The Ethics of Perception – Congress

The big news today is that conservative Ohio Senator Rob Portman has come out in support of gay marriage. Senator Portman supports gay marriage because he has a gay son. I’m glad that Portman has switched his position on this, but I’m frustrated that it is unlikely that he will broaden his perspective on other issues.

Portman is hardly the only one to take a public policy position based on family ties. While running on a platform of spending cuts, spending cuts, and more spending cuts, former Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin supported spending on children with disabilities because she had a child with disabilities. More generally, congresspeople with daughters have better records on women’s issues. Perception matters a great deal in making ones final decisions. Since not a single congressperson is a poor person or has a poor child it is hardly surprising that public decision-making skews against the poor. It’s also worth pointing out that this is one of the many reasons we really need more women and people of color in congress. Women simply have different life experiences than men, and yes, that influences voting. A congress composed primarily of old white men simply will not have a well-rounded perspective on issues.

What’s most frustrating about this is we have an entire party that’s actively denying rights to gay people and threatening to cut government programs that poor and middle class people rely on, unless, of course, they personally happen to have a child who is gay or a child with a disability. That’s not a public policy dispute, it’s an empathy gap. The only reason Paul Ryan can say with a straight face that destroying Medicaid is somehow saving the safety net is because he doesn’t know anyone on Medicaid.


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