From Lack of Empathy To Disdain

Over at Maddow Blog, my esteemed predecessor Mr. Benen has a nice catch of an interview with Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), the chair of the House higher ed subcommittee, wherein she expressed a distinct lack of sympathy for those with large student loan burdens because, after all, she worked her way through college even though it delayed graduation by three years.

Steve comments:

[W]hat…stood out for me is Foxx’s choice of words: she lacks “tolerance” for families burdened by massive debts, because they had the nerve to want more education.

It’s not just that conservative Republicans are indifferent to those who are struggling; the larger truth appears to be that these GOP policymakers seem to have disdain for these Americans, even during difficult economic times.

This goes well beyond education aid.

Indeed it does. Steve goes on to discuss Paul Ryan’s references to the “safety net” becoming a “hammock.” But I think a lot of progressives have had trouble grasping the extent to which the anger associated with the Tea Party Movement in particular owes a lot to a sense of moral self-righteousness aimed at people deemed to have had it easier than hard-working, tax-paying folk like them.

It is most evident in the belief of Medicare recipients that their hard-earned benefits (earned via both payroll taxes and a virtuous lifetime of work) are being threatened by the extension of government-subsidized and guaranteed health insurance to those who presumably have not earned it. But even before the ACA debate, it was evident in the hostility towards families with underwater mortgages, who should have known better than to take out loans they might not be able to repay. Now the fact that many Tea Folk feeling this anger may have benefitted in the past from government-subsidized mortgages (not to mention the mortgage interest deduction), and from beneficial turns in the real estate market, might have induced some sympathy. But in an atmosphere where right-wing propaganda weaved a lurid tale of ACORN conspiring with Big Government under the auspices of the Community Reinvestment Act to put loans in the hands of shiftless poor and minority people, it was easy for people watching their own home equity decline to blame the interlopers who were ruining the great American tradition of homeownership.

It’s a natural byproduct of cultural conservatism in an era of rapid change to think the country’s going to hell in a handbasket, and that younger people (or darker people who also haven’t shared your particular experiences) want something for nothing, at your expense. Consciously or not, political conservatives have actively exploited this tendency and used it to sever or even invert the normal sense of solidarity most Americans feel towards people in need. To put it another way, moral disdain is necessary to produce a lack of empathy. So we will see a lot more of it going forward, God help us.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.