Of all the hypocrisies commonly associated with American conservatives the best contender for the worst is the tendency to deny the existence of systemic problems but flip-flop when they are affected personally.
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My go-to example is Randy Cunningham (who ended up in prison himself in short order) temporarily setting aside his cheerleading for the War on Drugs to beg a judge to be lenient on his son, who was repeatedly busted for selling cocaine and heroin. "He's a good kid, he just made mistakes," said the former Congressman, applying logic he was unable to understand in any situation not involving himself or his kids in a courtroom.
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As a bonus, his own experience in prison caused him suddenly to recant his previous statements about the value and fairness about the War on Drugs. If only there were some way to reach the conclusion that the entire justice system is being undermined without actually going to prison oneself.

Another classic example is Senator Rob Portman's 180 on gay marriage when he found out his son is gay. It's almost as if – almost! – these people are unable to feel empathy, or that they don't really care about anyone except themselves. They don't bat an eye when the people affected by their ideology are nameless strangers. The inability to exercise enough forethought to consider something basic like, "What if this decision affected my family?" before legislating their ideology is baffling to the point of incredulity.

Isn't that one of the most fundamental ways that the human mind creates a framework for understanding the rest of the world? It's as strange as if they couldn't do something as simple as, for example, learn from previous experience.


Despite the repeated insistence that voting is as easy as pie and that the law imposes no barrier to participation, we've recently learned that registration procedures are "onerous" when a member of the Trump family finds out that they can't vote in their state's primary. Anybody else who fails to register properly is stupid, lazy, and responsible for their own disenfranchisement. However, since they are unable to accept responsibility for their own actions – Isn't that a key trait of sociopathy? I'm sure it's unrelated. – a failure on their part is an indictment of the system.

But I don't suppose it matters much that one half of our political system is composed of and supported by people who are entirely devoid of a key component of a healthy adult's psychological makeup.

34 thoughts on “EMPATHY DEFICIT”

  • It's been that with abortion for quite a while now. I'm not sure if its an empathy deficit or simply that they don't consider empathy relevant. They are concerned with hierarchy and purity, not fairness and minimizing harm, so their decision making process has no need for empathetic or symmetric reasoning. When they are actually kicked, however, this violates their sense of hierarchy as they should be above all that, so they protest.

    Now and then they actually realize that there is a general problem. It is not that they need an abortion and so are entitled to get one, but that perhaps there are other people similarly in need and similarly entitled. Of course, that kind of learning is probably the exception, not the rule.

  • I've wanted to write this post for years. YEARS.

    You said it better than I ever could have, Ed. Bravo.

  • I don't think it's so much an empathy deficit as it is a self-righteousness surfeit. Or both – a glass of poison, part of which is acid green, the other bubonic purple.

    Self-righteousness is crack for authoritarians. The crisp white sheet covering the Klansman.

    I really have to quit reading Richard Hofstadter. Everyone knows about his essayThe Paranoid Style in American Politics, but how many have read his chapter in the book of the same title, the one about the Goldwater campaign? How the authoritarian mind doesn't really want to govern, but seeks validation instead? He observed and wrote about this shit fifty fucking years before Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

    And yet here we are. As Charles Pierce says, the Republican party is infected with prion disease. Birchers, dark money, authoritarians self-sorting into the Republican camp, refusing to govern, obsessed with cultural issues rather than policy decisions…

    A giant boil waiting to burst, or a cancer slowly killing us all?

  • Medical research is like this, too. Republicans like to cut cut cut NIH funding and NSF grants…until someone's nephew comes down with dick cancer and suddenly there's a $50 million boost in spending on dick cancer research.

  • Electoral politics as a whole tends to draw out the narcissists and the scolding busybodies–people for whom "do as I say" is unaccompanied by "and as I do," because, and isn't it hilarious that this is so, narcissists aren't capable of self-reflection. (Seriously, how is that not funny to the point of madness?)

    One of the joys of being a progressive–the kind of namby-pamby, do-whatever-feels-good, everything-is-permitted degenerate that sends the pearls-clutchers into apoplexy, is that when we're discovered smoking pot, or being gay, or what have you, we can just shrug and say "Yeah. And?"

    One of the joys of being a reactionary in that same exact situation is that, lacking the capacity for shame or self-criticism, they can shake their heads and tell us how it doesn't really count and Jesus forgives them and the proceed to double down, because if they can overcome their own demons, surely we can do the same. (Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Bristol Palin. And the Duggars. And Bill O'Reilly. And all those who just haven't really had to pay for being found out to be regular ol' pieces of shit, just like the rest of us.)

  • I have a close relative who got a PhD on the Federal government's dime via the GI bill, and went on to a successful and lucrative career as a Federal employee, and who now enjoys a fat pension check every month along with gold-plated free health-care for life.

    He's voting for Trump.

  • define and redefine says:

    Kinda like how Ted Cruz wants surveillance of "Muslim neighborhoods." I don't recall him (or anyone else) saying the same about "Christian neighborhoods" in the wake of the Colorado Planned Parenthood shooting.

  • Proof by anecdote, the new malignant indicter.

    People will be people – they'll always defend their own first, wouldn't be human otherwise.

  • Just wait until you hear the whining from all the Republican morons living in nice coastal areas that are soon to be a couple feet underwater (what global warming? But it snowed! Al Gore rode an airplane!) Plus the demands to bail them out and buy their soon-to-be worthless real estate at beachfront prices.

  • Ed, brilliant post. You raise a lot of good points to think about. I know an actual, diagnosed Narcissist who's a conservative, and I know several more conservatives that I suspect are Narcissists. They're not capable of empathy or compassion for anyone but themselves.

  • @Wet Casements; I find it hilarious to see federal gov't workers with bumper stickers demanding smaller gov't. I always want to tell them, "Great, let's fire you first."

  • anotherbozo says:

    Years ago I used to be baffled by seemingly bright, educated people like William Effing Buckley. What was the problem that prevented them from supporting the most basic of social safety nets? I came to the same conclusion as Ed, here: something in their makeup allowed for an almost sociopathic lack of empathy, and inability to recognize "there, but for the grace of God," or "there but for fortune," if you prefer. Or, if you think humans are born empathic and must strive against it, then it's ideology that is shored up against having to care about one's fellow humans. Otherwise we'd give all our money to the poor, as Jesus commanded, and be poor ourselves, right? That's not the inevitable conclusion, but they don't even entertain that kind of dialog. It pays to be sociopathic in our world; it places you on a par with corporations, who, once recognizing a kindred spirit, donate to your campaigns. And pretty soon you have a Congress full of sociopaths! —who nonetheless talk a good game about caring for the American people.
    I used to watch Buckley deliver his oh-so-witty barbs and finally arrived at the conclusion that he had an impoverished "moral imagination" that prevented him from seeing that the policies he ridiculed were matters of life and death to many. I guess "moral imagination" was just another phrase for empathy.
    An incapacity for introspection or reflection may go with that, may in fact go to the heart of the matter. For perhaps that failure is what produces sociopaths and hypocrites, both. The philosophers our founders were hoping would populate the corridors of power are sytematically weeded out by our elective processes.

  • One of my gov't coworkers drinks the Gov is bad koolaid, hilariously he's one of the least efficient people in the office. He will never see the connection.

  • Excellent post. I might point out that those of us on the left sometimes have a "reality gap". San Francisco passed a municipal ordinance specifying in detail how businesses must schedule their employees. Now, I know there can be a problem for many low level employees working in an on-call situation, but can a municipal ordinance really hope to interfere to that extent with basic business practices? I don't know.

  • 'On call' is just another way for an employer to extract 168 hours of utility, option, and agency, at the expense of any personal/family life/obligations from the employee, for the low low price of nothing.

    You might point out that 'The Left' has a '"reality gap'" but then you'd be a fucking little bitch lackey, now wouldn't ya?

  • You got me, cackalacka. I am indeed a "f&^&^^ little bitch lackey".


    What a tool. A social justice warrior who uses sexist derogatory terminology in his trolling. bravo, good sir.

    But sure…."on call" is a difficult concept. But should it be against the law?

    Can you not assume that on call duty is not built into the salary? Not everyone is hourly. Anecdote is not data, but I know techies earning well into the six figures who yes, have on call duty days. Are they "oppressed"? Do they (or their employers) need detailed instructions from the laughable Board of Supervisors in San Francisco to run their business fairly?

  • In the airline industry, I am sometimes "on call".

    I am well compensated for those hours during which I am on call.

    If my time is not my own then I am "at work" and should be paid for it.

  • Must mention Nancy Reagan's famous flip flop on embryonic stem-cell research once Ole' Saint Ronnie got Alzheimer's disease….

  • That's fair, Major.

    My original comment was more focused on an ordinance in SF which mandates very specific scheduling requirements for all businesses. Which sounds good, but can make running the business difficult. On Call is a slightly different issue. But, I see your point as well.

  • Going back to the very first comment, Kaleberg, do you remember back in 2007 when Sarah Palin's 16-year-old daughter was pregnant, and the conservatives were all tripping over each other insisting "it happens in the best of families" and the two teens were "in luuuuuv"? Just recently Bristol Palin–who has two acknowledged children out of wedlock and arguably up to 4 more that have disappeared–bleated on her blog about "sluts" who get pregnant out of wedlock and how "liberals support" this. The nitwit gave birth just a couple of months ago, out of wedlock, with no education and no job (at least that's what she told the judge when demanding exhorbitant child support), and insists other women who are in the same boat as she have no morals.

  • @BrianM: I'm an employer, I own a small business in Brisbane, Australia. If my quick google search took me to the ordinances to which you refer, I'm not sure they qualify as either very specific or particularly difficult to police/enforce. Here, federal law would guarantee similar conditions.

    Of course, conservatives, 'business coucils' and the like are constantly squealing that these out-of-touch, utopian-socialist, government-all-up-in-your-privates laws are empoverishing employers, closing businesses and costing jobs, but we all (your end of the world and mine) know that's just their usual bullshit, right? None of us are falling for that malarkey, are we?

  • A friend of mine grew up with and was friends with one of Cunningham's kids. Apparently I drove her to tears once saying her dad deserved to go to prison. She couldn't comprehend (and probably still doesn't) that her dad did something wrong. Seems like she has the traits needed to run for her dad's old seat.

  • Eau: I am not sure I am "falling for it" per se. Maybe I am just being a concern troll in being…sympathetic…to the arguments? Or empathic?

    Or I am a little f&^%$ bitch? LOL

  • @Brian M: (To misquote Lewis Carroll)

    Oh, this is the comment board of a blog concerned with progressive politics, we're ALL little fuckin' bitches here!


  • Some Latin scholar can render this in a juicier way, but the Trumpbaggist motto is:

    "Got mine*, fuck you!"

    * "Mine" being, for most of those idiots, SS and Medicare/Medicaid.

  • Two words: "Trump University".

    Two words you never hear uttered by conservatives.

    Can you imagine what they would be saying right now if Hillary had had a fraudulent "Clinton University"?

    Or if Bernie had had a fraudulent "Sanders University"?

    Trump, in addition to many other negative attributes, is an obvious con man.

    But conservatives politely refrain from mentioning that elephant in the room.

  • John Steward says:

    Empathy adds nothing to their bottom line and off-shore accounts. Therefore, empathy is of no use. It also continues to amaze me that the Christian Wrong cares so little for their fellow man.

  • Regarding the "on call" discussion above. There are plenty of people with low wage hourly jobs who are required by their employer to be on call "just in case" and are NOT compensated in any way for their inconvenience. My daughter ran into that situation last year.

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