False equivalence malpractice—of both the political science and journalistic varieties—reared its ugly head again in the Boston Sunday Globe’s “Ideas” section this weekend. Presumably Joshua Rothman’s editors assigned him the task of interviewing political scientists Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson about their new book, The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It. So he can’t be blamed for all the problems with the book and its main arguments.
But there’s a telling aside in Rothman’s introduction to his interview, that should have clued him in to the false assumption that (apparently) underlies Gutmann & Thompson’s primary thesis:
“In 2010, when pushed to say ‘compromise’ by the journalist Leslie Stahl, John Boehner said, ‘I reject the word.'”
For Gutmann and Thompson (the example comes from the 2nd chapter of their book), Boehner’s statement illustrates the central problem with American politics (and politicians, and voters) today: the widespread determination to stick to one’s principles and the related refusal to compromise.
“Both sides dig in their heels on the basis of their principles, and there’s no governing,” bemoans Gutmann.
But that’s simply not true. It’s Republicans (like Boehner) whose refusal to compromise is prolonging the current economic depression and blocking action on any number of major national issues.
Rothman piles on, pointing to the unreasonableness of American voters: “And yet, in practice, when it comes to any particular compromise–on immigration, on taxes, on health care–we’re often against it, no matter which side we’re on. We consistently vote for politicians who swear to stand by their principles no matter what, and boot compromising politicians out of office.”
William Galston suffers from the same dangerous “false equivalence” tendency; but at least Galston acknowledges and makes use of polling data—even when it demonstrates that Republicans and conservatives are the ones unwilling to compromise.
“…above and beyond their ideological disagreements, conservatives and liberals have come to understand the practice of politics differently. In a survey taken right after the Republican sweep in the 2010 midterm elections, 47 percent of American said that it was more important to compromise in order to get things done, versus 27 percent who thought it was more important for leaders to stick to their beliefs even if little got done. Liberal Democrats weighed in on the side of compromise, 58 to 16, moderate Democrats by 64 to 17. But conservative Republicans (the overwhelming majority of their party) favored sticking to their beliefs by 45 to 26. Ten months later, after the debt ceiling fiasco, an outright majority of adults favored compromise, including 62 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of liberals. But pluralities of Republicans and conservatives continued to favor leaders who stuck to their beliefs.”
Today’s Republicans get away with extremist partisan politics because there’s little or no cost to them for their intransigence, and their willingness to inflict pain and suffering on the nation’s citizens for the sake of their own partisan gain. One reason there’s little or no cost is the passive, willing blindness of academics like Gutmann and Thompson and of journalists like Rothman—none of whom is likely to suffer any real consequences for their professional failures.
This is why we can’t have nice things.