Interesting conversations have been ongoing about Rob Portman seeing the light on marriage equality as a result of his son being gay. Many on the liberal side of the equation have noted that this seems to be a common Republican affliction -- one can only identify with a problem when a member of one's own tribe is affected. I share that general view. Naturally, Will Saletan takes the contrary position --it's what they do over there -- arguing that this is just human nature and that we on the left are no different in this regard. Saletan points to Barak Obama's conversion on the gay marriage issue as proof of this.
Let's be clear -- Barak Obama's stated opposition to marriage equality (and Hillary Clinton's and many others) was the product of a craven political calculation. The President, along with many other liberal Democrats, feared the marriage equality issue and felt that it was a bridge too far in national electoral politics. It turns out he was wrong -- public opinion has moved incredibly swiftly on this issue. This sort of thing is not admirable, but it's not unusual. Polticians are rarely opinion leaders. Having said that, Barak Obama was quite progressive on gay rights issues for a mainstream politician even before he announced support for marriage equality -- as seen by his administration's handling of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and DOMA. Rob Portman has shown no such disposition until this moment. He has basically toed the Republican Party line on thes issues for his entire political career, albeit he has not been an affirmative hater a la James Inhoffe. In short, there is no true comparison between Obama and Portman, notwithstanding any drivel Glenn Greenwald might write in this regard.
Saletan refuses to accept that liberals are any more empathetic then conservatives -- in his view they arrive at their positions simply through "inertia" -- i.e. they just believe what all of their liberal friends believe:
When I try to understand their misperceptions of Portman, my best guess (which, to take my own point, could be wrong) is that they haven’t experienced what Portman is going through. When your parents and peers are liberal, reaching liberal conclusions is no sweat. You don’t support SNAP benefits because you know malnourished kids, any more than you support climate-change legislation because you know peasant farmers. It isn’t empathy that leads you to these conclusions. It’s inertia.
This is nonsense. I have been a liberal for a long time as have many of the people I've known. And let me assure you, it wasn't because back in 1980 or 1984 or 1988 all of the cool kids were doing the liberal thing and supporting food stamps. It was because I -- like most people who hung in there during the Reagan years -- had the moral imagination to consider what life might have been like if I lost the lottery and was born poor. It was because a study of history led me to understand how tenuous the climb to middle class status had been for so many people and how much the government giving people a hand up had meant to vast swaths of society. I was a white male middle class kid, but I understood that the world was bigger than my tribe, a spirit that continues to animate most people on the left. I did not grow up in an ideological household. When I was a kid, my father voted Democratic for the most part and my mother Republican for the most part -- but they were both very devoted to overall notions of fairness. (Neither has voted for a Republican since 1976 -- I take some of the credit.) I took that overall spirit of fairness and constructed a political view that struck me as consistent with it -- a kind of Rawlsian view of the world long before I ever heard of John Rawls. It wasn't inertia or any other reflexive or tribal behavior.
I think Saletan misses the fundamental divide between right and left in considering this question. It goes to the very heart of the world view that makes someone choose either poltical direction.
I am glad Rob Portman came around on this issue. I am hardly going to beat him up for doing so. But this "personal" type politics has grave limitations -- particularly in a world in which politicians are increasingly drawn from the ranks of the well to do. It does, however, speak to the power of individuals "coming out," a phenomenon that has truly been world changing for people who need their politics personalized.