Matt Bai’s False Equivalence on Dissent


Since it used to be that George W. Bush was President, but now Barack Obama’s president, and Bush was a Republican but Obama’s a Democrat, it seems that the new lazy cliché is to hold that everything is just the opposite of what it once was. Thus Matt Bai writes:

Such an acknowledgment of common purpose has all but vanished, as the realignment in American politics — a hardening of regional loyalties that began with battles over civil rights and Vietnam — deepened the cultural divisions in Washington. Each party has demonized the other and embraced the notion that dissent can have no moral or intellectual value.

Really? Brendan Nyhan calls this a “classic case of false equivalence” and says “some Democrats have certainly criticized or undermined dissent, I’m not aware of any evidence comparable to the pattern of vicious attacks on dissent by Republicans between the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the end of George W. Bush’s time in office.”

I would distinguish between the “demonization” issue and “the notion that dissent can have no moral or intellectual value” issue. On demonization, sure, if it’s a day that ends in “y” people are demonizing their political adversaries. But there was a specific “wartime” contention being put forward during the Bush years which held that strongly-worded political criticism of the Bush administration was, as such, undermining American national security. I genuinely don’t think anyone’s made an equivalent claim. Indeed, all the most prominent progressive voices I’m familiar with have themselves engaged in fairly strong criticism of the Obama administration’s approach to some issues. This reflects an important and somewhat enduring difference between the political parties. The Republicans are much more reliably conservative than the Democrats are progressive.

You can’t understand contemporary politics if you don’t understand that.