5.7. What Is “False Equivalence?”

We don’t need more false equivalence. But we also need to be careful not to automatically label any argument that ends in similarity: “false equivalence.”

“False equivalence” is a logical fallacy when you’re trying to claim that two parties are the same or similar, but you use a lousy argument to get there.

One way to do this is to point out a small similarity, and then to overgeneralize it.

That’s like when people say, “Politicians from both parties lie. They both cheat. They both do scummy, unethical, sometimes even illegal things to try to win. So they’re no different. They’re both just as bad as the other.”

Yeah, it’s true they both lie and cheat. But you can’t draw the conclusion that they’re the same from that point.

What if one party lies or cheats more than the other? What if, because of their very different policies that have a real impact on people’s lives, one is still better to have in power than the other?

Another way to make this error is to point out a big flaw in one party, and a similar but lesser flaw in the other, and use that to claim equivalence.

That’d be like if I said, “Yeah, I’m a murderer, but you fantasized about punching somebody in the face once. So see? We’re no different. You have violent impulses too.”

False equivalence is a real fallacy. And we ought to be holding people accountable when they do it.

Politicians, of course, do it all the time.

But the media is especially bad at it too.

That’s because the media wants to position itself as fair and objective. And splitting the difference between two sides, and pointing out that both sides have flaws is a lazy shortcut to appear fair and objective—instead of doing the actual hard work of being fair and objective.

But there is a way to discuss the common flaws of both sides without making the mistake of false equivalence…and that’s something we desperately need more of.

If you’ve been following these videos, you know one of my main arguments is that the two-party system hurts the American people.

With the billions of dollars the two parties have spent on data and analysis, they know exactly how to push our buttons. They know how to divide us very nearly in half.

While we, the people, pour our blood, sweat, and tears into this ever more bitter and entrenched stalemate…our politicians, corporations, and special interests make out like bandits, because we’re too divided to hold them accountable.

That means people on both sides who are attached to one of these parties, and keep fighting like hell to sustain this system—however well-intentioned they may be—are ultimately misguided.

But I didn’t reach that conclusion by starting with some superficial similarity, and overgeneralizing from it.

I got there by stepping back, looking at the big picture, and observing how similar forces have been influencing the American people, on both sides of the political spectrum.

We don’t need more false equivalence. But we also need to be careful not to automatically label any argument that ends in similarity: “false equivalence.”

Because ultimately, the American people are going to have to figure out how to come together in spite of our differences…and it won’t happen, as long as we resist the very idea that something common has happened to us, to drive us apart.


This is the 83rd in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.

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