The Ben Sasse Problem

His recent piece in The Atlantic takes Republicans to task, even as it also indulges in dangerous both-sides rhetoric that is ultimately self-defeating.

Dr. Thomas J. West III
Jan 17 · 5 min read

Recently, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska penned a scathing essay in The Atlantic, taking his Republican colleagues to task for their willingness to indulge the conspiracy theorists in their ranks. “We can dedicate ourselves to defending the Constitution and perpetuating our best American institutions and traditions,” he writes, “or we can be a party of conspiracy theories, cable-news fantasies, and the ruin that comes with them. We can be the party of Eisenhower, or the party of the conspiracist Alex Jones. We can applaud Officer Goodman or side with the mob he outwitted. We cannot do both.” He then goes all-in on those who the Republican Party has welcomed, taking particular aim at the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, both of whom have expressed their support of the nutty QAnon conspiracy theory.

So far, so good. However, it isn’t very long before Sasse gives in to that perennial malady of the disingenuous, namely the “my side does something terrible but so does the other side.” To whit: “In this essay, I am focusing on the maladies of the right, but Americans across the political spectrum are falling prey to the siren song of conspiracism.” Notice how deftly he manages to have it both ways? He takes his own side to task, while also making sure that we’re aware that, bad as they might be, those on the left also engage in conspiracy theorizing. It should come as no surprise to anyone that he doesn’t really provide any actual evidence of such; for him, as with so many Republicans, it’s enough to simply say that it exists.

Sasse goes on to deliver a veritable smorgasbord of false equivalencies. Somehow, he manages to equate MSNBC and The New York Times with Fox News and One America News. Now, to be sure, both MSNBC and the opinion pages of The New York Times tend to be on the progressive side of things, but it truly does strain credulity to think that either of those are comparable in their level of mendacity and red-meat throwing with what happens on Fox News (which, recall, played a key role in the downplaying of the pandemic) and One America News (which has gone off the rails in terms of its conspiracy theorizing about election fraud).

And, of course, he can’t resist throwing in the specter of abolishing police departments, which he equates with the conspiracy theories peddling the myth of election fraud. It’s worth pointing out a number of things here. First, while there are some who call for the absolute abolition of the police, many justice system reform advocates call for reforming the police, and that seems to the consensus position for many on the left. Second, it’s beyond disingenuous to claim that there is an equivalence between calling for investigations of fantastical voter fraud (which, time and again, has been shown to not be a problem, particularly in the 2020 election), and a very important social movement calling for a more responsible police force. One is a myth (election fraud); the other is a pressing social and political problem (police violence against Black men).

It would seem that that sort of detail doesn’t suit Sasse’s rhetorical efforts to both-sides us to death.

Unfortunately, Sasse is not alone in drawing false equivalences. In fact, we saw it unfold repeatedly over the past week and a half, as many Republicans — including Trump himself — have trotted out the line that, since BLM protests sometimes turned violent, that somehow that excused what happened at the Capitol (and Trump’s part in it). Never mind that the majority of the BLM demonstrations were peaceful; once again, that doesn’t fit with the narrative that Ben Sasse and the rest of the GOP wants to tell.

This both-sides-ism from the right is going to be a challenge going forward, and it’s one of the main stumbling blocks I have whenever the topic of bipartisanship comes up. The truth is that, particularly in recent years, the Democratic Party has been much more effective at corralling its left flank and helping them to be part of the team than the Republican Party has. It’s quite revealing, for example, that the GOP has become a haven for the truly insane conspiracy theory QAnon. There is, literally, no equivalent on the other side of the aisle. It’s hard to conceive of Nancy Pelosi, or any other members of the Democratic caucus, standing by while the likes of Marjorie Taylor Green and Lauren Boebert were seated.

Furthermore, it serves no one’s best interest when conservative leaders like Sasse engage in slippery and deceptive rhetoric. If his primary intention with this essay was to hold his own party accountable for what they’ve done to create a fevered atmosphere in which a group of armed insurrectionists would try to storm the U.S. Capitol, he could have done so without providing the very audience he’s trying to reach with the very rhetorical ammunition they’ll need to disregard his comments. All a conservative reader would need is to see the claim that both sides do it and their existing prejudices would be reaffirmed. Why, such a reader might ask, should I go the extra mile to turn my back on conspiracy theorizing when the left does it, too?

If the Republicans want to make a good faith effort to help bring the feuding sides of this country into some form of reconciliation, I am all for that. What I will not stand for is this continued both-sides-ism that is philosophically, intellectually, and rhetorically disingenuous. Ben Sasse and others like him are to be lauded for their efforts to return their party to some form of sanity. However, they must also be taken to task for their unwillingness to be honest with their constituents and their leaders. It’s particularly frustrating when people like Sasse engage in what they know to be flawed reasoning. The man has a PhD in Harvard in history, so he knows full well that he isn’t being completely honest with his audience when he makes these claims; he’s merely trying to be the adult in the room.

However, being the adult in the room means that sometimes — often — you have to speak uncomfortable truths to those who truly don’t want to hear them. In his essay, Sasse has failed to do that.

The GOP must do better.

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