Ask a modern-day liberal how they arrive at the notion that the progressive method of problem solving is more effective than conservative one, and you’ll undoubtedly hear the word “kindness” dropped at one point in their explanation. If they do not use that word, they will undoubtedly drop the words “compassionate” or “nice” in some form. If we point out that most of the kind and compassionate big government fixes for ending poverty have resulted in numerous unintended consequences, and that it could be argued that many of those programs have ended up doing more harm than good, we should be prepared to hear their “best intentions” argument. Those who vote Democrat want these programs to succeed of course, but they are not so concerned with the programs’ success that they would vote to “fix” them, or change them if some cold, numbers-oriented accounting spreadsheet proved them ineffective. Their greater concern is that their favored politician puts forth an effort to solve the problem.
Political philosophy professor Leo Strauss says that it’s a mistake “to presume to understand important political philosophers better than they understood themselves, unless one had already put in the hard work necessary to understand them as they understood themselves.”
In an attempt to avoid undue partisan characterization, when it comes to trying to understand why common, ordinary citizens profess an allegiance to the progressive method to problem solving, we provide a characterization of the progressive ideology from someone who could be said to be a forefather of modern day liberalism, former President Franklin Roosevelt:
“Divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales. Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”
If the manner in which most progressives characterize their philosophical pursuit of problem solving is this stark, then it stands to reason that a politically astute observer who opposes it must be cruel, greedy, and callous. If that’s not the case, then the next logical conclusion would have to be that the observer who rejects the problem solving approach of the modern liberal is either not very astute, or woefully uninformed.
On those occasions when I’ve been able to discuss these matters with a concerned liberal citizen, I’ve found that they make an exception for me, because I’ve established the idea that I’m a nice person who means well. They might question my sources of information, my overall knowledge of the situation, and my status in life, such that it places me above those in need. Yet, most of them find it difficult to view me as inherently evil, because they know me, but they choose to view me as anecdotal evidence of those who share the evil mindset. Their extreme characterizations of opposing viewpoints, William Voegeli writes in his Imprimis piece, are a natural result of the repeated messaging from liberal politicians and activists that he calls “weaponized compassion”.
Using compassion as a weapon against the opponents of modern liberalism can be viewed in the following quotes:
“I am a liberal,” public radio host Garrison Keillor wrote in 2004, “and liberalism is the politics of kindness.”
Last year (2013) President Obama said, “Kindness covers all of my political beliefs. When I think about what I’m fighting for, what gets me up every single day, that captures it just about as much as anything. Kindness; empathy—that sense that I have a stake in your success; that I’m going to make sure, just because [my daughters] are doing well, that’s not enough—I want your kids to do well also. Empathetic kindness is “what binds us together, and . . . how we’ve always moved forward, based on the idea that we have a stake in each other’s success.”
Conservatives might view this type of “Mean People Suck” messaging as so condescending and simplistic that it could not possibly be effective, but it is. In election after election, exit polls reveal that such themes have worked for liberals, for generations. The reason for this, writes Voegeli, is that Republicans have never mounted an effective defense against it.
“If conservatives had ever come up with a devastating, or even effective rebuttal to the accusation that they are heartless and mean-spirited: a) anyone could recite it by now; and, b) more importantly, liberals would have long ago stopped using rhetoric about liberal kindness versus conservative cruelty, for fear that the political risks of such language far outweighed any potential benefits. The fact that liberals are, if anything, increasingly disposed to frame the basic political choice before the nation in these terms suggests that conservatives have not presented an adequate response.”
The problem that exists for Republicans, as it has for most of my life, is how does one defeat a negative? How does a political party prove to the population that they are not mean? An individual candidate can try to prove that they are personified evidence to the contrary, but that candidate will usually end up, as John McCain did in the 2008 Presidential Election, expending so much of their time and resources trying to defeat the charge of being mean that not only do they get distracted from other substantive issues, they leave the electorate wondering if they are protesting too much and, in fact, a mean person.
If these two philosophical pursuits of problem solving can be broken down to admittedly simplistic structures, it could be said that when one sifts through all of the rhetoric that both sides of the aisle engage in, the crux of the difference between the two philosophies revolves around money. Those who allocate more tax payers dollars to a problem are deemed more compassionate, and those who don’t are viewed as mean, cruel, and in favor of the rich.
Renown budget cutter, and former Indiana Republican Governor, Mitch Daniels believed he has at least one effective counter to the idea that the austerity measures that conservatives employ for problem solving are hateful.
“You ought to be the most offended of anybody,” he says to liberals, “If a dollar that could help a poor person is being squandered in some way.”
I think that we can say that most honest, and well-meaning liberal citizens believe that when their hard-earned tax dollars are devoted to helping the poor, they don’t mind paying those taxes, and they will vote for any politician who pledges to do so. The question I’ve always had for these citizens of good intentions is what percentage of your tax dollar, ostensibly devoted to fighting poverty, ends up being allocated to the bureaucracy devoted to fighting poverty? What percentage of that dollar goes to administrative costs, various other bureaucratic expenses, and what percentage ends up being fraudulently wasted, abused, and trapped in the bureaucratic red tape of redundancies? What percentage of that hard-earned, tax payer’s dollar actually makes it to the poor people that that bureaucracy is intended to help, and what percentage ends up being squandered in some way?
Another way of framing the same question I would have for those who vote Democrat for the expressed intent of helping the poor, or resolving economic inequality, through the various methods of tax allocations, government regulation, etc., is what are the various programs’ rates of success?
The liberal response to former Governor Daniels’ quote is that he is hateful, racist, against the poor, against women, and mean. If Daniels followed the John McCain model of countering such charges, he would then spend so much of his time defending himself against these charges that his central message would get lost in the shuffle, and people would walk away thinking that he’s mean. It’s called weaponzied compassion.
The aspect of Mitch Daniels’ argument that Mitch Daniels doesn’t discuss, in his rational argument against liberals, is that the solvency issue, or the effectiveness of the welfare program, isn’t of primary concern to liberal citizens. They simply want more for more, and anyone who attempts to cut the amount of money going to entitlement programs, or decreases the increase from the previous year, is deemed mean, hateful, racist, and engaged in a war against the poor.
When these numbers are put into actual and proverbial spreadsheets, it can be proven that while the welfare program has expanded exponentially in the last two generations, the needle of the poverty rate hasn’t moved much at all. This appears to be of less concern to liberal citizens, when as Daniels points out it should be their primary concern.
Why doesn’t the welfare program work very well? Why have there been so many problems with the wealth redistribution aspects of Obamacare? Why has Lyndon B. Johnson’s (LBJ) 1964-65 Great Society program failed to move the poverty level over the last fifty years, and why do most of the well-intentioned plans of liberalism fail to achieve on a level that could promote liberalism as the ideal political philosophy for all Americans, as opposed to the twenty some odd percent who maintain unwavering belief?
The cynical conservative would say that these programs have inherent flaws that keep those immersed in these troubled programs voting for the career politicians who promise to fix them in every election cycle. These programs are never fixed, but politicians have vowed to fix them, or the system, for as long as most of us have been alive.
While this might apply to liberal politicians, the liberal citizen would inform you that they have nothing to gain from the stagnancy, or failure, of the program for which they advocate. They don’t understand how a conservative could be rooting on the failure of a program ostensibly designed to help the poor. Most conservatives are not, of course, they just have a different way of approaching the matter, but the conservative methods to fixing the problem are complicated, difficult to understand, numbers oriented, long-term, and very difficult to sell on a campaign trail. When people can’t grasp the totality of such an approach, they feel stupid, and when they feel stupid they need someone to help them understand it, or if that’s not possible, to, at least, make them feel better about not understanding it. What better way is there to relate to these people, and their confusion, than to call those with alternative, and complicated, solutions names? People understand name calling, it’s street, and it reaches us on a base level equivalent to bathroom humor –a tool that some comedians employ when they fear they’re losing an audience. This type of response unites us all in a manner –a Jerry Springer manner– that a complicated explanation with long-term problem solving techniques cannot.
“I conclude that the machinery created by the politics of kindness does not work very well–” writes Voegeli, “in the sense of being economical, adaptable, and above all effective– because the liberals who build, operate, defend, and seek to expand this machine don’t really care whether it works very well and are, on balance, happier when it fails than when it succeeds.”
To accentuate this particular point, William Voegeli pulls out his Oxford English Dictionary to provide us with the literal definition of compassion.
“Compassion means suffering together with one another. Compassion is the feeling or emotion, that a person is moved by when witnessing the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it.”
This definition of compassion does not include a wish to suffer the identical fate of the sufferer, but that they want to suffer the trials and tribulations of others vicariously, and they do want someone to do something about it, regardless how effective that something is.
As Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in Emile:
“When the strength of an expansive soul makes me identify myself with my fellow man, and I feel that I am, so to speak, in him, it is in order not to suffer that I do not want him to suffer. I am interested in him for love of myself.”
Those who reject this characterization as simplistic still need to ask the question why liberals would be for programs that have, historically, proven ineffective? Why would their answer to the problems that everyone acknowledges exist in the welfare program be more welfare? With a fifty year track record of failure, why would so many liberals consider LBJ’s Great Society program to be a success?
The co-editor of a book called Pathological Altruism, Barbara Oakley explains her point of view:
“It’s the indifference –blithe, heedless, smug, or solipsistic– that liberals have to actual results that defines them as pathological altruists. It’s the idea that they can appear compassionate by being for these programs,” and thus be perceived as wonderful people by their peers, “That drives them to be for these programs even if they have a poor track record.”
Those who have introduced a results-oriented refutation of these programs to liberals –or people that are generally for such altruistic programs– have either witnessed genuine surprise on their face, or they’ve been greeted with a very frustrated person who reacts in a manner that suggests that a results-oriented presentation is obnoxious. To those who are surprised, some of us have recognized that not only did they not know these facts and figures that we’re presenting to them, but that the very idea of investigating for this kind of information never occurred to them.
“Pity is about how deeply I can feel,” wrote the late political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain. “And in order to feel this way, to experience the rush of my own pious reaction, I need victims the way an addict needs drugs.”
As a former fraud investigator of charitable enterprises, firsthand experience informed me that some people are pathologically altruistic. There’s nothing wrong with giving, of course, and there may be some merits to blind, uninformed giving, but those merits, as Rousseau points out, are generally immersed in how one views themselves, or how they want to be viewed.
There’s an old line that suggests: “Who cares why people give, as long as they give.” The same could be said, I suppose, when it comes to why some people are for government programs ostensibly designed to help poor people: “Who cares how effective they are, as long as they have the best of intentions.”
The calls I made to these charitable givers involved a disturbingly high number of givers who claimed that it was my company’s responsibility to police these charities, because we allowed them to use our payment service for their transactions. It was, in fact, our job to see to it that the charities who used our service were giving a universally accepted rate to intended recipients, but I couldn’t shake the idea that by castigating the company I worked for, these givers were absolving themselves of the responsibility of knowing, or learning, the true percentage of recipients that were actually being helped by their charitable giving and making more informed choices for their charitable giving going forward.
The givers did their part, in other words by caring enough to give money, and their responsibility concluded at that point. The same could be said, I believe, of those who absolve themselves of the effectiveness of federal government poverty programs. “I pay my taxes,” is something one might hear from one that learns that the poverty rate hasn’t moved much in fifty years, “and I vote Democrat. I can’t help it if they can’t get their act together.”
As a fraud investigator of charities, I was not permitted to provide those I called the actual percentage of the charitable givers’ dollar going to support the organization’s stated cause, but I was able to tell them where to find that number. The very idea that I would call these people to ask them questions about their charitable largess did raise some concerns among some about the institution they selected for their charity, but they were in the minority.
The question I would’ve loved to ask those (too few in my humble opinion) who were concerned about the charitable institutions I was calling about, had my company allowed me to do so, is, “Even though, as you say, it’s our responsibility to police this charity, will you continue to give to this charity? Even though you now wonder if the practices they engage in are, at the very least, questionable?” The answers, I believe, would’ve been fascinating for political scientists and psychologists to study, for it would’ve suggested that the most important part of charitable giving, for some, is to prove that they care, and the actual responsibility of seeing to it that people are helped is another entity’s responsibility. One could argue that most people, conservative and liberal, work very hard, and they are too busy to dot the I’s, and cross the T’s involved in the process of giving, and they they have to rely on others to see to it that their generosity is pushed through to its end. My firsthand experience with pathological altruism revealed that most people care more about caring than they do the ultimate reality of other people being helped.
One thought on “Weaponized Compassion”
Nice work. Great insight and well written.