Compassion and a Buck Fifty

Chris Arnade is a smart guy- a former hedge fund manager turned journalist who writes a lot about poor white people in a format he calls “Divided by Meaning.” His general approach could be described as Tribune of the Plebeians unto Brooklyn, where he presents the concerns of far off (Trumpian) rural America in terms couched to appeal to an educated, liberal-leaning reading public.

I like his stuff, and I should be the last person in the world to criticize dilletantish interests, but I think setting up empathy as the central desideratum in political writing is a mistake. Empathy and a buck fifty gets you a cup of coffee in this world. Politics is about representation and independence, not empathy. In fact, empathy can just as well be a means of manipulation as an avenue to addressing somebody’s concerns.

This is something that people learn and then forget about all the time. Compassionate people appear, Listen to the Community’s Concerns, and then produce some solution, that nine times out of ten makes things worse unless the people in the community in question have some avenue of voice through political representation or enough economic independence to manage to exit and choose somewhere better.

More importantly, people in a big country just aren’t going to agree about a lot of things, and shouldn’t have to. If Brooklyn and West Virginia are Divided by Meaning, that’s okay. The whole point of the various anti-majoritarian checkpoints in the Constitution (the federal balance of powers, the anti-democratic Senate, multiple competing layers of government, and the electoral college itself) wasn’t just to empower slaveholders, it was also because Jay and Madison and the rest of the gang really believed that an unchecked majority could work malice and tyranny upon the many minorities which they were Divided By Meaning from.

The Clinton campaign was so clueless- redirecting money from Michigan to Chicago and New Orleans in the final weeks of the campaign, and refusing to hand out yard signs to union organizers who wanted to pick them up, for example– that that a bit more empathy and insight was probably exactly what they needed. But the way to get that is by losing elections. The Clinton campaign was so wackily triumphalist (continuing to use Alicia Machado as a surrogate even after it was widely known she had driven a getaway car from an attempted murder and threatened a federal judge prior to being given citizenship, having another surrogate tweet out an animation celebrating the Extinction of White Men on the day of the election) precisely because they were sure it didn’t matter. Nobody involved in suing or fining or closing down Christian bakers for not baking cakes to solemnize gay weddings thinks this won’t piss off conservative Christians- they just think it doesn’t matter (and, obviously, they view themselves as the avenue of representation for another minority’s protection and needs.) Empathy doesn’t matter without the representation or the independence, the voice or the exit, to make it matter.

A number of political journalists- Dylan Matthews and Matt Yglesias most notably- have spent years arguing that the anti-majoritarian choke points in the constitution represent a tragic flaw in American democracy- not just responsible for racist or unjust outcomes, but ultimately dooming the whole system to collapse. Well, yes, the American system is doomed to collapse, for all shall be in dust as Tyre and Nineveh in time. But in the meantime, we’re a bit too big and a bit too Divided by Meaning for a unicameral parliamentary despotism to work; for the moment, various kinds of Voice in various levels of government and various kinds of Exit to different kinds of cities and states keeps us mostly, through a haphazard form of Tiebout sorting, in the same encyclopedia if never on the same page. Empathy just ain’t gonna cut it.

4 thoughts on “Compassion and a Buck Fifty

  1. This is a great post and gets at the heart of what a lot of social conservatives would like to see for the future of America — less federal (and even State) control over our lives in our individual communities. This way a majority religious, Catholic town (or serious Christian evangelical town) can refuse to recognize that the homosexual “couple” that has a piece of paper they got from New York that claims they are “married” has any meaning (because of course, in the real world, it doesn’t — but since we live in a crazy country, we’ll let the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah do their thing as long as they leave us alone to do ours (i.e. raise our kids in the truth, let us run our businesses according to our consciences, etc.) Repeat and rinse for other serious moral issues like abortion, birth control, euthanasia, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Just a quibble, but the Progressive push for a more powerful presidency to step over the checks and balances in the Constitution goes back much, much further that Slate or Vox complaining about Republican obstructionism in the Obama Era. It goes at least to the late 19th Century. Take for instance, this quote from from Woodrow Wilson (who saw the separation of powers as an outdated impediment to the modern administrative state) on the role of the president: “For he is also the political leader of the nation, or has it in his choice to be. The nation as a whole has chosen him, and is conscious that it has no other political spokesman. His is the only national voice in affairs. Let him once win the admiration and confidence of the country, and no other single force can withstand him, no combination of forces will easily overpower him. His position takes the imagination of the country.”

    The problem isn’t so much when their guy is in office, but when the opposition party is. I wonder if there will be a newfound respect for federalism and the separation of powers and such from the American Left, though that is perhaps to much to ask.


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