Liberal Compassion on Trial

Review: William Voegeli’s ‘The Pity Party’

• November 8, 2014 5:00 am


Liberals enjoy pointing out that, unlike their mean-spirited and heartless conservative counterparts, they actually care about other people. The New York Times’ Paul Krugman, for one, writes that conservatives are "infected" with a "pathological mean-spiritedness" and want to "give you an extra kick" when you’re down on your luck. President Barack Obama, on the other hand, says that "kindness covers all of my political beliefs."

In Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion, William Voegeli takes a careful look at the principles of care and kindness that are at the heart of modern liberalism’s self-conception. In a straightforward style, he picks apart the relationship between liberals and empathy.

Voegeli explains the dangers of liberals’ insistence on being on the "right side of history." He gives examples of failed policies born out of the liberal need to feel like they are doing something for those with whom they empathize. One of the most persuasive examples Voegeli presents is the $180 billion Head Start program, the federally funded pre-school program designed to prepare children from impoverished families for elementary school.

Funding has grown for the program over the 50 years since its inception, largely because liberals praise its success. Unfortunately, the only known success the program has had is making liberals feel good about themselves. Voegeli shows persuasively that Head Start has been an ineffective program, and that children who have gone through it end up no better than children in similar socio-economic situations that were without Head Start.

Obama himself admitted that until 2011, Head Start has never actually had its success demonstrated. For "the first time in history … Head Start programs will be truly held accountable for performance in the classroom," he said. Then, during the same speech, he lauded the program as a "outstanding program and a critical investment."

This is the measure of success determined by liberal compassion. Voegeli explains that liberals do not care much about whether their programs work. They care that they are making an attempt to diminish suffering felt by less fortunate members of society, no matter whether the attempt actually helps.

The liberal belief that it would be better to try and fail to alleviate suffering than to do nothing at all can be traced back at least to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. "If [a method] fails, admit it frankly and try another," said Roosevelt in 1932. "But above all, try something."

Roosevelt’s words are embodied by the modern liberal do-something complex. Following the horrific Newtown shooting, liberals demanded strident new gun laws, even as they conceded that those laws would have done nothing to prevent the horrific shootings in question. When proposed gun legislation failed, Obama stood in front of the White House, flanked by families from Newtown, and said it was "shameful day in Washington."

Voegeli also discusses Obamacare. He notes that liberal response to the botched implementation of its healthcare overhaul was principally concerned with how the failed roll-out might sour Americans on further liberal reforms. The New Republic’s Franklin Foer panicked that the Obamacare disaster could erode "the public’s willingness to give liberalism another shot."

The arguments for Obamacare’s success are rooted in liberal compassion. Clearly, nobody is celebrating the horrendous Obamacare exchanges or the $300 billion the law will add to the federal deficit. The celebration from liberals comes from noting that the percentage of uninsured individuals in impoverished minority populations has decreased, regardless of the much more negative bigger picture.

The main takeaway from Voegeli’s not-so-mean-spirited diatribe is that liberal compassion is bunk.

If the concern for those with whom liberals empathize were real, it would be alarming to liberals that their welfare programs are not working. But an honest look by liberals at the effectiveness of the programs they favor would ruin their ability to feel like good people—and in the end, that’s what really matters.

Published under: Book reviews