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Is Genuine Kindness Being Replaced by Virtue Signalling in Today’s Politics?

Is kindness something that can be applied to public life, or are people content to re-tweet a nice quote, get misty-eyed at the latest Fogelman story, and elect misers to office?

Keith Sonia

Naked Politics Blogger

One of the most successful recent US television dramas is the unabashedly schmaltzy ‘This is Us’. Creator, Dan Fogelman, tells the story of a unique family of three adult siblings and, in flashbacks, their childhood. Each episode seems to be designed to elicit as many cry-face emojis as possible and, to that end, is a smashing success. For years, sitcoms have relied on a formula in which main characters learned valuable lessons before the credits rolled. As far as dramas go though, this programme is a departure from both the formulaic cop shows and anti-hero prestige productions that have previously topped the ratings. There is no Joffrey, Janice Soprano, nor Peter Campbell – written specifically to celebrate them getting their comeuppance; Fogelman manages to appeal audiences without resorting to bloodlust.

this is us

Could it be that Fogelman has tapped into something that many of those in either news or politics have yet to recognise? Are there signs that the public is hungry for something more than a weekly television refuge, or is politics trapped in a never-ending cycle of virtue signalling with genuine kindness sadly lacking from public policy?

Kindness in politics is not completely unexamined by political scientists and observers. In particular, there has been an effort made by those on the right to combat the perception that conservative policies are purposely designed to inflict pain on vulnerable populations. To that end, the US Republican Party unveiled a project entitled ‘Challenging the Caricature’, which argues that despite championing legislation akin to a Dickensian plot device, the GOP are good and decent. Perhaps, if Republicans want the Congress that they control to be seen more favourably than cockroaches and Nickelback, booting Steve King (R-IA and fairly well-documented bigot) from their caucus, might be a start.

The Tories have also attempted to shake off their ‘Nasty Party’ label – a title that Theresa May warned her party about in 2002. ‘One Nation’ Conservatives like David Cameron and George Osborne took control of the party three years later in a bid to move the Conservatives forward, but, maybe because of the 2007-2008 global economic crisis or because of arch-conservative pressure groups like the 1922 Committee, they failed to shed the cloak of negativity that plagued the party. Despite progressive achievements like enacting marriage equality, Cameron and May have presided over governments that unleashed austerity for every segment of the population except the already well-off. For every nod to the “just-about-managing” they seem to find themselves having to defend unpopular policy proposals.

But in a fight for the moral high ground, what proof do we have that the left is any better at owning kindness as a political virtue? For every Lee Atwater on the right, there is a Peter Mandelson (arguably the most cut-throat member of the New Labour inner circle) on the left. Even today, Corbyn’s Labour is bogged down by anti-Semitism. Though the creation of substantial elements of the welfare state in both the UK and US are credited to left-of-centre parties, and modern leaders like Barack Obama have found themselves occupying the tiny sliver of space that contemporary politics seems to allow for kindness, it would not be inappropriate to question the authenticity of it all.

In the age of social media, it seems that many of us are guilty of adopting altruistic personas in public forums while comfortably sitting inactive on the couch. This unsubstantiated self-righteousness is one of the signs of ‘pathological altruism’ – a term coined by academic Barbara Oakley. As Brandon Ambrosino writes of today’s online pseudo-kindness, “social media has given us a big heart…but not a heart in the right place—a heart, in fact, right there—to the bottom left of a Facebook status”.

So, how do we chart the real thing? Perhaps kindness in politics went out with Jimmy Carter, who was soundly defeated in 1980 by Ronald Reagan – largely on the pretence that he was weak, maybe even TOO decent a person to occupy an office that poses such stark choices. Perhaps, the reaction on Twitter to ‘This is US’ is itself not genuine. But could it be a cry for decency while the current President of the United States represents the very opposite?

Will it matter, though, if we are now so sure that it would be representative of a sort of pathological condition to display kindness, rather than own it? Is kindness workable in politics? Or is modern politics too rehearsed to ever really be genuine? Isn’t kindness, as Ambrosino sums up, something that just happens in everyday life? We may soon find out how willing the electorate is to apply what they know to be right to their representatives.

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