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The Unempathetic Progressive

New York Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang. Image from Wikimedia Commons.


Last Wednesday, New York Mayoral candidate Andrew Yang came under fire for remarks he made to a group of L.G.B.T Democrats. Reading the remarks, and having followed his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination quite closely in 2020, this blunder is not entirely surprising. In fact, it really felt like a matter of time before Yang said something callous and insensitive, if not mean-spirited, as he did.

What was meant to be a statement of solidarity came across as alienating and performative: saying the L.G.B.T community was "so human," and pointing out that his campaign managers were gay. Yang does not have the words to convincingly express his solidarity with the LGBT community, because his statement has little to do with who he is, and everything to do with who he has to campaign to.

Running on a progressive platform, the people he needs to win an election are a more diverse bunch than adherents of political orthodoxy. Many of these people are marginalized folks who feel that his allegiance to them is one of convenience. Empathy has never been Yang's brand, and he has substituted for it a kind of goofy aloofness that is, admittedly, quite endearing. But that aloofness can only carry him so far when he has to interact with the marginalized people who he has not made central to his campaign.

It's for this reason that I think Yang is representative of an undercurrent in contemporary North American progressivism, a kind of "unempathetic progressivism." Some would contest that Yang even qualifies as a progressive. The word is loosely defined and often misused, but suffice it to say that he supports increased social supports, rapid action on climate change, etc. Such unempathetic progressivism is based on two principles:

  1. Rapid changes to society are needed and government is an important means of effecting them.

  2. Politics coded by empathy and solidarity are feminine and annoying.

Yang's brand is unique even among "third way" politics: rather than putting forward something "pragmatic" between options "A" and "B," Yang offers something entirely outside-the-box (an option "Z"). On climate: Market-based solution or Green New Deal? Yang thinks we should look more into Thorium reactors. Should we increase or decrease taxes? Yang prefers a switch to a Value-Added Tax. What about welfare? Yang's most famous policy proposal simultaneously involves the destruction of welfare as we know it and its replacement with something very expensive.

Yang's creativity and his sci-fi aesthetic are appealing in part because they give the impression of a politician who puts research over rhetoric, and practicability over partisanship. To many young men who pride themselves on their knowledge of policy, progressive politics that would otherwise attract them has been tainted by the shrill, activist-coded politics of "the squad." They are looking for someone who puts forward progressive policy under the mantra of rationality, as opposed to empathy or solidarity. Rationality, however, is inseparable from our conceptions of masculinity.

Thus, while Yang is an instructive example, such "unempathetic progressivism" is widespread, arising from societal conceptions of masculinity. The unempathetic progressive politician could not exist without the large number of unempathetic progressives to support them. I've noticed an attitude similar to Yang's among volunteers with progressive political parties, my peers in college, and myself.

They consider unequivocal statements of solidarity with marginalized groups unserious and feminizing. Support for any activist group is secondary to their responsibility to win arguments against young conservative men. Even among self-described leftists, "social justice" is a word they'll refrain from using unironically. Policies are more appealing when framed as having universal benefits, as opposed to targeting "special interest" groups like people of colour, women, etc.

This is as much self-reflection as it is an attack on anyone. I'll confess that I really liked Andrew Yang, in part because of his creative policy proposals, but also in part because he couched them in such a way that did not demand statements of solidarity or empathy. It's why Yang has won the support of many who voted for Donald Trump: you don't need to care about others to get his message.

To Yang, as to me, politics was a game -- a marketplace of ideas. It was not, as it is for others, a struggle in which the lives and livelihoods of society's most vulnerable are at stake. In such a struggle, statements of solidarity are key, as are policies specifically targeted to help those vulnerable groups. But such statements and policies are anathema to Yang, whose supporters view empathy and rationality as opposed. When he tries to show empathy and solidarity, as he did last Wednesday, it comes across as hollow.

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