As noted in the previous essay, the use of the false equivalence is a common tactic in politics. This essay will illustrate some of the ways it can be used to influence voters and I will provide some methods of defense. While this method can be employed across the political spectrum, in the United States it tends to be heavily favored by the right.
One use of the false equivalence is to make voters feel somewhat better voting for a politician who has what they think are serious flaws. Such voters would not vote for the other politician, but their enthusiasm could be damped by their negative view of their own politician. This might even cause them to skip voting, should obstacles such as bad weather, long lines or COVID-19 interfere. The use of a false equivalence can make such voters feel that since the other candidate is just as bad in the specified ways, they should not feel any concerns about supporting their politician. While this is inferior to making the voters feel that their politician is great, it can be effective in getting people to vote.
A second use of the false equivalence is to win over voters who are concerned about the serious flaws of a candidate but would vote for them if they were assuaged. The problem is that the opposing politician is less flawed and thus might be able to win over these voters. The tactic here is to draw a false equivalence between the two candidates to convince the voters that both candidates are equally bad. This would allow the deceived voters to feel better about voting for the flawed candidate—they can tell themselves that both are equally bad, so they should vote for the one they prefer more in some way—such as their professed views. This method can be effective as well and has the advantage of gaining a vote while taking a vote from the opponent.
A third use is against voters who are unlikely to vote for one politician but might vote for another politician—if they were to vote. The goal of the false equivalence in such cases is to demotivate the voter by getting them to believe that all politicians are the same—that is, they are all equally bad. The hope is that this will cause the voter to not vote. While this is not as good as winning over a voter, it is likely to cost their opponent a vote and thus increase their chances of not losing. While this is a sensible method for a bad politician who is going up against a better politician, it does run the risk if adopted by an entire party—they might demotivate their own voters. To avoid this, the false equivalence needs to be designed so that it demotivates the target voters while having less or no impact on the other voters.
One way to do this is by focusing on qualities that would demotivate those who would be inclined to vote for the other party while having little or no negative impact on the voters of one’s party. Fortunately for politicians, there are things that would upset voters for the other party that their own voters are fine with. To use a concrete example, the Republicans are trying to cast Joe Biden as a racist and someone who gropes women. Since Democrats tend to be much more upset about racism and groping, casting Joe Biden in this way can demotivate Democratic voters while not demotivating Republican voters. After all, most Republicans seem to at least tolerate Trump’s racism and history of groping. This tactic seems to have proven effective against Hillary Clinton—I know of several people who did not vote because they saw Trump and Clinton as equally bad.
Crafting a false equivalence often involves making use of other fallacies and rhetorical devices to power or empower the fallacy. One common method is to use down players to make one politician seem less bad and employ hyperbole to make the other look worse. People also sometimes either lie or make use of untruths they uncritically accept. These tactics are typically used in two ways. One is to exaggerate or downplay the number of negative factors. The other is to exaggerate or downplay the degree of the negative factors. The defense against all of these is to be critical and seek the truth. Be wary of claims that you really like (which can be negative claims about someone you do not like) and do not simply accept them without adequate evidence from credible sources.
When trying to exaggerate the number of negative factors, a common tactic is repetition: bringing up the same negative factor repeatedly and from different sources. This can make a single or small number seem much larger psychologically—it will feel like there are many negative factors because one hears about them so often. When trying to create the illusion of a large number, a common approach is to use different headlines for stories and social media posts—people tend not to read the details and will often be deceived. The main defense here is noting that it is simply the same thing being repeated to create the appearance of a larger number. And to consider that claims can be false.
When it comes to intensity, a commonly employed fallacy is the straw man: presenting a distorted or exaggerated version of the truth. In many cases this involves a claim that a person knows an unknown fact about the target. That, for example, although there is no positive evidence that a person said, did or believes something awful, the person making the straw man somehow knows this alleged secret truth.
As with most fallacies, there are two primary defenses against the false equivalence. The first is knowing that the fallacy is a fallacy. The second is being a critical thinker about claims and being careful to believe only in proportion to the evidence.