With the 2020 campaign season in full swing, it is inevitable that we will see an uptick in plagiarism allegations against politicians.
However, if time has taught us anything, it’s that most of these are not particularly serious. The vast majority of political plagiarism allegations are political opponents trying to either small issues into big ones or turn non-issues into stories.
This past week has been no different, with at least three separate plagiarism stories making headlines. However, only one of the three may point to a plagiarism issue at all and that issue may not be as significant as some want it to be.
To that end, let’s take a look at each of these stories one by one and see why political plagiarism scandals are so often mountains made out of molehills.
The NEW Joe Biden Plagiarism Scandal
Last week, both the New York Post and the National Post published articles claiming that Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden had plagiarized parts of his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.
According to the allegations, Biden said the following:
“For love is more powerful than hate. Hope is more powerful than fear. Light is more powerful than dark.”
However, some felt that the language mirrored closely a 2011 legger written by Canadian politician Jack Layton, who said:
“Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair.”
However, both publications, in their reporting, acknowledged that Layton’s words were similar to a 1916 speech by another Canadian politician, Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier, who said, “Remember that faith is better than doubt and love is better than hate.”
In the end, the story didn’t receive much attention and was only reported on in a handful of conservative publications.
I published a Twitter thread about this story yesterday and why I didn’t want to do a full post on it. My reasons there still stand: This is a trope.
The idea of love being better than hate, hope being stronger than fear, etc. is a trope that goes back for as long as there have been stories. Every fairy tale that discusses true love conquering evil or hope prevailing over dire situations speaks to these tropes.
Biden’s language was not the same (or even particularly similar) to Layton’s and both are based on the same general ideas. While it may not be original, it’s certainly not plagiarism. If it’s guilty of anything it’s being generic, not plagiarism.
That said, any time Biden uses language that mirrors someone else, you can expect him to be accused of plagiarism. Biden’s past makes it extremely difficult for him to escape the label of plagiarist and that means we can expect to see several more cases of Biden being accused of plagiarism whether he actually does plagiarize or not.
Rep. Elise Stefanik vs. Tedra Cobb
However, the issue is a bit of a bizarre one. On Tuesday, Cobb released her plan for veterans. Shortly after that happened, Rep. Stefanik released a statement accusing Cobb of releasing, “a veterans plan that actually copies and steals legislation, not only that I produced, but that I passed and it was signed into law as part of the FY18 National Defense Authorization Act.”
However, the issue was over one specific line on Cobb’s site, which expressed support for “legislation such as the Military Family Stability Act.”
The legislation in question was drafted by Stefanik and was eventually passed as part of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.
According to Stefanik, “It would’ve been very different if it said, ‘I support Congresswoman Stefanik’s bill,’ but they didn’t say that. They announced it as part of Tedra Cobb’s plan for veterans.”
To be honest, this one is almost silly. Cobb, on her website, showed support for the Military Family Stability Act. She didn’t claim credit for it, say she wrote it, implied that it was her work or that she had anything to do with it. Just that she supported it.
While she didn’t mention Rep. Sefanik’s name, politicians rarely say who drafted a piece of legislation when supporting or condemning it. While one can argue she should have since she was endorsing legislation drafted by her opponent, it’s not plagiarism to fail to do so.
You may be able to argue it’s a different kind of misdirection, but there’s no argument that makes it plagiarism. It’s also worth noting that Cobb does not name the authors of other acts she mentions and neither does Rep. Stefanik (as you can see in this example policy statement).
In the end, this one got a lot of attention, in large part because of how heated Cobb’s response was and that it’s another chapter in a bitter race that’s a rematch from their 2018 campaigns.
While this may be a missed opportunity to show unity, it’s not plagiarism.
U.S. House Candidate Burgess Owens Plagiarizes in Book
Finally, Utah Republican Congressional candidate Burgess Owens is facing allegations that he plagiarized in his 2018 book entitled Why I Stand: From Freedom to the Killing Fields of Socialism.
The allegations from Eric Hananoki at the liberal news site Media Matters. According to the original report, over a dozen passages of the book were copied either verbatim or near-verbatim from outside sources. Though some of the sources were cited in footnotes, there was no indication that the text was quoted on any of them and 4 were not cited at all.
One notable example included a 148-word passage copied verbatim from Wikipedia. Though Owens cites the news article that the Wikipedia entry also cites, he makes no mention that the text was copied from the online encyclopedia.
Owens responded to the allegations, saying in an interview, “Every single thing that they showed was referenced. I was very careful to make sure that anything I did — I mean, I’m not an expert at journalism, I’m a biology major — but I knew one thing, that if I took someone else, I made sure I referenced.”
However, as Media Matters pointed out, that is untrue, with several of the citations not pointing to the actual source that was copied. Despite the controversy, Owens spoke at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday night and seems largely unphased by the allegations.
Of the three stories I’ve covered here, this is by far the most serious. Owens’ book is recent and features hundreds of words of plagiarized text, sometimes completely uncited and sometimes only cited with footnotes.
Owens’ response is also less than helpful. While in many cases he did note the text with a footnote, there’s a separation between acknowledging where ideas/information come from versus acknowledging where words come from. Pretending that he cited adequately by providing footnotes not but no quotations is either missing or ignoring an important distinction.
The closest analogue I can recall to this is the 2017 Monica Crowley plagiarism example. She was similarly accused of plagiarizing a book published years before. However, Crowley’s story featured much more significant amounts of plagiarism and ultimately resulted in both her book being pulled and her losing position in the White House.
However, Owens’ case is not Crowley’s. What is needed now is more research and a closer examination of the book. Yes, Owens’ book features a dozen clearly-copied passages without citation, but it’s unclear if it’s a pattern in the book or just those passages.
The book is 432 pages long and the text is only a small part of it. The book needs to be updated with proper citations immediately and it should be removed from sale until is fixed. However, considering that authors like Jane Goodall have been able keep their books and their legacy in spite of much more serious plagiarism allegations, there’s no reason Owens can’t do the same.
That is, if this truly is the extent of the plagiarism. That is something we won’t know without additional analysis.
In the end, this case isn’t likely to have much of an impact on Owens’ campaign. In an election cycle as intense as this one, “plagiarist” just isn’t that severe of an insult.
As someone who cares deeply about plagiarism, citation and content misuse, election season is always a frustrating time. Politicians and their campaigns attempt to weaponize plagiarism for their benefit while paying no mind to the serious issues and concerns that lie underneath.
If you want to have deep, nuanced conversations about plagiarism, 2020 is not going to be your year. What you think about each of these plagiarism stories most likely says more about your politics than your opinions on plagiarism.
The reason for that is simple: Plagiarism is a subject that few people have strong feelings about and that reasonable people can disagree on. This makes it something that is easily swayed by ones beliefs about the subject of the investigation rather than the facts of the case.
For those that make plagiarism a big part of their day job, this is extremely frustrating. However, it’s a cycle I’ve grown very accustomed to and one that I don’t see changing any time soon.