False equivalency is the practice of assigning equal blame to two people or groups even when one is far more at fault. Lazy reporters often use it to make political coverage seem balanced. It’s much easier to report that Democrats say one thing and Republicans another than it is to find and expose the truth.

It’s also often used by politicians who want to seem bipartisan. Sen. Susan Collins and former Sen. Olympia Snowe, both Republicans, almost never call out the tea party directly, instead complaining about general “polarization” or “partisanship.” On those rare occasions when they do criticize the extreme faction that has taken control of their party, they’ll usually go out of their way to criticize Democrats as well.

Angus King, during his successful campaign for U.S. Senate last year, sounded some of these same themes. Even as Karl Rove, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the rest of the conservative machine pumped money into attack ads against him, King, an independent, usually confined his criticisms to “Congress” or “the system” as a whole and expressed hope that he could help bring sanity back to Washington.

Now, a year into his tenure as Maine’s junior senator, King seems to have more precisely diagnosed Washington’s mental illness.

Recently in an interview on MSNBC, King explained that the cause of the government shutdown was about 120 people in the Republican House caucus who are “holding the United States hostage.”

“There’s a pernicious inner logic to what these characters are doing,” said King. “They hate government. They don’t want government to work. They don’t believe government can or should work, and so to them, crashing the economy and crashing the government is a kind of weird success.”

In a speech on the Senate floor this week, King went further, declaring that “one faction of one party in one house of one branch” had engaged in “a frontal assault on the Constitution itself.”

“This is an attempt to rewrite a major piece of substantive law through holding the government hostage,” said King, referring to the Republican demand that President Obama gut the Affordable Care Act in order for them to restore a functioning government. “Police and Intelligence people and military officers tell you that you don’t negotiate with hostage takers. The reason you don’t is because you empower, you enable, and you ensure that it will happen again.”

The American people also seem to know who to blame. Both the Gallup and Wall Street Journal/NBC News polls are showing the lowest ratings for the Republican Party in the surveys’ history.

This kind of language and these kinds of polls give me hope that perhaps the sheer blatant audacity of the Republican government shutdown and the crisis they’ve manufactured over the debt ceiling have begun to snap us out of the habit of false equivalencies. It has forced almost everyone to recognize that there’s one group that wants government to work and one that doesn’t, one side that’s willing to compromise and work through the legislative system and another willing to take hostages if they can’t get their way.

There will always be those in politics and the media who declare “a pox on both their houses,” either out of ignorance or an attempt to disguise the bad actions of one side, but perhaps now more people will see these false equivalencies for what they are.

We have a long way to go to get back to any kind of rational discussion of policy. Look no further for an example than the legislation Republicans have targeted with this shutdown: the Affordable Care Act.

The law is actually a conservative idea first advanced by the Heritage Foundation and first put into effect by then-Gov. Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. It uses vouchers to give public money to private insurance companies and relies on markets to hopefully keep costs down.

Yes, it introduces new, important protections and regulations, and it’s better than what we have now, but the fact that this legislation is now the hill that Republicans choose to die on is insane. If it had been proposed by a Republican president, they would be flocking to embrace it.

Like Sen. King, you, too, can do your part to shift us back toward reality and away from false equivalencies.

Next time you hear someone blaming “Congress” or “the federal government” for the shutdown, remind them that one extremist wing of one party is the problem. If we’re going to fix the machine of government, we first have to honestly identify what’s broken.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie who blogs at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine People’s Resource Center. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @miketipping

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