We can argue all day about the differences between liberals and conservatives, but I like to distill it down to: “We give a shit.” There is a definitive and empirical empathy gap between those two groups. The Journal of Social and Political Psychology reviewed the scientific literature:
Surveying the contemporary literature on the general personality traits of liberals (i.e., progressives or left-wingers) and conservatives (i.e., right-wingers) reveals a general consensus that liberals tend to be more open to social change, less religious, more egalitarian, less authoritarian, less punitive, more tolerant of out-groups, less concerned with in-group unity, and look less favorably upon hierarchical social structures than conservatives
Furthermore, the scientific literature clearly finds that “Empathy is positively correlated to liberalism,” which shouldn’t be surprising to anyone, nor controversial. We’re overtly the party that tries to help everyone achieve success, while they’re overtly the party of selfishness, individualism, and nativism. We want to open doors, they want to slam them shut. Conservatives try to find nicer ways to frame that, talking about “individual freedom” and whatnot, but the reality is they want to punish undocumented immigrants, push transgender people toward self-harm, ban knowledge about past injustices like slavery and current ones like racism, and destroy educational institutions.
Meanwhile, the exact opposite of “empathy,” in practical terms, is gun worship. And the conservative movement’s religious zeal toward gun ownership and violent notions of “self defense” are literally tearing communities apart in an epidemic of death. Liberals and conservatives are certainly built differently, especially as MAGA Republicans abandon any pretenses about “family values” and “free markets,” and more openly embrace moral reprobates like Donald Trump and Rep. Matt Gaetz while demanding corporate America express fealty to their intolerance and bigotry, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ crusade against Disney.
That academic journal paper cited above doesn’t say conservatives lack empathy, but it does conclude that “while conservatives’ empathy is geared toward smaller social groups (family, friends, members of the same country), liberals’ empathy extends to larger populations including members of other countries, religions, and even to non-human animals.”
It is this limited empathy that leads to what we liberals perceive as hypocrisy. There is Tom Harwood waxing poetic about the altruism of capitalism … until he has to pay for a pint of beer. The humanity! Once personally affected, he was quick to change his tune, utterly oblivious to the rank hypocrisy of his outrage.
Examples abound. Former Vice President Dick Cheney was famously an asshole about everything, except when it came to trying to ban gay marriage. All of a sudden, he was Mr. Empathy. “Lynne and I have a gay daughter, so it’s an issue our family is very familiar with,” Cheney said back in 2004, when even Democrats sucked on the issue. “With the respect to the question of relationships, my general view is freedom means freedom for everyone. … People ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to.” In fact, the marriage equality movement’s greatest success was in convincing people to come out as LGBTQ. The more people were directly impacted by the issue because they knew someone who was gay, the more tolerant they became. Just last week, Daily Kos contributor Charles Jay wrote about Montana’s right-wing governor being lobbied on anti-trans legislation … by his recently-out son, who identifies as nonbinary.
Abortion is suddenly going through the same process, as conservatives who opposed it because they wanted to “save babies” are realizing the real-world consequences of legislating medical procedures out of subjective moral convictions. Take this story about Jaci Statton, “Before February, Jaci Statton wasn’t particularly focused on Oklahoma’s abortion bans. ‘I was like, well, that’s not going to affect me. I won’t ever need one.’” See? Typical conservative attitude: It won’t affect me so I don’t care. Except she developed serious pregnancy complications.
At Oklahoma Children’s Hospital, she says the medical staff told her that her condition was serious. “You at the most will last maybe two weeks,” she remembers them telling her. But still, cardiac activity was detectable, and the doctors would not provide a D&C.
“They were very sincere, they weren’t trying to be mean,” she says. “They said, ‘The best we can tell you to do is sit in the parking lot, and if anything else happens, we will be ready to help you. But we cannot touch you unless you are crashing in front of us or your blood pressure goes so high that you are fixing to have a heart attack.'”
Her husband was beside himself, saying, “I’ll lose everything — I’ll lose my family.” Now that she’s been affected directly by the bans she once supported?
So, at the age of 25, when she has her IUD removed, she’s decided to get a tubal ligation this month. “I don’t think mentally I would be okay if I were to get pregnant again.”
She says she is “pro-life,” but she’s decided to speak publicly about her experience because she doesn’t want anyone else to have to go through it. “I think something needs to be done” about the state abortion laws, she says. “I don’t know how else to get attention, but this needs to change.”
Of course it needs to change. The right to an abortion should’ve never been eliminated! None of this is intended to hate on this poor woman. Like with marriage equality, she is now a Trojan Horse inside the pro-life movement, telling her story and hopefully beginning the process of changing people’s minds. That’s a good thing. What isn’t a good thing is that she had to suffer this severe trauma to get there. She had to wait until she was personally affected to give a damn.
In time, I have no doubt that abortion bans will be rolled back most everywhere. People already don’t like them, and that sentiment will only continue to grow as more stories like Statton’s are told. Unfortunately, it’s not an efficient way to effect positive societal change. Why require trauma and grief to accomplish basic human decency?
And there are issues that don’t lend themselves to this kind of change. A white, male conservative will never experience the kind of discrimination suffered by Black and brown communities, or be on the other side of wage discrimination. Wealthy conservatives won’t suffer the indignities and struggles faced by poor people, or those with challenging disabilities. It is unfortunate that so many people subscribe to an ideology that says, “We don’t care unless it affects us directly.”
But there is one more trend that dramatically impacts where this is all heading:
Cities are more liberal because residents are in contact with more people from different backgrounds, abilities, and socioeconomic levels. They are more aware of each other’s challenges and struggles. There’s nothing like watching someone in a wheelchair struggle to navigate inaccessible areas to become an ardent supporter of the Americans with Disabilities Act. There’s no need to be in a wheelchair to see how that legislation affects people around us.
Rural areas are most conservative because they are mostly racially homogenous, and residents are isolated. When you have to travel miles to see another person, it’s easier to be selfish and self-centered. The odds of running into that person struggling to get around in a wheelchair are far smaller. It’s unfortunate we have a Senate and Electoral College that gives these rural areas outsized power.
But it’s the suburbs that are the key ideological battlegrounds: a mixture of both high- and low- density, but trending denser and more diverse, with the kind of educated residents that travel and read and do the things that expand horizons. Women are trending harder Democratic because they are personally affected by abortion bans and conservative misogyny, but even white suburban men are starting to nudge left.
None of that will change the reality that conservatives only care about themselves, but the less of them there are, the better.
Dimitri of WarTranslated has been doing the essential work of translating hours of Russian and Ukrainian video and audio during the invasion of Ukraine. He joins Markos and Kerry from London to talk about how he began this work by sifting through various sources. He is one of the only people translating information for English-speaking audiences. Dimitri’s followed the war since the beginning and has watched the evolution of the language and dispatches as the war has progressed.