False Equivalence and the Hero Archetype

Obama CopeJonathan Chait thinks that all the calls for presidential leadership to get Congress to, you know, do its job is magical thinking. In an article this morning, he said that there are two kinds analysts: quants and guts. Quants are people who look at the numbers. “The Democrats don’t have a filibuster-proof majority so little gets done.” Guts are people who just know that if Obama would show leadership and, say, part the red sea, everything would be fine. He’s right as far as it goes: a lot of observers want to create a kind of romantic narrative where the president is Achilles who can win the battle through force of will.

Where I think Chait got it wrong is in assuming that these people are not apologists for the Republican Party. He noted that the pundits who are pushing this line largely agree with Obama. While that’s true, they aren’t liberals; they are professional centrists who tilt slightly to the right or left depending on the person. They cannot allow themselves to say that something is wrong with the Republican Party much less with our entire political system. And so they focus all of their disappointment on Obama’s supposed lack of leadership.

These same commentators were not complaining about the watered down legislation that Obama did get passed when he had the power. That’s because they all like middle-of-the-road legislation. Of course, it is even more the case that they don’t want any actual economic reforms. After all, their lives are good.[1] But when it comes to new legislation that might inconvenience gun buyers a tiny amount but otherwise would be useless, well, that’s unacceptable! Maureen Dowd, Dana Milbank, and Ron Fournier want Congressional action for its own sake. If Obama had complete control the Congress and he decided to enact a financial transaction tax, I’m sure they would be outraged.

What these moderates want above all else is the appearance of Congressional action. They want a narrative that says that all is fine in Washington; there is no dysfunction; both parties love America and are trying to do what is right. They cannot admit that anything is wrong, so they turn to the narrative that Obama isn’t leading, as though he is Hugh Beaumont on Leave it to Beaver. It is pathetic, of course; but it isn’t new. It is just a different take on false equivalence.


For the record, I am very much a quant. In fact, after last year’s election, I repeatedly countered the idea from people (including Chait) that Obama’s sizable win mattered in terms of policy. His big win in 2008 mattered because the Democrats controlled Congress. He could have won 100% of the vote in 2012 and it wouldn’t have matter as long as Congress was still controlled by the Republicans. So there is a lot of magical thinking going around.

[1] Here is Randy Newman’s “My Life Is Good”:

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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