Last night Jon Stewart targeted  Megyn Kelly’s passionate defense of maternity leave once she returned to Fox after giving birth.  Kelly was spot on in every respect save one, one that Stewart memorably pointed out

Kelly had never before spoken in favor of such “entitlements” when they applied to other people.  Stewart’s set ended with his showing an earlier attack on maternity leave by a younger Kelly.  It was all glibertarian dogma, given articulately and without the slightest thought as to context.  With her having become a mother, Kelly’s context changed, as did her views on maternity leave. Passionately and eloquently so.

As I thought about Stewart’s critique, ending with his suggestion that Kelly suffered from “post-partum compassion” a number of pieces fell into place cementing (I think) my answer to a question that has long perplexed me: rank and file modern conservatives are often honest, hard working, give to charity, and love those close to them.  I grew up in a family characterized by many people with these characteristics.  Yet some relatives were serious racists and most consistently supported leaders who are demonstrably dishonest, enrich themselves from others’ giving, and rise to power by spreading distrust, anger, and even hatred. In other words, people who used their rhetoric but trashed most of their actual values.

I know too many conservatives to think they are all utter hypocrites, or that they are nasty people.  Of course some are, but there are nasty people and hypocrites in every sizeable group of people.  I’ve met some pretty nasty Pagans and Progressives.

Kelly’s example crystallized a key piece in my attempt to understand, one I think is a big part of the puzzle.

Except for sociopaths we are all beings characterized by empathy.  Empathy is the capacity to put ourselves in others’ shoes, and as such is an act of what I call the moral imagination.  I think people’s capacity for imagination varies.

Megyn Kelly is probably a reasonably decent person, perhaps even better than that.  But she has failed to develop her moral imagination to encompass many people whose lives are significantly different from her own.  Once she could put herself in the shoes of a new mother she immediately grasped not only the desirability of maternity leave for herself, she was able to make her case in terms that included all mothers, their children, their husbands, and society as a whole. She endorsed an entitlement and criticized the US for being in the “stone age” on this issue.

I have noticed this pattern in some other leading people on the right. The notorious funder of the Tea Party, David Koch, is a major philanthropist for research on prostate cancer.  He also suffers from it, and his case is apparently terminal, though that can take a long time to end a life. While it is possible Koch is a philanthropist only in the hope a cure will be discovered in time to save his life, I suspect he also gives because he can directly appreciate the pain and fear many undergo once diagnosed with it. What I know of his philanthropic activity more broadly also fits this assessment.

One more example is Andrew Sullivan, a major right wing writer.  Sullivan, who is gay, has been a strong voice for treating gays equally, including establishing gay marriage.  He brags that he lives like a “fiscal conservative” and hasn’t had a credit card “in years.” People just need to live “more frugally.” Sullivan also suggests we raise the age of retirement for Social Security.  Left unsaid, as Lance Mannion pointed out,  is that Sullivan makes a six figure income with enough flexibility in time to take weeks long vacations when he chooses. (He does have an Amex card to make travel easier.)  Sullivan has no children to support.  Such folks can live without a credit card far more easily than a great many people these days.  For example, Amex is not as easy to get as a Master Card.

Sullivan’s problem, like Koch’s and Kelly’s, and I suspect many conservatives is that he cannot put himself in shoes very much different from his own, and his own are very comfortable for the most part. What works for him must work for everyone.

More generally I cannot count the times I have heard conservatives argue against “entitlements” because they work hard.  Many do work hard.  But their unexamined assumption is that those needing entitlements have not worked hard or have been foolishly improvident.  Anyone looking at Mexicans laboring in American fields or at single moms working to support their kids should immediately realize there is something wrong with that framing of the issue, but conservatives in particular seem to need to be reminded to do so. And rarely are.  There is not that much correlation between working hard and doing OK in America. Much bigger questions need to be asked.

If I am right this is actually good news.  While its leaders may be sociopaths, and I believe most are, most conservatives are not.  It means we can address many rank and file conservatives on moral issues if we can do so in ways that enables them to identify with others.  That happened to me on several pivotal occasions as I made my own transition from being on the political right to my present liberalism.  Kelly has made a step as well.  Hopefully she is bright enough and has enough integrity to grasp the implications of her argument and be open to further steps.

I think another comedian, a British one, Russell Brand, really got the matter across beautifully while commenting on the riots now taking place in the UK.

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