Steve Scalise and the Empathy Deficit of Conservatives

Steve ScaliseIrving 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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

20 thoughts on “Steve Scalise and the Empathy Deficit of Conservatives

  1. So it isn’t surprising that the most potent force behind American conservatism is racism.

    I was with you and interested in your article until it came to this statement.

  2. If I were a Democratic Congress person, especially one from the North East, I would seriously consider blocking Federal aid. At some point, the blue states need to make those red state rednecks realize that limited government, small government, frugal government ect. actually means just that. When they hear politicians bellow about cutting spending, most of them imagine reductions in spending for “welfare queens.”

    I think that “real America” has got to hit rock bottom and get through the aftermath of a disaster with only the tender mercies of the free market and their state and local government’s resources.

    • I understand the impulse, but it wouldn’t work. Anyway, if you look at Mississippi and Louisiana, you will see that the poor vote reliably Democratic. The real problem we have is with the system. We don’t make it easy to vote. And it will always be easier for the rich to vote. And they won’t suffer. But I hear you!

      • My understanding is that voting patterns in the contemporary Deep South break very closely along racial lines. Because of American History, black folks are poorer so it would make sense that poor people in the South would be more likely to vote for the Democrats. However, there have to be a good deal of low income whites who vote for the Republicans.

        With that said, I am in favor of Federal aid. However, since the Louisiana delegation wanted to attach conditions to Sandy aid, I would demand conditions for this aid package. In 2012 The Louisiana Caucus had provisions that were to act as a poison pill. For Louisiana 2016, I would attach provisions that would not kill the bill but would extract some concessions. Maybe embed a mild jobs program or something related to climate change.

        Conservatives always attach things that they like to must-pass bills, liberals should do the same.

        • You are correct. If you look at, say, Idaho, he poor vote Republican. The poor there are white. Pretty much everyone there is white. But the racial component doesn’t change the fact that the poor in the south did not vote for these jerks and will be those most harmed by a lack of aid.

          I understand what you are saying on both and intellectual and emotional level. But I still think we have to take the high ground.

          • I’m like you, I’m a softy liberal, so of course, I am ultimately okay with the Federal government helping poor people in red states. If anything, I’d be okay with even more money going to poor people in the South if it was streamlined and bypassed the State governments. Foodstamps and Medicaid should be structured more like Social Security and Medicare and should not be left up to the whims of right wing state governments.

            I am also all in favor of making sure that FEMA has everything that it needs and all of the state and local authorities have whatever they need to deal with the human toll of these floods.

            My issue is with supplemental funding. The reason is (and correct me if I am wrong here) that supplemental funding helps homeowners and business rebuild after the disaster has subsided. So it seems like supplemental Federal aid largely helps the property interests of middle and upper class people who had property to lose in the first place. So by denying that aid, you are doing a sort of surgical strike against Republicans who live in a state that claims to hate the federal Government.

            Even then, I’d be in favor of that aid with conditions, ironically, one of those conditions would be no more demands for offsets in the future. We live in California, we will have a huge earthquake at some point and unless the tea partiers get thumped now, those tea partiers will go out of their way to deny any and all help to our State, which they view as the new Sodom and Gomorrah.

            • I like the no offsets idea. Or attach rebuilding money to a wage hike for the construction workers. Lots of good things we could do. If the jerks would let us …

              • Yes, from the other side it makes more sense. After all, what they were trying to do was get conservative policy changes in exchange for doing the right thing. So if the left were to retaliate, it would make sense to come at it from that direction.

                However, I still think: high ground. Actually, I think we have no choice, ethically speaking.

                • Ethically? No, no choice. I was thinking less about disaster relief funds, and more the kind of revitalization projects that often go with these things. Those should have some serious attachments. Because those only are given to rich areas — let’s make the rich pay for rebuilding their upscale stores.

                  • I largely agree with that. But I would want to look at the specifics of it. The truth is that if we simply taxed fairly in this country, there wouldn’t be an issue. But instead, we basically have a flat tax in this country, which is why conservatives do little but rant about the one tax that is reasonably progressive.

                    • You know as well as I do — as long as the rich pay any tax at all, they’ll whine about it. In their perfect world, they would pay nothing, and all government services only apply to gated communities. It would destroy the country’s economy forever, but who cares. Can always buy a fifth house somewhere else.

                    • I’m sure I’ve written an article about how if the rich ever got their flat federal income tax, they would then start demanding that taxes be based on a per person basis. “Why should I have to pay more than a poor man?!”

            • I know you are! And I believe that is correct about supplemental funding. But if I recall correctly, you are, like me, a Californian. Here, owning your own home means a lot more than it does down there. But still, the poorest people aren’t homeowners, in general.

              What your getting at is exactly the reason that Republicans push block grants: they want to allow conservative state governments to take money intended for the poor and use it elsewhere. (They also like them because long-term they are a great way to destroy the aid via inflation.)

    • Where are you from? In my experience, good salsa comes from the Southwest and good cream cheese (aka, a bagel topping) from the Northeast. Just curious. Also, please post your social security number, DOB, and current address.

      • I’m being sarcastic about that pace salsa commercial. If New York City is so anathema to real cowboy tastes, they wouldn’t be mixing salsa with cream cheese, let alone canned salsa.

        As for me, I’m from the Central Coast where you can get very good fresh salsa at the Mexican corner stores in town.

    • I think that’s part of the joke. And the ad was almost certainly written in New York and produced in New York with New York actors — a fact that would have made it all the more delicious for everyone involved! (And if it was LA instead, it hardly matters.)

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