Irving Kristol famously said, “A neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” Given the fantasy merchants that later neoconservatives would be, the line is ironic. I’ve often heard a similar line, “A conservative is a liberal who got mugged.” And there is something to that. Think: Christopher Hitchens. But mostly, that’s hogwash. I think that if you look at the fine grain — not the overall ideology — a liberal is a conservative who’s been mugged. Let’s consider three such conservatives who suddenly found a taste for liberal policy: Steve Scalise, Bill Cassidy, and John Fleming.
All of these Congressmen are from Louisiana. And they all rightly want the federal government to do something about the flooding in Louisiana. They also all voted against the Superstorm Sandy relief package. Now before anyone starts yelling that they had reasons for voting against the Sandy bill, this is always the case. No politician ever says, “I’m cutting food stamps because I hate poor children.” They always have reasons. In 2013, Steve Scalise was all for helping Hurricane Sandy victims, as long as it was offset (a new conservative requirement as long as a Democrat was President).
They Have Their (Fake) Reasons
Usually, it is something along the lines of, “I’d love to vote for this bill, if only…” And then the bill is changed for them. And suddenly there is a new reason, “I’d love to vote for this bill, if only this other thing…” This happened again and again while trying to pass Obamacare. Countless things were added and cut to the bill for the sake of this or that Republican. And in the end, not a single one voted for it. Politicians lie. Conservative politicians especially. It’s hard to say what you mean when you really do want to cut food stamps because you hate poor children.
Anyway, getting back to the three Louisiana stooges: is it hypocrisy? Maybe and maybe not. I’m not much interested since we are all hypocrites to one extent or aother. My interest in how it is that these staunch and “principled” conservatives find themselves in favor of liberal policy. In the article I linked to above, Michael Hiltzik wrote, “They’re all likely exemplars of another Washington truism: fiscal responsibility is great, until it’s your own district that’s getting fiscally hammered.”
When Empathy Is Forced on a Conservative
But it isn’t all about politics. This is a very personal thing. I remember decades ago, Sam Donaldson talking about how Ronald Reagan had heard about some little girl suffering from a disease. So the president sent a check for an enormous amount of money to her parents. At the same time, he was savaging aid to millions of other boys and girls. If Reagan saw the suffering, it affected him. If he didn’t, well, he didn’t care. He could justify his actions as being for the greater good. And so on.
I wrote about a crystal clear example of this three years ago, Rob Portman Affected By Gay Bigotry. Before that, Portman was publicly in favor of employers being able to fire employees because they were gay. But then he found out that his son was gay. And suddenly it was, “Rob Portman: Defender of LGBT Rights!” Of course, that hasn’t turned Portman into a liberal; he just has a liberal carve-out because of his son. This is like the Cheneys’ carve-out because of their daughter.
Steve Scalise Can See Clearly Now!
So sure: Steve Scalise, Bill Cassidy, and John Fleming are doubtless just looking out for their jobs. But it is also likely true that on this one issue they are liberal. People they know have been hurt. It’s not like people from New Jersey and New York who might as well be Nazi zombies for all they care. But the people of Louisiana are, well, people! I’ll bet they’ve even met people who have lost their homes.
The point of all this is that conservatism — at least the radical form practiced here in the United States — is based on limited empathy. We know, for example, that people who live in low crime areas are much more punitive than those in high crime areas when asked what kind of punishment a wrong-doer should receive. I believe this is because people in high crime areas can contextualize crime. They don’t think that just because someone steals or even murders that they are animals — just out to harm with no redeeming qualities.
So it isn’t surprising that the most potent force behind American conservatism is racism. If all America were Sarah Palin’s vaunted “real America,” I’m sure conservatives would be like they are in other advanced economies: in favor of things like universal healthcare. But we don’t live in that world. So we have bigots like Steve Scalise to stop all those Others from being treated like humans. Now maybe if his son or daughter lived in New York during Hurricane Sandy, he would have been for relief in 2012. But instead, he’s had to wait until now.
Image of Steve Scalise is in the public domain.