US Park Police officer watches at left as a National Park Service employee posts a sign on a barricade closing access to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, on Oct. 1, 2013
Carolyn Kaster // AP File

What the ‘Both Sides Brigade’ gets wrong about the shutdown


Two weeks ago, following Donald Trump’s Oval Office address on the government shutdown, the Associate Press turned to a familiar refrain: it blamed both sides for the mess.

“Democrats put the blame for the shutdown on Trump. But it takes two to tango,” the AP wrote. “Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion for his border wall is one reason for the budget impasse. The Democrats refusal to approve the money is another.” The AP added, “It takes two sides to shut down the government.”

It was, of course, a deeply flawed argument, but the instinct to blame Republicans and Democrats is unshakable for much of the political world. It’s why we’ve heard similar rhetoric from pundits, editors, a former Republican president, and a longshot Democratic presidential candidate.

Eric Levitz labeled the advocates of this position the “Both Sides Brigade.”

The Brigade’s position is familiar because it’s a staple of how much of the political establishment prefers to see the world: as a bipartisan mess. To hold one party responsible for a specific fiasco would be “partisan” and evidence of “bias,” which is why so many prioritize even-handedness over facts. It’s a comfortable lens through which to see events unfold.

In the case of the current government shutdown, however, there’s an inescapable detail: Democrats aren’t asking for anything. Consider the competing postures:

Congressional Democrats: We just want to re-open the government. We don’t have any extraneous policy demands and we’re asking for no concessions.

The Trump White House and congressional Republicans: We’ll consider re-opening the government if Democrats approve billions of dollars in spending for an unpopular border wall.

To portray this with “both sides share the blame” commentary isn’t just misleading, it’s also an enormous favor to the party that deserves responsibility.

Indeed, to a very real extent, it actually encourages the president to try to govern through hostage strategies because it signals to the White House that if Trump relies on extortion, the political mainstream will suggest Democrats give him something for his troubles. If not, they’ll be presented to the public as recalcitrant and unreasonable.

The push for some kind of “compromise” between the parties is misguided, in much the same way it’d be a mistake to call for a hostage-taker and law enforcement to strive for a middle ground.