The fallacy of the false dichotomy is an assertion that there are two and only two possibilities that are mutually exclusive, but of which one must exist. Black and white thinking of this kind is easy to fall into, pairs being simple to comprehend.
First published in May 2019.
George W. Bush illustrated this in response to the 9/11 attacks, telling the nations of the world that “you’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.” The reality of that situation was that many countries would prefer just to be friends or, gasp, to be left alone, especially when they considered that we insist these days on fighting wars on the credit card with less than half of a percent of Americans on active service in the military.
Following the First World War, the Russian Revolution generated panic over the supposed wave of Bolshevism that many in the west perceived to be on its way. The Allies had defeated the Central Powers, and many ordinary people in the victorious nations wondered what they had fought for, given the preservation of privilege and empires that came with the peace. Among some of those who identified with the establishment, fascism was regarded as the only defense against communism, the assumption being that democracy was insufficiently strong to stand up against the threat.
In recent years, right wingers on social media and religious radio have asserted a new variation on this fallacy, namely the notion that secularism is not a realistic option for protecting the west against the challenge of Islam. In this view, the only salvation is a return to a unification of governments with Christianity.
I have been calling this point of view a fallacy, but that is an assertion requiring analysis. The German Weimar Republic was formed by a coalition of social democrats, and though its failures were fewer than today’s impressions may recognize, it does stand as the go-to example of a democracy that was a weak voice desperate to be heard while the communists and fascists shouted and shot at each other. And this experience does demand some consideration of how we today will deal with the dangers of totalitarianism in its many forms.
The assumption at the heart of this thinking is that free people — people who are not under the stern control of one or another variation on authoritarianism, be it religious or political in nature — cannot stand for themselves. The election of Donald Trump, after all, occurred in a nation that feels itself entitled to export democracy, and many of his voters supported him in reaction to the rising number of visible Muslims and vocal progressives in America. This is a nostalgia for popular culture that assumed white, Christian capitalism to be benevolent. Collective action on behalf of ordinary people, skin tones with higher concentrations of melanin, and religions that do not hold the interpretations of the Bible as Protestants read it unsettle many minds.
This is to say that a false dichotomy succeeds by feeling right. By giving the label of a fallacy to the assumption that democracy is not capable of meeting the challenge of whatever menace is on the horizon, I open myself to the requirement to offer supporting evidence, especially after giving the standard counter to my position.
Thus, consider the experience of Europe after the Second World War. While several countries in the western half — political, if not altogether geographical — toyed with lurches to the far right, for the most part, the democratic process stayed within the boundaries of its own character with routine transitions of power in response to the will of the electorate. And while the news of late may give the impression that authoritarianism is in the ascendancy, in fact, the trend over the last two centuries — and particularly in recent decades — is toward more and more people living in societies in which the rule of law and citizen participation in shaping their government are the norm.
The belief that the only resistance to authoritarianism is another kind of authoritarianism assumes and depends on separating people from information. This is accomplished by distraction — would we have Donald Trump in the White House without reality television — and by maintaining distress, whether through hyperinflation — though the Federal Reserve now prevents that — or by trapping ever more of us in low-wage jobs with inadequate healthcare. And pitting races against each other is a cliché only because it is so effective.
Republican attacks on education, healthcare, and the safety net are obvious examples of this strategy. Countering the right-wing strategy requires a commitment to those elements that make a society great, and as long as the Democratic Party is terrified of being called socialist, the left will have trouble articulating the benefits that each one brings when practiced in uncompromising forms. We need candidates who will speak this truth, yes, but we also need ordinary people who will defend the principles of democracy in discussions in person and on social media.
In addition to policy choices, respect for individuality — called, maligned, and misunderstood as diversity in popular usage today — is essential for preserving a free society against authoritarianism. Whether we are talking about high school students who are not jocks, members of the LGBT community, or any other variety of nonconformists, the people who cannot or will not fit in narrow slots are one of the strengths of democracy, a strength that authoritarian systems deny themselves, the utility of difference in the face of challenges.
Can democracy insert itself into a competition of authoritarianisms and succeed? Yes. But only when it is a working democracy, one whose citizens are dedicated and prepared for the work that it implies.🔷
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