of their own, I believe the idea of "false equivalence" came into being when the media (political reporters, especially) was constantly being accused of having a "bias" for one side of important issues. Yes, you can still find someone to claim that the earth is flat, but giving that claim equal weight to scientific evidence that proves the earth is spherical, is wrong.

Cool! This first comment is a perfect example of your point, Dick.

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