The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion by William Voegeli (Harper Collins/Broadside Books, 325 pp., $26.99)

William Voegeli has a profound talent for anticipating the pratfalls of the liberal welfare state. In his new book, The Pity Party: A Mean Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion, Voegeli looks beyond the stunning incompetence of the Obama administration to its underlying liberal assumptions. In his previous book, 2010’s Never Enough: The Limitless Welfare State, Voegeli not only foresaw the Tea Party movement before it emerged; he also explained that its underlying fears of an out-of-control government were well justified. He looked to a renewed constitutionalism as a means of restraining the American Leviathan. It’s a theme to which Voegeli, a senior editor at The Claremont Review of Books, returns to here. And just as the previous book anticipated the rise of the Tea Party, the new one seems to have been written in anticipation of this year’s big political stories—the sudden influx of illegal, underage Central American immigrants and the transatlantic Ebola crisis.

Both episodes forced liberals to deal with their beau ideal of compassion, the virtue which, more than any other, Voegeli argues, shapes the modern liberal world view. “Compassion encompasses modern liberalism . . . not the other way around,” he writes. The overwhelming weight of compassion was clear when House minority leader Nancy Pelosi—a wealthy San Francisco liberal—stood descanting along the banks of the Rio Grande as underage girls from Central America braved death to stream across our vanishing Southern border. Pelosi gushed about wanting to hug the girls and bring them all home with her. It was a fine way to welcome prospective Democrats, but it left our schools ill-prepared to handle the flood of students, some of whom were from Indian regions and spoke neither Spanish nor English. Pelosi’s compassion was just gestural—needless to say, she didn’t actually take any of the girls home. She extended welcoming words to the new arrivals but paid little attention to the effect their presence would have on an older generation of Hispanic immigrants working as servants in Silicon Valley’s two-tier economy, much less the white working class squeezed by immigrant labor.

Voegeli also appears to have foreseen the Ebola crisis. “Liberalism, by resting on the belief that we can and must apply our moral sentiments to infinitely wider circles, guarantees sociological inanities and governmental perversities,” he writes. As it turned out, thanks to the value of borderless compassion, the need to protect Americans from the Ebola virus played second fiddle to the alliance of experts and West African victims, who insisted that plane flights from the stricken area to America had to carry on as usual. Asked why the simple measure of halting direct flights from “the hot zone” to America was unacceptable, Thomas Frieden of the CDC and Anthony Faucci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases engaged in an expert version of double talk, arguing, in effect, that it was all too complex for ordinary folks to grasp.

But the practical reality, as Voegeli explains it, is that “liberal compassion does not banish selfishness from politics.” Rather, it “merely displaces one kind of selfishness—largely concerned with material well-being, family advancement, community respectability, and patriotic pride—with another, which is preoccupied with emotional, psychological and status gratification.” But just as the lack of a limiting mechanism repeatedly led liberals governmentally and fiscally astray, so, too, has the lack of clear borders—literally and emotionally—led liberalism into a political cul-de-sac.

Voegeli deftly skewers the emphasis on compassion at the heart of liberal thinking. But he doesn’t explain how the liberal search for victims, which has descended into a baroque debauchery on campus, has translated into political success. He mentions public-sector unions only in passing. These unions are the key to understanding liberal political power. They depend heavily on the rhetoric of compassion. Social workers stand foursquare with the afflicted. Teachers are bulwarks of state spending on behalf of “the children.” But rhetoric aside, liberal victories nationally in 2008 and 2012, as well as in major states such as New York, California, and Illinois, have rested firmly on the get-out-the-vote efforts of public-sector unions. Government unions are deeply invested in the electoral process. The size of government translates into the size of their paychecks.

Emotionally and rhetorically, the alliance of public-sector workers with the highly educated professions is based, explained the late political philosopher Jeanne Bethke Elshtain, on “the rush” produced by their “pious reactions” to suffering situations. Liberals, she notes, whether professors or public-sector workers, need “victims” at home and abroad the way an “addict needs drugs.” But this alliance leaves out crucial cogs in the coalition, such as the youthful “dumbest generation,” whose primary political aim is to think well of themselves. Public-sector unions and their expert allies appeal to the semi-educated, New Yorker-reading upper middle class, who want to delegate all social responsibility to the state so that they can devote themselves to a life of advanced pleasures.

William Voegeli has once again written a book that should be required reading for those trying to make sense of the Obama presidency’s cascading collapse. Taken together, Never Enough and The Pity Party help illumine America’s less-than-inevitable decline.

Photo by sarah-ji/via Flickr


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