The internet rewards hyperbole. Maybe that's why bad — incendiary, wildly inaccurate — analogies seem to be spreading throughout the media landscape, and especially on the right.
Analogies are an indispensable tool of reasoning and rhetoric, highlighting similarities between two or more things, people, or events. But deploying analogies can be complicated, since the things, people, or events being compared are invariably dissimilar in a multitude of ways. The trick in deploying an analogy effectively is to highlight a similarity that reveals something important and underappreciated about the main thing, person, or event. The key to making a mess of an analogy is drawing a comparison in which the dissimilarities are so vast that they overshadow and even undermine the comparison altogether.
Consider Kevin Williamson's much-discussed article from National Review calling Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders a Nazi. Now, Williamson doesn't actually use the term Nazi. But he does say that Sanders "is, in fact, leading a national-socialist movement." Just in case readers failed to make the link to the National Socialist movement led by Adolf Hitler, Williamson immediately concedes that it's "uncomfortable" to draw such a comparison about "a man who is the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and whose family was murdered in the Holocaust." Still, Williamson insists, "there is no other way to describe his view and his politics."
It turns out, though, that what Williamson really means is not that Sanders dreams of world military conquest and the extermination of Jews and other inferior races in the name of Aryan purity — you know, like an actual National Socialist. What Williamson really means is that Sanders is both a socialist and a nationalist. Which makes him "a national socialist in the mode of Hugo Chávez."
Oh, that kind of national socialist.
By the time we come to this big reveal toward the end of Williamson's article, it's impossible not to feel manipulated, even duped, by the "national socialist" analogy that forms the backbone of the story — because the author utterly failed, and never even really intended, to demonstrate a relevant similarity between Sanders' campaign and the fascist political movement that swept Germany in the 1930s and went by the name of National Socialism.
The Williamson article is somewhat unusual in that its core analogy is offered with a nudge and a wink. Other conservatives draw their inflammatory comparisons with complete sincerity.
Perhaps no recent event has inspired more spurious analogies than the Supreme Court's defense of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges. The decision has inspired some defenders of traditional marriage to call Obergefell the Dred Scott decision of our time (because, like Dred Scott, Obergefell was supposedly an act of lawless judicial usurpation that subverted the democratic will of the people).
Others have likened Obergefell to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that declared a constitutional right to abortion and ended up conjuring the national pro-life movement into existence. Still others have described a future in which the "Gestapo" will begin knocking on the doors of those who oppose same-sex marriage, or compared life for conservative Christians post-Obergefell to life under "the lie" of communist totalitarianism.
Let's take these one at a time:
- Unlike Dred Scott, Obergefell and same-sex marriage enslave no one. Moreover, whereas upholding the rights of slave owners led to immediate and total loss of liberty for large numbers of human beings, opponents of same-sex marriage have had a difficult time demonstrating to courts that granting the right to marry to the nation's tiny population of homosexuals, in itself, does any measurable harm at all to those who define a marriage in traditional terms. (As for the harms to the exercise of religious freedom that may well follow from Obergefell, they are not a direct consequence of same-sex marriage itself but are rather a product of an anticipated expansion of the nation's anti-discrimination laws to cover gay marriage. This complication is obviously something obscured by the Dred Scott analogy, as is the likely prospect of legislating carve-outs from anti-discrimination laws for religious organizations.)
- Unlike with the consequences of Roe, no one can plausibly claim that a person is killed as a result of exercising the right proclaimed by Obergefell. That would seem to render the comparison somewhat lacking in cogency. (It also points to why the constitutional triumph of same-sex marriage is exceedingly unlikely to spark powerful, enduring grassroots opposition like the pro-life movement.)
- The Gestapo? You've got to be kidding. Let me know when the secret police begins pounding on your door, and I will pledge my life, fortune, and sacred honor to prevent you from being sent to a concentration camp for your traditionalist Christian beliefs. But until that time, please get a grip. Outbursts like that only make you look paranoid, self-pitying, and bizarrely out of touch with both present American reality and the bloody history of real political oppression.
- As for the analogy to communism, the same admonition applies. Even in the realistically worst-case scenario predicted by opponents of same-sex marriage — the forced compliance of religious schools and other church-affiliated institutions with anti-discrimination laws protecting gay marriage; the loss of tax-exempt status for churches — the United States would resemble contemporary France far more than the Soviet Union. The advent of French-style ideological secularism (laïcité) in the U.S. would mark a significant (and in my view unwelcome) change, including a significant constriction of religious freedom from historic American norms. But that's a far cry from totalitarianism. (Last time I checked, France was a liberal democracy, albeit one with a somewhat different understanding of the proper relation between church and state.)
I could go on, pointing to other false comparisons deployed by the right. (Keeping up with neoconservative invocations of Munich, 1938 could be a full-time job all on its own.) But it would be a mistake to think that liberals never make unconvincing analogies. As far as many conservative Christians are concerned, the entire effort to portray opposition to same-sex marriage as equivalent to opposing interracial marriage is profoundly misleading. And they have a point. (Allowing people of the same sex to marry is a much more radical change to the institution than opening marriage to men and women of different races — and the sexual morality wrapped up with male-female marriage is far more deeply intertwined with the theological traditions of Western Christianity than racialized theories of matrimony ever were.)
The point is that politicians and commentators on both sides of the aisle do themselves no favors by drawing false analogies. It's a form of hype — sloganeering used in place of reason. Sometimes, as with the purported parallel between interracial and same-sex marriage, a weak analogy succeeds as propaganda. But more often, the analogy persuades no one who wasn't already convinced.
In such cases, argument and evidence will always have a greater likelihood of prevailing. Accept no substitutes.