Glenn Beck, the border crisis, and the Republican Party's empathy gap

Matt Walsh is a genius.

If you are not familiar with his work, you should be. The proprietor of The Matt Walsh Blog writes on culture and traditional conservative values in a particularly innovative fashion, and he manages with what seems like minimal effort (though that is certainly not the case) to do what conservatives regularly complain their movement so often fails to achieve: The piercing of the bubble which apolitical Americans surround themselves with in order to avoid confronting contentious social issues.

I have experienced Walsh’s reach firsthand. In early June, I was boarding a plane bound for Houston where both Walsh and I would be participating in a panel discussion at the two-day TexasOnline event. While I was waiting to board, my wife who is not political and has very little interest in elections, Beltway squabbles, or right track/wrong track trend lines, forwarded me one of his posts. It was stunningly well-written, compelling, captivating, emotionally challenging, and thought-provoking.

Needless to say, I was excited to participate in this panel discussion – and it was a lively one. While I, too, am discomforted with the way in which liberals seem to devalue Western cultural traditions, I generally fall into “the kids are alright” camp when it comes to social issues. National Review’s Jonah Goldberg sums better than I can why conservatives often fail to see that, no matter how regularly the left professes that it is winning the culture war, there is not much evidence to support that claim. This was the perspective I brought to this panel discussion.

Walsh’s performance was inspired. He articulated his point of view forcefully and in a persuasive fashion, but there was one point on which we disagreed greatly. On many subjects, ranging from divorce, to gay marriage, to abortion rights, Walsh maintained a dogmatic stance and insisted that those who do not hold traditionally conservative positions on the above issues are simply not welcome in the conservative movement.

Not only did this small-tent strategy strike me as counterproductive, it also reminded me of a problem the conservative movement has faced for some time. Generally, conservatism struggles with the perception that it is a purist movement, one which looks down on the life choices of others. Its detractors believe earnestly that conservatives are rigid, ideological, and uncaring. Democrats enjoy the advantage of being perceived as more empathetic and are less likely to alienate prospective voters before they have had a chance to evaluate their party’s policy prescriptions.

This is a measurable phenomenon. According to the 2012 exit polls, President Barack Obama lost to Mitt Romney on virtually every issue of importance to voters. On the economy, the issue voters rated as the most important issue in 2012, Romney was cited by a plurality of voters as more capable. On the candidate who “shares my values,” Romney beat Obama by 13 points. Where Romney was trounced, and I mean brutalized inhumanely, was on voters’ beliefs about which candidate “cares about people like me.” Obama beat Romney by 63 points.

The most frustrating thing about this belief among voters, at least on cultural issues, is that it is fundamentally untrue. Liberals care about “people like me,” so long as they are liberal, too. On issues ranging from same-sex marriage, to abortion, to divorce, to immigration reform, to gun ownership rights; the GOP is a coalition party where widely divergent views on these and other matters are condoned and debate is encouraged. This is not the case on the left. Inflexible, dogmatic, monolithic liberal positions on all of these issues is not only encouraged but policed.

Take, for example, the story of Brandon Ambrosino. This 23-year-old aspiring writer was tapped by just prior to its launch for a one-year fellowship – an announcement which resulted in a campaign on the left to force Vox to fire him. Ambrosino’s offense? He is an out gay man who attended Dr. Jerry Fallwell’s Liberty University and not only didn’t experience any discrimination but had the temerity to write about it.

“The world and the people in it are really wonderful with just a smidge of ugliness about them. I think the really vocal anti-gay Christians display this smidge, but I also think the really vocal anti-Christian gays display it as well,” he wrote in The Atlantic.

This experience did not conform to the left’s view of how the world should be; conservatives are bigots, they believe, particularly towards gays. founder Ezra Klein was attacked for helping “conservatives seeking to legitimize their homophobia.” To his credit, Klein did not back down, and Ambrosino still writes for his site, but this is just one of the myriad examples of left-wing intolerance.

In just the last few weeks, a pro-choice professor physically attacked a pro-life student for holding a sign which offended her. The women’s-rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali was forced to withdraw as a Brandeis University commencement speaker because she had the gall to criticize Islam, even though she did so from the perspective of a woman who grew up in North Africa and Saudi Arabia and experienced religious repression firsthand. Brendan Eich, the creator of JavaScript and cofounder of Mozilla, was forced out as CEO of that company when one enterprising leftist performed a search on Open Secrets and learned he had donated to Prop 8 – a 2008 ballot measure which prohibited gay marriage and passed the popular vote in California by 52 to 48 percent.

Why are conservatives labeled intolerant when there is not much evidence to support it, but liberals enjoy the benefit of the doubt even though they are constantly on the lookout for the next Trotskyite to purge? Part of it is engrained media bias, but another part is the rhetoric on the right – a movement which, while accommodating, does accurately judge right and wrong and is not afraid to speak out against permissive behavior. The left has exploited this and fostered the impression among millions of voters that the right disapproves of you and your lifestyle.

Even those who regret the choices they’ve made will defend them vigorously if they believe they are being judged.

This leads us to Glenn Beck, who is launching a brilliant campaign aimed at closing the empathy gap on the issue of immigration. “Through no fault of their own,” Beck said on Tuesday of the waves of immigrant women and children fleeing crises in Central America, “they are caught in political crossfire.”

“And while we continue to put pressure on Washington and change its course of lawlessness, we must also help,” he continued. “It is not either, or. It is both. We have to be active in the political game, and we must open our hearts.”

Amid heated talk on the right of deporting children back to strife-ridden failed states, the third world diseases they carry, and the fear of their ability to access protective and preventative medical services on taxpayer dollars, the conservative movement risks expanding the empathy gap among Hispanic and urban voters. Beck aims to close it.

“We’re going to fill some tractor-trailers with food, with water,” Beck said. “The churches have asked us if we could bring teddy bears and soccer balls, so we’ve loaded up a whole tractor-trailer of nothing but teddy bears and soccer balls. And then I’m going to go serve breakfast and lunch, and I’m going to help unload these trucks, hot meals for 3,000. That’s what we’re doing.”

Charity and kindness, asking nothing in return, can go a long way. The left’s solution to the immigration crisis is, as ever, the promise of government programs and a free ticket into a bureaucratic morass — none of which they can deliver for this cascade of Central American refugees. Conservatives can offer something better, something real, and Beck plans on doing just that.

It is a small step, but a welcome one. The conservative movement needs a bigger tent, and addressing the perception that conservatives are hard-hearted will be a step in that direction. The good news is that this condition is merely perceived, not real, and it only takes a few gestures like the one Beck has embraced in order to bury it.