The Politics of Narcissism

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

I wanted to quote two different articles for this post, because I think one gets right to the point, but the second adds some nuance.

There is an important argument here by Matthew Yglesias on the logic behind decisions like these. It’s flawed, and the change in belief belies a frightening lack of awareness or willful disinterest of applying logic to the question.

But that is also something very human, that we cannot get too high and mighty about when criticizing public figures. We don’t really know something until we experience it.

First from Yglesias at Slate:

I’m glad that Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio has reconsidered his view on gay marriage upon realization that his son is gay, but I also find this particular window into moderation—memorably dubbed Miss America conservatism by Mark Schmitt—to be the most annoying form.

Remember when Sarah Palin was running for vice president on a platform of tax cuts and reduced spending? But there was one form of domestic social spending she liked to champion? Spending on disabled children? Because she had a disabled child personally? Yet somehow her personal experience with disability didn’t lead her to any conclusions about the millions of mothers simply struggling to raise children in conditions of general poorness. Rob Portman doesn’t have a son with a pre-existing medical condition who’s locked out of the health insurance market. Rob Portman doesn’t have a son engaged in peasant agriculture whose livelihood is likely to be wiped out by climate change. Rob Portman doesn’t have a son who’ll be malnourished if SNAP benefits are cut. So Rob Portman doesn’t care.

It’s a great strength of the movement for gay political equality that lots of important and influential people happen to have gay children. That obviously does change people’s thinking. And good for them.

But if Portman can turn around on one issue once he realizes how it touches his family personally, shouldn’t he take some time to think about how he might feel about other issues that don’t happen to touch him personally? Obviously the answers to complicated public policy questions don’t just directly fall out of the emotion of compassion. But what Portman is telling us here is that on this one issue, his previous position was driven by a lack of compassion and empathy. Once he looked at the issue through his son’s eyes, he realized he was wrong. Shouldn’t that lead to some broader soul-searching? Is it just a coincidence that his son is gay, and also gay rights is the one issue on which a lack of empathy was leading him astray? That, it seems to me, would be a pretty remarkable coincidence. The great challenge for a senator isn’t to go to Washington and represent the problems of his own family. It’s to try to obtain the intellectual and moral perspective necessary to represent the problems of the people who don’t have direct access to the corridors of power.

Senators basically never have poor kids. That’s something members of Congress should think about. Especially members of Congress who know personally that realizing an issue affects their own children changes their thinking.

And from Ryu Spaeth at The Week:

Sen. Rob Portman’s announcement that he supports same-sex marriage has the feel of a watershed moment. The Ohioan is one of the most prominent elected Republicans to ever endorse gay marriage, adding momentum to a cause that now seems all but irreversible.As Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post proclaims, “The political debate on gay marriage is effectively over.”

However, while Portman’s announcement was welcomed by gay rights groups, some liberals have voiced criticisms over the reasons he gave for changing his mind — namely, that his son is gay. “I’ve had a change of heart based on personal experience,” he told CNN’s Dana Bash. “I hadn’t expected to be in this position.”

Portman’s story is a familiar one. Dick Cheney, who has a lesbian daughter, was famously an outlier on gay issues in the Bush administration, which used opposition to gay marriage to drum up the conservative vote in the 2004 election. As Andrew Sullivan writes at The Dish, “Some will wonder why Republicans only seem to get this question when they have a gay member of their family.”

Critics describe Portman’s announcement as morally flawed, since he seemed unable to feel empathy for gays until the issue hit home. “Portman ought to be able to recognize that, even if he changed his mind on gay marriage owing to personal experience, the logic stands irrespective of it,” writes Jonathan Chait at New York. “Support for gay marriage would be right even if he didn’t have a gay son. There’s little sign that any such reasoning has crossed his mind.”

Others are more forgiving. As Frank Bruni at The New York Times writes:

Those are great questions. Appropriate ones, too. But to a certain extent, they ignore human nature — the imperfections of it, the complexities of it — and they disregard how many people who support gay rights got to the place they now proudly inhabit.

Because they grew up in a society that has portrayed, and in many instances still portrays, homosexuality in negative, stereotypical terms, they needed to be educated. They had a journey to make. And in as many cases as not, that journey involved an example smack in front of them that discredited the stereotypes and dispelled the fear. Maybe a college roommate was gay. Maybe an admired colleague. Maybe a brother, a sister, a daughter. Maybe a son. [The New York Times]

In fact, acquaintance with a gay person is one of the most important factors in determining whether one supports same-sex marriage. According to a 2009 poll by Gallup, 49 percent of people who knew a gay person were in favor of same-sex marriage, compared with only 27 percent of those who didn’t know a gay person. 

And Portman’s political bravery — he could easily draw a primary challenge on this issue alone — shouldn’t be discounted. Framing the issue as a personal one could help him continue in office, writes Josh Barro at Bloomberg:

The push from inside the family isn’t just about bridging an empathy gap; it also helps Republican politicians who would like to support same-sex marriage bridge a political gap. Having a gay son will actually make it easier politically for Portman to support same-sex marriage. His opponents will temper their attacks on him for fear of being seen to attack his son; voters skeptical of same-sex marriage may still relate to Portman’s choice to stand up for his family. [Bloomberg]

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2 thoughts on “The Politics of Narcissism

  1. Excellent points being made. We don’t consider problems until they affect us directly. Sad but true. As it happens, we shall all soon realize that climate change is a real problem when the drought continues and food prices start to climb and certain foods simply become unavailable. Until then there will continue to be denial…

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