Compassion and Politics

We should probably try to be humane and care about people…

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For a brief moment earlier this month, it seemed as if McDonald’s had gone political. From nowhere, the company’s Twitter account began attacking the President of the United States, calling Donald Trump a “disgusting excuse of [sic] a president” and taunting him over the size of his hands. It was an abrupt shift in tone from a social media account better known for conducting meaningless polls about hamburgers and engaging in clumsy attempts to keep up with the hashtag generation (e.g. “When bae is a Big Mac #relationshipgoals”).

Of course, the account had been broken into; anyone who thought American corporations would be capable of showing some moral and political backbone against Trump must have forgotten how the country’s liberal-leaning tech CEOs turned from opposition to instantaneous capitulation and groveling immediately after Trump’s election. But the momentary flicker of controversy over the McDonald’s tweet did provide one small insight into a certain prevailing political tendency. For, immediately upon hearing of the incident, Business Insider editor (and Democrat) Josh Barro decided to remark as follows:

“This is a real brand misstep for McDonald’s. Fat slobs with bad taste are a core Trump demographic.”

It was a nasty and elitist remark. (It was also wrong. As Guardian journalist Chris Arnade has documented, far from being for “fat slobs,” McDonald’s are often vibrant gathering-spots in working-class communities.) Josh Barro has always been a proud elitist, though. He believed the election of Trump proved it was better to let elites control political decision-making than to let the “masses” pick and has quite seriously declared that “elites are usually elite for good reason, and tend to have better judgment than the average person.”

A small amusing fact here is that Barro is “elite for good reason.” That good reason is that his father, Robert J. Barro, is the Paul M. Warburg Professor of Economics at Harvard University, a Harvard alumnus well-connected in the world of think tanks and financial journalism. Little surprise then, that Joshua Barro grew up to be… a Harvard alumnus who has worked almost exclusively in the world of think tanks and financial journalism. Elites are indeed elite for good reason, but it has precious little to do with the consequences of individual striving or merit.

In itself, though, an attack on McDonald’s-goers by one Business Insider editor would be of little interest. Business Insider is, after all, a rag, and Barro’s opinions are of no material consequence to humankind. But the attack exemplified a notable recent trend in the discourse of prominent wealthy Democrats: the heaping of limitless contempt upon poor people. Instead of heeding suggestions that greater amounts of empathy for working-class Trump constituencies might make Democrats less likely to lose these people’s votes, lately some liberals have doubled down. As Clio Chang pointed out recently in Jacobin, figures including Paul Krugman (“I try to be charitable, but when you read about Trump voters now worried about losing Obamacare it’s kind of hard”) and Markos Moulitsas (“Be happy for coal miners losing their health insurance; they’re getting exactly what they voted for”) have reacted to stories about hardships and deprivation in Trump-leaning communities with unqualified disdain. Ex-New York Times theater critic Frank Rich recently declared he had “no sympathy for the hillbilly,” and suggested that:

“Liberals looking for a way to empathize with conservatives should endorse the core conservative belief in the importance of personal responsibility. Let Trump’s white working-class base take responsibility for its own votes — or in some cases failure to vote — and live with the election’s consequences… Let them reap the consequences for voting against their own interests.”

This kind of thinking isn’t limited to media commentators. It seems to be a strand in liberal thinking more broadly. Matthew Stoller collected a series of Huffington Post comments on an article about poor whites dying from ill-health and opiate addiction:

  • “Sorry, not sorry. These people are not worthy of any sympathy. They have run around for decades bitching about poor minorities not “working hard enough,” or that their situation is “their own fault.” Well guess what? It’s not so great when it’s you now, is it? Bunch of deplorables, and if they die quicker than the rest of us that just means the country will be better off in the long run.”
  • “Karma is a bitch and if these people choose to continue to vote Republican and try to deny other [sic] from attaining the American dream, they deserve no better than what they are getting!”
  • “I for one have little sympathy for these despairing whites. If they can’t compete against people of color when everything has been rigged in their favor, then there’s really no help for them. Trump and his G(r)OPers will do little to elevate their lot. If anything, these poor whites will be hired to dig grave pits and assemble their own coffins.”

The odd thing about all of this is that, just as Rich says, this is the conservative way of thinking about people experiencing deprivation. Rich is a wealthy man telling poor people that their problems are their own fault and they should exercise some personal responsibility. This does not sound like the rhetoric of liberals, who until recently were supposed to be the hippie bleeding-hearts and the boosters of failed but well-meaning Great Society entitlement programs. Now they’re telling the working class that they should either hoist themselves up by their bootstraps or, better yet, die and make the world a better place.

Something seems to have happened here. And to see what it is, we might do well to return to the example of Business Insider’s Josh Barro. For while Barro is currently a Democrat, he wasn’t always. In fact, after many years in the Republican Party, he only made the switch last year. Someone, then, whose publicly-stated view is that the country should be run by its enlightened oligarchs and the children of its Harvard economics professors, thinks the Democratic Party is a more congenial home for his politics than the Republican Party.

That clearly shouldn’t be the case. The Democratic Party, if it is adequately representing its fundamental democratic principles, should be a party that someone like Josh Barro would never want to join. The fact that he does want to join it should be serious cause for concern among the Democratic leadership. If the Democratic Party is actually on the left, then nobody who holds the views that Barro does (that the “masses” are incapable of judging for themselves and must be ruled by “elites”) would ever voluntarily join it. In fact, we can design a kind of useful metric—a Barrometer, if you will—for determining whether your political party is adequately representing working people’s interests. It’s quite simple: if Josh Barro is in your party, then your party is failing to represent working people’s interests. Having Barro turn up in your political camp is like when Zuckerburg turns up to Burning Man: it means the party’s over.

Now, there are multiple possibilities here. It may be that the Democratic Party actually represents wealthy snobs who think McDonald’s is for fat idiots and think miners with black lung deserve their fate for Voting Against Their Interests. Or it may be that the party simply doesn’t threaten the political interests of those wealthy snobs. But either way, it’s clear that the contemporary Democratic Party isn’t going to be making much of an attempt to redistribute power or wealth downward.

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An important dimension of this is captured by National Review’s Kevin Williamson. Williamson is an uncommonly good writer and morally hideous human being who attained some notoriety when he decided that poor white communities “deserved to die” for failing to contribute anything to the global economy. He offers a standard right-wing take on poverty and deprivation: if your life sucks, you’ve nobody to blame but yourself. Capitalism, for Williamson, is a bringer of endless bounties, and the idea that it has “victims” is preposterous. (It is strange that such enthusiastic promoters of unregulated markets love to talk about the wondrous economic processes by which pencils are made but have less to say about workers getting brutally maimed in auto parts assembly plants.)

But Williamson notes something puzzling: lately, a number of Democrats seem to agree with his view that poverty is a function of poor decision-making:

“Today’s Democrats talk about the Republican-leaning parts of the United States as though they were particularly unsympathetic Third World countries, populated by people who not only lost life’s lottery but deserved it.”

Williamson says that the Democrats are now the party of the “respectable upper middle-class”; they’re the party of life’s winners, and Republicans are becoming the party of the losers: after all, most of our country’s most visible billionaires supported Clinton (Gates, Buffett, Bloomberg, Cuban, Zuckerburg, etc.), whereas the collapsing epicenters of the country’s opiate epidemic are the heart of Trump Country.

Williamson’s economic winners-and-losers framework is wrong in some important ways. (For one thing, it only works if you look solely at white people.) But he’s right to detect a distinctly snobbish and bourgeois sensibility in contemporary Democratic politics. Yesterday’s Rockefeller Republican is today’s Clinton Democrats, and Rockefeller Republicans were fundamentally aristocratic in their inclinations.

Perhaps this explains why, as Bernie Sanders has noted, it’s hard to figure out what the Democratic Party actually stands for these days. After all, what common political interests are shared by both black communities in Detroit and Warren Buffett? (Though we do know that Buffett has a longstanding passion for offering black people exorbitant mobile home loans.) What unites a Hispanic domestic worker in Los Angeles with her studio executive boss? Only the most toothless and ineffectual political program could capture the wealthiest and the poorest alike.

But to see how Democrats might begin to reformulate an actual set of values, let’s go back to Frank Rich. Rich says that Democrats “need to stop trying to feel everyone’s pain,” because this would “cater to the white-identity politics of the hard-core, often self-sabotaging Trump voters who helped drive the country into a ditch on Election Day.” And herein lies a core fallacy: that in empathizing with people, you necessarily excuse them, and that by acknowledging someone’s suffering, you thereby endorse their political agenda. You don’t have to sign on to “white identity politics” in order to think that nobody deserves to have their health insurance taken away, no matter how stupid they’ve been either personally or politically. Rich writes that Democrats should “hold the empathy and hold on to the anger” because “if National Review[‘s Kevin Williamson] says that their towns deserve to die, who are Democrats to stand in the way of Trump voters who used their ballots to commit assisted suicide?”

The answer is that Democrats are supposed to be the ones who aren’t callous assholes like Kevin Williamson, that they’re the ones who are supposed to believe people don’t bring their pain on themselves and that you don’t discard people merely because they’ve made foolish decisions. (After all, the entire left argument about criminals is that poor decisions are frequently a product of bad circumstances rather than their cause, yet certain Democrats seem incapable of extending to Trump voters the logic that they would apply to death row inmates.) Democrats are supposed to recognize the degree to which responsibility rhetoric ignores how little meaningful choice individuals have under the current economic and political system, and how ludicrous it is to blame them for things that are the product of massive structural forces. Since our lives are the product of our environments and our biology, and since we have almost no control over either of those things, talk of responsibility usually massively overstates the role of raw human willpower in shaping human destinies.

There’s a perfectly simple and consistent principle from which Democratic (or progressive, or left, or just humane) politics are supposed to start: basic compassion for those who are suffering. The moment you find yourself saying “they brought it on themselves” or “I have no sympathy,” you have ceased to practice the (often difficult!) basic moral principle that should drive left-wing politics, which is a deep compassion for people’s struggles and a desire to help them make their lives better.

Note that this gets around common objections to having “sympathy for the hillbilly.” It’s sometimes suggested that instead of empathizing with Trump voters, we should empathize with those who will be victimized by Trump’s policies, e.g. Muslims and the undocumented. But the whole idea of universal compassion is that you don’t have to choose: you care about people in proportion to the amount they are being hurt, so the people who will be hurt the most can receive the most attention without diminishing the struggles of those who are being hurt somewhat less. This also means that nobody needs to have much sympathy for rich Trump voters (which, as it is often pointed out, constitute a disproportionate fraction of the Trump constituency). If you voted for Trump because you’re a well-off bigot who thinks your taxes are too high, no hearts shall bleed for you.

A good statement of compassion-ethic was formulated by Arthur Schopenhauer (the most sensible, and therefore least-read, 19th-century German philosopher), who felt that the foundation of morality was in our ability to empathize with each other and care about the sufferings of the world. As he wrote:

“Boundless compassion for all living beings is the surest and most certain guarantee of pure moral conduct, and needs no casuistry. Whoever is filled with it will assuredly injure no one, do harm to no one, encroach on no man’s rights; he will rather have regard for every one, forgive every one, help every one as far as he can, and all his actions will bear the stamp of justice and loving-kindness. … In former times the English plays used to finish with a petition for the King. The old Indian dramas close with these words: ‘May all living beings be delivered from pain.’ Tastes differ; but in my opinion there is no more beautiful prayer than this.”

All living beings. That means caring about what happens rather than caring about who it happens to. It means valuing both the crime victim and the prisoner, or the families of both the dead U.S. soldier and the dead Yemeni child. It doesn’t discriminate by race or nation, but only by the degree of harm being experienced.

Having compassion as your starting point doesn’t lead to a particular necessary set of policy prescriptions. It doesn’t make you a strict pacifist, or mean you need to think single-payer healthcare is practicable. But it does mean you can’t end up like Frank Rich or Kevin Williamson, using the word “victims” in quotes and trying to determine who deserves to have a parent poisoned by industrial waste because they supported Trump’s EPA nominee. It doesn’t mean you can’t think people are stupid, or can’t think they should be making different choices, but it does mean that no set of bad choices means you should be afflicted with black lung or be crushed to death by industrial machinery. Nor does it (or should it) necessitate being patronizing, and treating the destitute like infants or curiosities. In fact, in a certain way you actually grant someone their humanity by being frustrated over their choices rather than seeing them as little more than the helpless product of circumstance. But none of that means that you end up like Markos Moulitsas, taking pleasure in watching people reap the harmful consequences of the decisions you warned them against. 

There are plenty of ways in which to reconstruct a moral foundation for liberal politics. People’s inclinations on this may be different. But Schopenhauer was right. “May all living beings be delivered from pain.” That’s not a bad place to start.

Author: Nathan J. Robinson

is the editor of Current Affairs.