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Why Liberal Hearts Bleed and Conservatives Don't

Why politicians have trouble listening to each other.

Political liberals are “bleeding hearts” because they empathize so strongly with the sufferings of others. As Bill Clinton so succinctly phrased it, “I feel your pain.” When Republicans wanted to compete in the empathy department, they had to invent new terminology to identify this strange bird. They called it a “compassionate conservative.”

One might ask why conservatives have, or are perceived as having, too little empathy. Why do liberals have too much? A widely-credited explanation is in terms of competing world views.

The conservative world view

Conservatives see the world as a challenging place in which there is always someone else who is ready to steal your lunch. Confronted by a potentially hostile environment, the best course is to take precautions and to ensure your own well-being and that of your family.

This precautionary stance helps to explain many of the distinctive traits of conservative Americans as well as right-wing politicians the world over. These traits may reflect either a proactive element, such as fighting to be winners in a competitive world. Or they can be defensive, involving measures to neutralize specific threats.

The threatening world view illuminates the conservative take on specific political issues in fairly obvious ways.

  • Conservatives are pro-gun because they want to be able to defend themselves against criminal threats of any type.
  • They are mostly religious because religious rituals foster feelings of safety in a dangerous world such that the most dangerous countries in the world are also the most religious (1).
  • They tend to be more hostile to immigrants, foreigners, and racial or ethnic minorities and to view them as more of a threat.
  • They fear attacks by other nations and therefore support a strong military and a bellicose foreign policy on the theory that a good attack is the best defense.
  • Apart from military defense, where government is an asset, conservatives fear government intrusions into their lives and particularly fear having their wealth eroded by taxation.
  • They are pro-family because being surrounded by close relatives is the best defense against threats that surround them.
  • They oppose welfare for the poor because this encourages dependence so that the failures of society are parasites on the successes, thereby inverting the proper incentive structure.
  • They admire wealth because successful people are seen as having worked hard in pursuing a moral obligation to provide for themselves and their families in a difficult and uncertain world.

The liberal world view

The liberal world view is mostly the opposite. Liberals take a more optimistic view of the world as being somewhat more benign. Government is a vehicle through which the citizens of a democracy can solve problems and improve the well-being and happiness of most people.

  • Liberals feel that protection of citizens against crime is better left to police and that armed citizens are a threat to those around them.
  • They are less religious than conservatives because they perceive the world around them as less threatening. Moreover, they rely more on science, and education, as a means to solve problems.
  • Liberals are more welcoming to immigrants. They are less likely to view foreigners and racial or ethnic minorities as a threat.
  • They favor negotiation and consensus-building over warfare in foreign policy and do not believe in excessive military buildups that drain social spending.
  • Liberals are happy to pay their taxes if they believe that the money is being used to improve the quality of life of others whether they are poor or rich. Instead of being a threat, the government reflects the will of the people.
  • Liberals are less interested in family ties as a protective bubble.
  • They support welfare programs for the poor because these may reduce child poverty, as well as reducing crime and social problems.
  • Liberals are suspicious of wealth, feeling that much of it is inherited or obtained through sharp business practices or outright corruption. They also feel that concentrating resources in the hands of the one percent impoverishes everyone else, thereby undermining social trust (1).

Conservatives see the world as a more threatening place because their brains predispose them to being fearful (2). They are also predisposed by brain biology to hating complexity and compromise. That would help to explain why politics can be so polarized, particularly in a rather conservative era like the present.

It also explains many of the quirky differences between Democrats and Republicans. My favorite is the mind-blowing fact that four times as many Republicans as Democrats have mudrooms in their homes (3). Got to protect your home from that contaminating mud.


1. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at:

2. Barber, N. (2011, April 19). Conservatives big on fear, brain study finds. Blog post accessed at:…

3. Garchick, L. (2000, November 5). Remodelers split along party lines. San Francisco Chronicle, accessed at:…

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