The Bay Area is home to one of the most dire housing crises in the nation. In order to increase the housing supply, in 2013, the Palo Alto City Council drafted plans to change zoning laws to allow the creation of a new multi-family housing development in the middle of a local suburban neighborhood. The project's goal? To provide more affordable housing units for low-income elderly residents. Despite Santa Clara County residents overwhelmingly identifying as liberal, a voting group known to support affordable housing, they nonetheless voted to block the new development.
This story of liberal NIMBYs, short for Not In My Backyard, is far from unique — while Democratic politicians regularly advocate for housing justice, their own liberal constituencies often vote against zoning reforms within their own neighborhoods. Fearful that low-priced developments might depreciate nearby property values or otherwise compromise the local “character,” liberal suburban residents often implicitly vote to keep their communities white and wealthy.
It’s actually some of the nation’s bluest states and cities that lead the country in educational disparities, housing costs and economic inequality, as Johnny Harris and Binyamin Applebaum keenly point out in a November New York Times Opinion video. Los Angeles County has one the highest rates of homelessness in the nation, Washington state has one of the most regressive tax policies in the country and New York City is home to the most segregated public school system in America.
There is a clear gap between the values Democratic voters claim to hold and what they actually vote for. This liberal hypocrisy is, of course, nothing new, but what exactly is causing it? We’re living in an era of intense affective polarization, meaning that we hate the other side more than ever before. And ironically, it’s this increasing hatred for conservatives that might actually be fueling liberal hypocrisy. When we assume that the other side’s position is rooted in evil, we become blind to the ways that we, too, are falling short, despite our good intentions. In viewing ourselves as inherently more compassionate than the opposition, we wrongfully absolve ourselves from the deeper self-reflection necessary to improve real political outcomes.
A 2019 study from the McCarney Institute for Democracy at Pennsylvania State University uncovered an interesting pattern: Democratic and Republican poll respondents didn’t just disagree on policy, but they were utterly baffled by the other side’s motivations. Republicans couldn’t move past the idea that Democrats were motivated by “free stuff,” and Democrats had difficulty imagining that Republicans were anything other than selfish or uninformed. In a 2019 New York Times op-ed entitled “Our Culture of Contempt,” Harvard Professor Arthur C. Brooks argued that this mounting polarization is actually being driven by a form of motive attribution asymmetry, or, as he describes it, “the assumption that your ideology is based in love, while your opponent’s is based in hate.”
When it comes to political archetypes, I’ve observed that progressives tend to place our political allies on one side and “facts don’t care about your feelings” conservatives on the other. However, a recent study published in the journal Emotion paints a slightly more complicated picture: While participants believed that the average Democrat was more compassionate than the average Republican, members of the two groups actually scored themselves similarly on levels of compassion. Not only that, but the most politically active respondents were also the most likely to underestimate the compassion scores of the opposition.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, both Democrats and Republicans consider themselves to be generally compassionate. And while liberals love to lord their alleged compassion over the “heartless” opposition, there is something deeply unempathetic about assuming that you’re more motivated by empathy than everybody else. From Joe Biden’s promise to “be an ally of the light not the darkness” to the infamous popularity of headlines like “I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people” in HuffPost, everyone wants to claim a monopoly on virtue. However, I wonder to what extent this purported compassion has simply become a rhetorical weapon to wield against the other side.
Given the opinions of liberal Palo Alto residents, it's not difficult to imagine a house in a suburban neighborhood holding dual “Hate has No Home Here” and “Save Our Parking” lawn signs — a classic NIMBY dog whistle. “Hate” might not be welcome, but evidently, neither are low-income or minority residents. These signs are clearly ideologically inconsistent, yet the family who put them up would likely disagree. When the bar for hate is alt-right rallies and QAnon message boards, we overlook the more subtle ways that zoning boards and groups against affordable housing are carrying out harm as well. Some of the most insidious forms of hate aren’t big and flashy: in fact, that’s what makes them so pervasive.
For many liberals, compassion isn’t just a personal ethic but a core part of their political identity. If compassion is what distinguishes me and other members of the left from the conservative opposition, then we’ll do anything we can to preserve this empathetic self-image, even if that means turning a blind eye to the ways we are falling short. After all, if we admit to being part of the problem, then we’re basically no better than the conservatives we so often disparage. In these scenarios, our desire to see ourselves as good often undermines our ability to actually do good. And too often, liberals unconsciously prioritize the former. Self-delusion is a lot easier than self-reflection.
It’s tempting to flatten the world’s moral complexity into a single (and quite convenient) ethical narrative: I am good because I intend to be good, and the other side is bad because they intend to be bad. However, there are plenty of scenarios where good intentions still lead to bad outcomes. Liberal families excited to raise their kids in diverse neighborhoods may also be gentrifying these very same communities. Even universities widely regarded as liberal still disproportionately admit wealthy and privileged applicants. Assuming that all conservatives are simply “evil” not only misses this complexity, but it implicitly lets liberals off the hook for their own misdeeds.
While values should certainly motivate our political decisions, we run into trouble when we treat compassion as an identity unto itself rather than a personal ethic. Political identities are simply reflections of our beliefs, and they don’t necessarily require action to maintain. If you believe in liberal ideas, you are a liberal. But ethics are different. When we treat compassion as a political identity, it can be tempting to apply this same logic: I am compassionate because I believe that compassion is normatively important. However, actually being compassionate requires making genuine changes to your own behavior even when it's inconvenient. It’s the difference between yelling our values at conservatives and actually living them. The former reaffirms our tribal political identities, but does nothing to actually further the underlying ethical value.
This is not to say that we should excuse conservatives’ harmful policy preferences and even hateful ideologies simply because the voters that hold them might be acting in good faith. On the contrary, it’s about recognizing that conservatives and liberals are all responsible for the bad outcomes we contribute to. Demonizing the other side not only minimizes the effectiveness of government, but it actively blinds us to the ways that we too might be failing to live our own expressed values. And while we can’t solve polarization with simple calls for unity, we might have better luck if we first start by recognizing our own hypocrisy.
Sarah McGrath ’24 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.