Kindness covers all my political principles, says President Obama. A prominent liberal writer asserts that the quality that really sets progressives apart is that they care about other people, not just themselves.
Conservatives shake their heads. Can liberals really be so fatuous as to believe that the profound challenges of politics, which have confronted and usually gotten the better of statesmen and philosophers for millennia, are in fact so simple that gentle admonitions to play nice are all we need to secure peace and justice? And are liberals really so self-righteous as to insist that opposition to, or even skepticism about, their project can be explained entirely in terms of their opponents’ greed, cruelty, and pathological mean-spiritedness?
The short answers are yes, and yes. A longer answer is that certain key features of modern liberalism, and of compassion, turn out to be made for each other—which is not to say that they’re necessarily good for each other, or America.
Consider three. First, liberals are in favor of the “modern bargain,” which holds that the most basic political problem, getting people to live together peaceably, can be solved by a “social contract,” a mutual non-aggression pact, where we agree to disagree about big, contentious questions, religion chief among them. Liberals are not alone in favoring the modern bargain. So do conservatives, and so do the large portion of the American population that doesn’t think about politics in left-right terms, or doesn’t think about politics much at all.