The Gaslighting Effect of Both-Siderism

Over the last few years we’ve watched as the GOP has become Trump’s party. For many of us, that poses a threat to our democracy. A lot of people in the mainstream media understand that and have stopped looking for the pivot that would make him more “presidential.” We’ve also seen that some people in the media are finally recognizing that the polarization we’re experiencing in politics these days is asymmetrical, with Republicans doing things to deepen, rather than heal the divide.

And yet, the kind of both-siderism that gave us Donald Trump in the first place continues to find a home in too many places. For example, take a look at what Chuck Todd tweeted recently.

Todd didn’t identify the bad behavior exhibited by Democrats, but in the article he linked to, here is what Amy Walter wrote:

But, this battle isn’t unique to the Trump era. It’s simply the latest in a never-ending war by both sides to justify their partisan behavior. Neither side has cornered the market on hypocrisy. It’s hard to take Republican claims of Democrats operating in bad faith seriously, when Republicans held up the nomination of Merrick Garland for much of 2016. It’s also hard to reconcile Democrats’ universal cries of “I believe her,” with the terrible treatment many showed to Anita Hill, Monica Lewinsky and/or Paula Jones. Meanwhile, voters aren’t making the distinctions on policy or procedure or hypocrisy either. Instead, they rally behind their “team.” There’s no time for nuance; there is only time for war. So, war it will be for the foreseeable future.

She is right to point out that Democrats are still enraged that Republicans wouldn’t even hold a hearing on Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Catherine Rampell summed up where it went from there in response to an attack from Sen. Ted Cruz:

I’ve been thinking a lot about Merrick Garland recently. It’s pretty obvious that Obama nominated him because he was viewed as a moderate that Republicans could support—at least that is what Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said before Majority Leader McConnell shut the whole thing down. It’s hard to imagine anyone characterizing Neil Gorsuch or Brett Kavanaugh as a moderate, especially after what we witnessed from the latter in the hearings. That is another example of how both sides don’t do it.

When it comes to the bad behavior on the part of Democrats, Walter has to go back about 25 years to the treatment of Anita Hill, Monica Lewisnsky, and Paula Jones. Volumes have been written about the Clarence Thomas hearings as well as Bill Clinton’s affairs and subsequent impeachment for lying about the one with Lewinsky. I’m not going to re-hash all of that right here. Suffice it to say that if Walter can’t come up with some bad behavior on the part of Democrats more recently than 25 years ago, it makes a mockery of the idea that “both sides do it.”

Some of us are still smarting from the fact that Al Franken stepped down after simply being accused of sexually inappropriate behavior without any investigation, while Trump still sits in the Oval Office and Kavanaugh has his seat on the Supreme Court. That is the more apt comparison.

For those of us who are trying to keep the door to being open-minded cracked at least a little bit, this both-siderism has a kind of gaslighting effect. You begin to question whether what you are witnessing with your own two eyes is real. That’s when you have to step back and review the facts. Democrats had issues with Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings when Republicans refused to release hundreds of thousands of pages of his records. They were also concerned that he apparently lied during the initial hearings. Then, when credible accusations of sexual assault emerged, they demanded an investigation. That led the nominee to lie again, while engaging in a partisan rant that should disqualify any judicial nominee.

The reason Todd and Walter don’t accuse Democrats of bad behavior in the current process is because there hasn’t been any on display. That isn’t a partisan assessment, it is a fact. Accurate reporting would confirm the facts rather than go in search of a way to claim that both sides do it. Todd and Walter engaged in a distortion that gives Republicans a pass for what they are doing, which makes reporters like them complicit.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.