Republican empathy and narcissism


Posted by AzBlueMeanie:

Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) revealed that his son is gay and that he has now decided to support gay marriage. Some are praising him for his "courage," and others (namely the "God hates gays" crowd) are condemning him for his reversal — Portman was a cosponsor of the Defense of Marriage Act now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

I have to agree with Jonathan Chait, Rob Portman, Gay Marriage, and Selfishness:

The triumph of the issue
relies upon the changing of minds — some thanks to force of argument,
others to personal contact with gay friends, colleagues, and neighbors.
From that standpoint, Portman’s conversion is a Very Good Thing.

And yet as a window into the working of Portman’s mind, his
conversion is a confession of moral failure, one of which he appears

Here is the story Portman tells, in a Columbus Dispatch op-ed, of how he came to change his mind:

At the time, my position on marriage for same-sex
couples was rooted in my faith tradition that marriage is a sacred bond
between a man and a woman. Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to
consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all
three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they
love, a blessing Jane and I have shared for 26 years.

By Portman’s own account, in other words, he opposed gay marriage
until he realized that opposition to gay marriage stands in the way of
his own son’s happiness.

Wanting your children to be happy is the most natural human
impulse. But our responsibility as political beings — and the special
responsibility of those who hold political power — is to consider issues
from a societal perspective.

It is possible to argue that the societal cost of granting the right to
gay marriage — or, say, access to health insurance — outweighs the
benefit. The signal failure of conservative thought is an inability to
give any weight to the perspective of the disadvantaged.

* * *

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: 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.

In a CNN interview,
Dana Bash repeatedly prodded Portman to reconcile his previous
opposition to gay rights (which extended not only to marriage but also
to not getting fired for being gay). He repeatedly confessed that it all came down to his own family[.]

* * *

That Portman turns out to have a gay son is convenient for the
gay-rights cause. But why should any of us come away from his conversion
trusting that Portman is thinking on any issue about what’s good for
all of us, rather than what’s good for himself and the people he knows?

Matthew Iglesias expanded upon this at Slate, Rob Portman and the Politics of Narcissism:

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.

The fact that Republican empathy only seems to extend to members of their direct family or close personal friends was a meme picked up in the Twitter-sphere, some of which are compiled by Steve Benen in Hypothetical Republican empathy emerges as political meme:

Screenshot from 2013-03-16 14:21:02

Screenshot from 2013-03-16 14:22:13

Screenshot from 2013-03-16 14:22:42


  1. About ten years ago my husband and I found out we had a gay son and it literally turned our world upside down. Nothing we believed in (or thought we believed in) fit anymore. We had absolutely no problem with our beloved son being gay. Nothing could make us NOT love him, but we had a huge problem with everything else, our faith, our politics, our roles not just as parents but as members of society as a whole. His coming out forced us to embark on some very serious soul-searching that would ultimately change our lives in profound ways. It forced us to look beyond our own family and the challenges our son’s sexual orientation might create for him and look at the world through the eyes of those who have never had the advantages our family has. Needless to say, we are no longer Republicans, we are no longer practicing Catholics, and we are definitely no longer sitting quietly by and letting others fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.

    Finding out our son was gay profoundly changed us. It truly was the best thing that ever happened to us. My hope is that Senator Portman will at least ask himself this one question: If I was so horribly wrong on gay issues, what else might I be so horribly wrong about? And if he is truly honest with himself, oh what a journey the answer to that question can take him on. And then, and only then, will I have any respect for his change-of-heart on gay issues.

  2. I dislike that people use the term “empathy” for Portman’s change of heart. This is pure conservative limited self interest. If it affects others removed from my intimate circle, screw ’em. If if affects my people, let’s lend them a helping hand.

    Last night on Bill Maher, guest Rachel Maddow said, in relation to Portman’s change of heart, “I wish all conservatives had a poor son.” Perfect.