“Both parties suck” is a phrase burned into the political consciousness of America. It’s used mostly by two kinds of people: first, by independents forced to choose between what they see as roughly equal incompetence, and second, by partisans pointing to an action by the other party to defend the actions of one of their own. Even those who staunchly fight for their ideology usually have to sheepishly admit that they see their party of choice as the “lesser of two evils.” But I think these phrases, spoken almost word-for-word with near-inevitability whenever comparisons between the two major parties come up, don’t really do justice to the state of the modern Republican and Democratic Parties.
Speaking of the “lesser of two evils” seems to promote a certain kind of thinking. For instance, despite its superficial cynicism, the phrase places its equal and opposite— “the greater of two evils”—off limits. Note that you probably never hear that phrase, or anything like it, nearly as much as the first. To do so almost seems to invite accusations of hypocrisy; we’re all tied to a team we don’t really like all that much, don’t you know? It’s alright if you hold your nose and vote for your party, so why can’t you see I’m doing the same for my party? In an age like this, where the rabidly partisan accuse each other of every sin known to man, neutrality seems like wisdom to those who wish to remain above the fray.
But there is a greater of two evils, and I’m here to tell you: it’s the Republicans. It’s definitely the Republicans. I know, I know. That’s unenlightened. That’s tribalism. That’s partisan.
To that, I say: neutrality is not wisdom, and sometimes one thing is right and another thing is wrong. It is possible to recognize the flaws of one party while arguing that, by any relevant standard, the other party is far worse. Eliezer Yudkowsky called this kind of thinking the Fallacy of Gray. Just because it’s simplistic to think with a two-color view—that of black and white—doesn’t mean it’s better to think with a one-color view—that of monotone gray. “Everyone is imperfect,” Yudkowsky writes. “Mohandas Gandhi was imperfect and Joseph Stalin was imperfect, but they were not the same shade of imperfection. ‘Everyone is imperfect’ is an excellent example of replacing a two-color view with a one-color view.”
Additionally, comparisons between the two parties often occur in a vacuum. For instance, in November and December, when a flurry of sexual harassment and assault scandals rocked American politics and culture, many people pointed to Senator Al Franken’s scandal as evidence that the Democrats were just as bad as the Republicans, who had thrown their support behind accused pedophile Roy Moore. Nevermind that Franken’s accusations were of mild groping and inappropriate behavior, while Moore’s accusations were of molesting teenage girls: both sides are just as bad, see? Nevermind that Franken was forced to resign by Democratic leadership, while Moore continued to receive GOP funding and support from President Trump: both sides are just as bad, see? No one that said the parties’ behavior was equivalent could possibly have done so based on a side-by-side comparison. If you analyze each case by itself, you might conclude “hey, both parties have an accused sexual harasser in their midst.” If you put them up side by side, you would have to conclude that Franken’s case was tame compared to the monstrosity of Moore’s.
The media is largely responsible for this neglect of context. Each scandal is breathlessly reported and commented on and then forgotten again as the next scandal arises. To compare is to remember; to reflect. That’s precisely what modern media is designed to avoid. But if you stop letting the constant stream of noise desensitize you to what happens in the public square, you will find example after example of clearly unequal people and actions being treated equivalently by people who either lack the context to contrast them or have a motive for presenting them as the same. This is the impetus for an upcoming series, The Greater of Two Evils, that will examine these comparisons and make the case that, yes, both parties suck, but not equally. There’s no way to argue the Democrats are perfect, but there are plenty of ways to argue that the Democrats’ imperfection and the Republicans’ depravity are far from the same.