Political Animal


July 23, 2012 8:48 AM False Equivalency Watch

By Ed Kilgore

I’m normally a fan of veteran political reporter Thomas Edsall, who has a knack for understanding some of the deeper cultural conflics underlying contemporary electoral battles. And much of the latest analysis he provides in a New York Times piece today, focusing on Obama’s demographic strategy, is unobjectionable.

But I sure object to this comparison:

[Obama] is running a two-track campaign. One track of his re-election drive seeks to boost turnout among core liberal groups; the other aims to suppress turnout and minimize his margin of defeat in the most hostile segment of the electorate, whites without college degrees….
Over the past two years, Republican-controlled state legislatures have been conducting an aggressive vote-suppression strategy of their own through the passage of voter identification laws and laws imposing harsh restrictions on voter registration drives.

Even if you buy Edsall’s assumption that the Obama campaign’s anti-Romney ads are designed to convince non-college educated white voters who won’t support the incumbent to give Romney a pass as well, it is fundamentally wrong to treat such efforts as equivalent to utilizing the power of government to bar voters from the polls altogether. Voters hypothetically convinced by the Obama ads to “stay home” in the presidential contest are perfectly free to skip that ballot line and vote their preferences for other offices, just as they are perfectly free to ignore both presidential campaigns’ attack ads and make a “hard choice” between two candidates they aren’t crazy about. Lumping negative ads together with voter disenfrancisement under the rubric of “vote suppression” legitimizes the latter as a campaign tactic rather than what it actually is: an assault on the exercise of fundamental democratic rights.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Andy Olsen on July 23, 2012 8:56 AM:

    Wow, that's obnoxious. In no way is negative advertising "voter suppression." It's campaign debate. The best outcome would be a vote in favor of the candidate airing the ad.

  • massappeal on July 23, 2012 9:03 AM:

    Great catch!

    (This has been another edition of: What Ed Kilgore Said.

  • terraformer on July 23, 2012 9:08 AM:

    Marching orders have been given. Any journalist who dares to venture that one side is not exactly like the other will be put to pasture.

    Thanks, media monopolies!

  • T2 on July 23, 2012 9:15 AM:

    Edsall's comments are preposterous. Thanks for alerting me to him, I won't waste any future reading time on his screeds.

  • pol on July 23, 2012 9:40 AM:

    Wow. Reading the comments of the NYT piece, I'm impressed with the number of readers who have picked up on this false equivalency and are calling Edsall down for it.

  • c u n d gulag on July 23, 2012 9:41 AM:

    Yes, because President Obama telling blue-collar white folks what Romney's all about, and making them less interested in turning out and voting for him, is EXACTLY the same as Republicans trying to suppress browner, younger, and some older voters, by reinstating what, for all intent's and purposes, are poll taxes via making state-issued ID a requirement to vote - which, said ID's, are NEITHER free, NOR cheap, NOR easily available.

    Outside of THAT - there's NO difference!

    PS: Hey, what's up with CRAPTCHA?
    Over the last week, is it getting MORE impossible for humans to read, or is it just me?

    I now have to scroll through several different options before I can begin to think I know what the feck that feckin' thing wants.

  • James M on July 23, 2012 9:54 AM:

    I should change my tag to 'Broken Record'!

    However, to repeat my fundamental premise once more, I don't think that the members of the MSM political press feel they have any choice. Their entire paradigm is based on 2 assumptions:

    1. Both major parties are basically well-intentioned and interested in serious policy debate, formulation and enactment.

    2. The candidates the major parties choose for important offices will conduct honorable,ethical and mostly honest campaigns.

    In the current situation where neither of the above is true, the 'fair witness' (neutral observer) role that MSM reporters aim to fulfill becomes nonviable and irrelevant.

  • esaud on July 23, 2012 9:57 AM:

    My own familiarity with Edsall's work is limited to his recent columns in the NYT's Election 2012 series, and I have to say they leave me unimpressed. Like Kathleen Hall Jamieson and many others (i.e. Krugman's "militant centrists"), in a quest to appear impartial, they all are missing the big stories, like the unprecedented mendacity of the Romney camp.

    Romney is now going "full metal wingnut" (thanks, charlie pierce) with things like Ted Nugent's endorsement, Sununu's insulting rhetoric, trump's birther nonsense. And this is limited to the above-board stuff. Edsall should get a load of the stuff circulating on the internet.

    Earlier, all of the inside-the-beltway pundit types were predicting that Romney would somehow pivot to the center. Since they were all wrong, it's no wonder that they keep on pretending.

  • biggerbox on July 23, 2012 10:13 AM:

    In English, we typically support a distinction between the words "depress" and "suppress". Edsall's false equivalence misses this distinction entirely.

    Even if you agree with the assertion that Obama is trying to negatively affect turnout in that segment, that effort, since it relies on persuasion and argumentation, not the force of the state, is at worst trying to "depress" turnout. And clearly, using persuasion and argument is at the heart of the democratic process, not hostile to it, as the voter suppression of the Republican legislatures is.

    Edsall is being, to use another perfectly good English word, a "jackass."

  • exlibra on July 23, 2012 10:13 AM:

    Thanks Ed. Duly went there, clicked "recommend" on every comment which pointed out the same false equivalence, and piled up with a scathing comment of my own.

    "ezenshe exahusted", asks Craptcha. How should I know? Ez she? I would be.

  • DeirdreTom on July 23, 2012 10:52 AM:

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  • castanea on July 23, 2012 11:48 AM:

    What I used to think was merely an attempt by some politicians and their toadies in the media to tell obvious lies for political gain I now realize is a full-blown lack of basic critical thinking skills.

    It is one thing if people tell, or repeat, lies for gain if they know they are telling lies.

    It is sinister, and completely at odds with rational democracy, when people tell lies honestly believing they are true.

    In the former, the person can reform because s/he knows that s/he is wrong. In the latter, the person will resist all incentives to reform because s/he simply knows s/he is correct.

    We are at the point in the decline of our empire at which the lack of basic critical thinking skills has reached the level of a widespread mass hysteria.

    An epitaph for America might very well be: "No amount of logic could shatter a faith consciously based on lies."

  • majun on July 23, 2012 12:18 PM:

    Anyone who can't distinguish between trying to convince voters not to go to the polls and pushing legislation to turn away voters who do go to the polls, wishing to exercise their franchise, shouldn't be given any space in any publication, not even a Fox News blog, to spout their nonsense.