Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Are Both Sides Really Equally Bad?

In a number of political discussions I've been a part of lately, when the discussion dwells for too long on some perceived bad behavior by a member of one party, someone at some point often says something to the effect of "both sides are just as bad."  I haven't yet determined whether it is proponents of "the left" or "the right" that are more prone to make this claim, but it does seem to me that it almost inevitably comes from the side that seems to be in the minority in a given debate.

I tend to bristle a bit at this suggestion, which is probably a natural enough reaction (especially when it is used against my own position), but I do want to take a step back and try to be fair, and ponder the potential reality of such a claim for a bit.  Are Democrats and Republicans equally bad about ethical faux pas?

Perhaps its just my Calvinist "total depravity" streak talking, but I certainly wouldn't dream of claiming that either side is without fault.  I've tried to be honest about Obama's failure to check his source when claiming that an Illinois man died after being denied insurance, for example (the man in fact got his insurance reinstated, and didn't die until three years later, hardly attributable to the original denial of coverage), even while criticizing people like Sarah Palin for accusing the left of setting up "death panels" or similarly ludicrous claims.  (Of course, these examples are simply on the issue of health care.  We could posit many, many others if we wanted to expand further)  There is no shortage of examples one could site when discussing politicians doing things in their own best interest.*  The only thing that would take effort might be finding a politician without such examples of what could charitably be called "a momentary failure of integrity."  This only means that politicians are human.

But, even if all sin is equal in God's sight, it's certainly not the case that all failings have equal importance in the political sphere.  We'd be far more likely, for example, to forgive a politician who cheated on his wife than we would a politician who, say, gave active help to Al-Qaeda (we haven't found any who've actually done that yet, have we?).

Perhaps one of the reasons I tend to want to push against the suggestion that "both sides are equally bad" is that it sets up two sides as 1) the only choices, and 2) either polar opposites that are always opposed to each other (with equal force that cancels each position out) or similar but equally wrong in all meaningful respects.  This is obviously not the reality.  There are quite a few "third parties" out there (a few of which have almost been viable in recent elections, I add somewhat bitterly), and each party has its own particular issues on which it stakes its identity.  It's entirely possible (if perhaps less common these days) to agree with the Republicans on one issue (abortion, for example), while falling in with the Democrats on another (taxation, let's say).

However much we side with one party over the other, we do so precisely because we feel that they are the better choice on those issues that are important to us.  To dismiss them as "equally bad" when it comes to their admitted failings threatens to undermine the good that still remains.  Surely there are better ways of making the point that each party possesses limitations without dismissing arguments in this way.

*And, to further illustrate the difficulty of determining if one side might really be worse than the other, I am reminded of a conversation with a friend the other day in which he argued that the media tends to side with one particular side, and that therefore any perceived imbalance of bad behavior on the other side is merely the result of the media's slant.  I actually disagree with my friend on both the extent and nature of the "slant," but will certainly concede that, just as no human being is 100% free of bias, neither is any media source.  I also concede that our perceptions of the world are invariably affected by what information we are exposed to, so if all I watch is, say, ESPN, I might think that the world has much more going on with football than it does about global warming.


  1. It seems to me the other problem with the "both sides are equally bad" argument is that often it is used to imply that whatever the "bad" under discussion is, is okay or normal. It's used as an excuse for poor behavior. So a Republican yells at Obama during a speech and because a Democrat yelled at Bush, it's all right. As a Mom, I can tell you that the "well, he did it to" excuse simply doesn't work. Each person and each party is responsible for their own behavior and the poor behavior of others doesn't excuse the lapse.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Nancy. I think you're exactly right.



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