We Are All Bleeding Heart Liberals Now

That nevere of hym she wolde han taken hede,
For which hym thoughte he felte his herte blede

Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, mid-1380s

Upon the whole, I mourned thus for her for above a month; but finding Amy still come not near me, and that I must put my affairs in a posture that I might go to Holland, I opened all my affairs to my dear trusty friend the Quaker, and placed her, in matters of trust, in the room of Amy; and with a heavy, bleeding heart for my poor girl, I embarked with my spouse, and all our equipage and goods, on board another Holland’s trader, not a packet-boat, and went over to Holland, where I arrived, as I have said.

Daniel Defoe, The Fortunate Mistress, 1724

It’s been previously argued, if somewhat jokingly, that we are all white liberals now. There are various methods for denigrating liberalism. A typical tactic is to throw in some other descriptive word to mischaracterize liberalism as an extremist ideology of a narrow minority: liberal class, liberal elite, limousine liberals, pinko liberals, and white liberals. Initially, the liberal label alone was not enough of a slur. It needed to be clarified by suggesting the true meaning of hiding some more radical ideology, perverse motive, corrupted sensibility, or out-of-touch status. The purpose is to obscure the fact of how extremely liberal has become nearly the entire American population — not only liberal but quite leftist, such that we are also all egalitarians now.

Some examples of this particular anti-leftist rhetoric originated in the early 1900s: ““Limousine liberals” is another phrase that has been attached to these comfortable nibblers at anarchy” (New York Tribune, 5 May, 1919); “pinko-liberal journal of campus opinion” (Time: the Weekly Newsmagazine, 7 Jun., 1926); “Editor Oswald Garrison Villard of the pinko-liberal Nation” (Time: the Weekly Newsmagazine, 9 Sept., 1929); “Pinko liberals—the kind who have been so sympathetic with communistic ideals” (The Mason City Globe-Gazette (Mason City, IA), 12 Jun., 1940); et cetera (What Exactly Is a ‘Liberal’?, Merriam-Webster). Maybe these were seen as the hyphenated ideologies brought by the immigrant populations of hyphenated Americans or those sympathetic to them. All ideologies were considered bad to a certain conservative mind, an attitude expressed by the Irish Edmund Burke during the French Revolution and the Southern plantation aristocracy during the American Civil War. Then, after a period of conservative decline, the rhetoric of anti-ideology ideology was resurrected and made respectable again by Russell Kirk in the early Cold War.

If all ideologies are bad, then a hyphenated ideology would be doubly dangerous. To this ideological worldview of the reactionary mind, only liberals and leftists have ideologies, not that this ever stopped conservatives from co-opting the ideological rhetoric of liberals and leftists, sometimes even to the point of calling themselves classical liberals or true liberals. But, generally, conservatives like to keep their ideological commitments obscure and vague so as to allow for plausible deniability, which is the reason why few racists ever self-identify as racists. To openly state an ideology is dangerous territory for the conservative mind because it is to admit that the ideological realism of the ruling order is socially constructed. Moral imagination is the conservative euphemism for social constructionism. The attack on the ideologies of others is a projection and distraction.

The hyphenated ideology slander was maybe more common in the past because a strong and highly organized leftist movement was a potent threat that needed to be neutralized. Now we’ve gotten to the point, after generations of Cold War propaganda and anti-leftist attacks, where such rhetorical lumping isn’t as necessary. The label of ‘liberal’ by itself has become an effective invective because all those other terms (pinko, elite, white, etc) are implied without needing to be stated. This was the result of a concerted effort to deligitimize liberalism specifically and leftism in general. It was surely part of the (now forty years’ old) New Right’s massively funded propaganda campaign involving the Shadow Network and media operations they built. They sought to promote a false narrative of the religious right as the ‘Moral Majority’. But that is a story for another day (if you’re curious, look into Joseph Coors, Paul Weyrich, Richard Wirthlin, etc). As shown above, it began much earlier than that.

There is a specific historical example to show how far left Americans have moved and how right-wing rhetoric has weakened over time. In the 1930s, one of the new rhetorcal attacks on liberals was to call them ‘bleeding hearts’, although it didn’t catch on right away (Sarah Laskow, The True Origins of the Phrase ‘Bleeding-Heart Liberal’). This political insult is an odd way of attempting to discredit the faith in loving-kindness, compassion, and forgiveness, the expression of fellow feeling and moral decency; in particular, Greco-Christian agape as unconditional love, the highest form of love through charity, and the mutual love between humanity and the divine. The symbol for selfless and sacrificial love, within the Christian tradition, was the bleeding heart. But this symbol was less familiar among American Protestants or maybe it was familiar in being associated with Catholics and hence associated with ethnic immigrants (i.e., hyphenated Americans).

Where did this use of ‘bleeding hearts’ come from? Westbrook Pegler, a newspaper columnist and mud-slinging bully, was the man who originated this as a mean-spirited taunt of humanitaranism and as a dismissive appelation to be placed upon the heads of liberals like a mocking crown of thorns. He came to use it often in his writings. But his initial use of it was to critcize the liberal movement that sought to outlaw lynching. Pegler wasn’t necessarily defendng lynching, per se, but neither was he entirely and clearly opposing it either. He merely thought that the issue of lynching was a conflict that should be locally and privately resolved between blacks and the white mobs hunting them down. Many conservatives agreed with him at the time. There is no doubt that some even suggested it was a matter of ‘states rights’.

To give some sense of what kind of guy Pegler was, consider that he joined the authoritarian, fascist, and theocratc John Birch Society, the original alt-right but admittedly popular at the time. The Bircher membership was similar to the widespread following gained by the radio host Father Charles Coughlin, another precursor to McCarthyism. By the way, it was the Birchers who claimed Dwight Eisenhower was a communist, despite Ike’s having been a social conservative, religious right advocate, and highly respected military leader (although, he did admit to being in favor of ‘liberal’ governance while preferring ‘conservatism’ for the private sector such as economics; then again, he promoted illiberalism when he put ‘In God We Trust’ on the US currency, which was the first major politicization of religion in the US presidency). Now consider that Pegler was so far radically right-wing fringe that the Birchers eventually kicked him out. So, the Birchers were to the right of the right and Pegler was further right still.

Yet, his rhetoric of ‘bleeding heart’ liberals stuck and became commonly used on the right, as if it were the most damning criticism. But it remains odd, considering those doing the attacking have claimed to be Christians. So, why has a traditional and ancient Christian symbol expressing the highest Christian value been believed to be a bad thing in the minds of self-identified Christians who claimed to defend the Christian faith? Whatever the reason, the sting of this insult has worn away from overused repetition and many liberals have reclaimed it as an honorable title. Presently, most Americans are not convinced that deeply caring about other humans is a moral failing and character flaw. In general, a lot of anti-leftist rhetoric isn’t as compelling as it once was. It’s similar to how the punch has been lost to calling someone a tree-hugging environmentalist or pot-smoking hippy. Heck, even red-baiting accusations that others are commies, socialists, and fellow travelers doesn’t have much impact these days.

In their smug confidence, the far right overplayed its hand. Their endless repetition of rhetoric, including the CIA’s Mighty Wurlitzer, has had the opposite effect than intended by normalizing leftist language and so making leftist ideology attractive. But it goes deeper than that, in how public opinion itself has changed, no matter how confused Americans remain about what words and labels mean. Americans have embraced left-liberal values. For certain, it is unimaginable for anyone today to use a symbol of Christian unconditional love, compassion, and charity as a dismissive caricature of lynching opponents. Not only did lynching become criminalized but so far outside of social norms and moral standards as to not even be defended by the staunchest of conservatives and libertarians. The American majority has gone further left still in now agreeing with and supporting the anti-racist and pro-egalitarian message of Black Lives Matter. Liberals have become the strongest and most authentic advocates of Jesus’ visionary message of love as a common bond of a universal humanity. And, in the context of this ancient religious radicalism turned modern secular value, we are all bleeding heart liberals now.

* * *

Slinging Mud
by Rosemarie Ostler

The first uses of bleeding heart to mean “someone tenderhearted toward the downtrodden” began appearing in the 1930s. Before that time the pphrase described someone who was suffering emotionally, such as a bereaved person. In its new meaning, it describes people whose hearts bleed sympathetically for others, but with the implication that they are suckers or lack common sense.

The political meaning of bleeding heart may have been coined by conservative columnist Westbrook Pegler. It first appeared in print in a January 8, 1938, column in which Pegler criticized a “time-kiling debate” on antylynching laws, noting that only around fourteen people a year were lynched. In Pegler’s view, the country’s other problems were more pressing. He writes, “I question the humanitarianism of any professional or semi-pro bleeding heart who clamors that not a single person must be allowed to hunger, but would stall the entire legislative program . . . to save 14 lives a year.”

Bleeding hearts were often connected with the New Deal in the 1930s, as in another Pegler phrase, “bleeding-heart journalists of the New Deal.” The negative expression of bleeding heart liberal didn’t come into vogue until the 1960s. Liberal on its own didn’t become a pejorative term until around the 1980s.

11 thoughts on “We Are All Bleeding Heart Liberals Now

  1. To be honest I understand why the term “bleeding hearts” caught on; it portrays an image of submission and weakness, which is susceptible to bending by brute authoritarian force, the imagery of the crucifixion of Christ comes to mind as a consequence of a “bleeding heart” ideology which is christianity.
    Not to mention how christianity is not a system of governance but rather a set of moral and social ideals; it is difficult to correlate mercy and love with power.

    • Yeah, I get it. During the mass urbanizatiion from the late 1800s to early 1900s, there was a push for a new “muscular Christianity” in response to moral panic about boys and men becoming emasculated and effeminate, sickly and weak. write about this in my post “The Crisis of Identity”. It was an early precursor to the religious right’s culture wars that were pushed hard in the 1980s with the cronies of Paul Weyrich and Joseph Coors.

      Christianity has long struggled with an image problem. In early Christianity, Romans perceived it as a religion for women and slaves, as indeed those who were powerless in Roman society could be powerful within the early church, even holding the highest positions of authority. This was built into the Christian faith, as expressed in one of the earliest creeds: “there is no Jew or Greek; there is no slave or free; there is no male and female.” Early depictions of Jesus often show him as effeminate. Other godmen of the era had also incorporated feminine qualities from the older agrarian goddesses that often were their mothers (Mother Mary was modeled on agrarian goddesses like Isis).

      It went beyond mere organization, words, and images as it included some gender-bending, as is common in ecstatic religions. Among early Christians, men would grow their hair long in opposition to Roman men who cut it short, while women would let their hair flow freely in opposition to Roman women who kept it bound up. Then women and men would mix freely and dance together with their hair flowing freely, along with the disreputable speaking in tongues. This was a direct challenge to the entire hyper-masculine culture, socal order, and political system of the Roman Empire.

      That same basic perception formed about Evangelicalism in the South, that it was a religion of women and slaves. The complaint was that charismatic Christianity was overly sentimental and weak. Around that time, Friedrich Nietzsche charged Christianity as a slave religion that sapped one’s strength of independence and hobbled the mind. In response, a new wave of preachers began using the language and imagery of masculinity, even portraying Jesus as a warrior-king. During the Populist Era, there were the first signs of Christianity being politicized like never before. Evangelicalism, in particular, had previously been anti-political in promoting secular governance with the separaton of church and state.

      That same period, though, also involved some of the largest waves of immigration in Amerian history. A lot of those immigrants were non-WASP ethnics. That is why one might suspect there was an element of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant bigotry. That was a defining feature of the first half of the 20th century. The Second Klan, for example, was more concerned about the threat of ethnic immigrants, particularly Catholics and Jews, than they were interested in targeting blacks. Many leftist and left-liberal ideologies, from anarchism to communism, were specifically identified with ethnic immigrant populations.

      Catholicism, in particular, had a set of politics that put it at odds with Protestantiism. Interestingly, in the early-to-mid 20th century, Catholics were anti-choice and Protestants were pro-choice. Even conservative evangelicals earlier supported safe abortions being available to women and defended it as part of Christian family values. The bleeding heart imagery is central to Catholicism. So, when I hear “bleeding hearts” used as a rhetorical attack, it sure sounds like dog whistle politics. At the time, the target audiences probably knew it meant Catholics.

    • It is such a fascinating symbolic image. For some reason, I never gave much thought to the origins of the “bleeding heart” slur. It only caught my attention because of the article Iinked in this post. Christianity has played such a powerful role in our society that many of its influences go unnoticed.

      We hear rhetoric like “bleeding heart” and it doesn’t occur to us to consider its cultural and historical significance. Or at least it didn’t occur to me. Such rhetoric is repeated so often over our entire lives that it loses its impact, slipping past consciousness. It doesn’t really register in our minds. Just more words.

      That is the power of language. We are so immersed in a world of language. Not only endless text on page and screen but also the voices on radio, network tv, cable, streaming services, Youtube, podcasts, etc. It’s the air we breathe, the everpresent background, rarely brought into the foreground of focused attention.

      Surely, there is no American who has never heard the “bleeding heart” rhetoric. Yet, if asked, I bet few Americans could honestly say they’ve ever given much thought to what it means, where it comes from, and why it would be used a slur. Calling someone the opposite in being cold-hearted doesn’t have nearly the same symbolic impact.

    • Your comment was still on my mind when I woke up this morning. I’m sure there might be many reasons “bleeding hearts” became such a common label. At this point, it’s one of the most often heard appelation given to liberals, maybe only following the accusation of “liberal elite”. The two terms, “bleeding hearts” and “liberal”, so easily flow together because how often they’ve been used together. But it is amusing when one literally translates the slur of “bleeding heart liberal”.

      The main consistent meaning of ‘liberalism’ over the many centuries is to be and act like a free person (liber), specifically in being generous, and/or a person advocating freedom for all. And “bleeding heart” means to be Christ-like in having unconditional love for others, specifically in being charitable. So, to be a “bleeding heart liberal” literally means to be be a Christ-like freedom-lover who is generous and charitable, even to the point of sacrificing self-interest for the greater good of all humanity and all of God’s Creation. Ooh! That really stings! LOL

      I really do get your point. The whole Jesus story is about physical weakness in the face of physical power, that moral strength as courage and faith does not take outward form and even refuses it. Jesus traditionally was portrayed as scrawny, mostly pacifist, and often effeminate — the original hippy, girly man. He is also apolitical and refuses to get involved in the major issues of the day, seeming to have no interest in fighting for his Jewish people, defending the Jewish way of life, or seeking retribution for the wrongs done against Jews.

      Jesus, in every conceivable way, was the complete opposite of traditionalism, and conservatism, and machismo. Instead of conservative ethnocentrism and traditional righteousness, he on many occasions turned his concern and compassion toward Gentiles and other perceived outsiders and lowly individuals. In place of the old values, all he comes bearing was a weak and sentimental love, telling people to turn the other cheek rather than fight, to submit to the humiliation of carrying a soldier’s gear not only the one mile asked but two.

      He basically dismisses the established authority of the official organized religion he was raised in and acts dismissive toward tradtional Jewish law and custom. He refuses his familial duty, even to the point of denying his own mother. He told another guy, in reference to his unburied father’s corpse, to let the dead bury themselves — a complete defiance of Jewish patriarchy and social norms. To make matters worse, he criticizes the wealthy every chance he gets and tells people to give their wealth away.

      The old Catholic iconography of the bleeding heart on the crucifix is the ultimate symbol of this embracing of effeminate weakness. It combines that imagery with that of flames and a crown of thorns. The flames emphasize the self-destructive intensity of pain, suffering, and death in picking up the cross of Christ by following his “bleeding heart” example. And the crown of thorns is a specific reference to those who sought to mock him as impotent, to mock his teaching of love. His only response is not to call down fire and damnation on his tormentors but to pray for them because “they know not what they do.”

      Besides all that, the Cathlic religion itself, partcularly in the Protestant imagination, has always been associated with the Vatican as a political force. Catholics were often feared as agents of the Pope, in the way that left-wingers in the Cold War were accused of being agents of Stalin, or else ther fellow travelers and co-conspirators. Indeed, Catholics have a long tradition of political activism, sometimes radical social justice as seen in liberation theology that has challenged economic oppression and brutal authoritarianism.

      American Catholics in earlier times were disproportoinately poor working class, the victims of class prejudice, and the targets of ethnocentric bigotry. As the Catholic practice of focusing on the poor and needy has often brought Catholics in line with taking sides with the proletariat in the class war of American capitalism. In the early 20th century, one of the starkest social, political, and economic divides was between ethnic immigrant Catholics (from Ireland, southern Europe, and eastern Europe) and native-born WASPs. And that era was politically tumultuous with populist demands, democratic reform, labor revolts, race wars, etc.

      In that context, to have called an indivdual a “bleeding heart” or an entire group of people “bleeding hearts” had very specific meanings, if more implied than stated. It’s hard to imagine that there couldn’t have been a component of dog whistle rhetoric. It makes me wonder what other kinds of old dog whistle terms have been used, maybe still around but no longer recognizable to us because we have lost the historical context that gave them relevance as dog whistles. But for the “bleeding hearts” slur, it doesn’t take much excavation to grasp at least some surface level of why it might’ve seemed potent at the time.

    • I should add a slight clarification. The “bleeding heart” was never only about Jesus — effeminate, sentimental, and weak. The Catholic traditiion has, in general, emphasized the feminine far more than Protestantism. Mother Mary worship is central and was built on the once widespread Isis worship in the Roman Empire. Many Black Madonnas in Europe originally were Isis statues repurposed for the Catholic faith.

      In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Order of the Bleeding Heart was named for the Virgin Mary whose heart was pierced with many sorrows. Pictures of Jesus’s mother, as the caring Mother of humanity, are sometimes shown with swords piercing her heart. That is another “bleeding heart” icon that expresses unconditional love — sacrificial, suffering, and sorrowful — but does so as maternal love. As opposed to the distant and unseen divine, Mother Mary was the human face and embodiment of what brings the divine into the world, quite literally by giving birth to God as man.

      It goes without saying how Jesus was closely associated with his mother, as she was a powerful carrier of the ancient Virgin Mother motif shared with so many other salvific godmen. In the case of Isis, another Virigin Mother involving resurrection and rebirth, she is the first known example of a universalistic deity meeting humans on their level to offer an eglitarian love, rather than from up high. She was a creator in her own right, living in and caring for the world she created, having formed the cosmos “through what her heart conceived and her hands created.” By the way, Isis was commonly referred to as Meri, the beloved.

      Re: Meri, Mary and the Mother of the Saviour

      There was a reason that Isis-Meri worship became the basis of Mary Worship. During early Christianity, Isis worship was the most widespread religion in the Roman Empire. She was particularly popular among the common people, as she represented the divine that directly and personally related to people, a new sense of the divine that resulted from the Axial Age. The Roman government initially tried to outlaw Isis worship, but it was too popular. There once was an Isis temple as far away from Rome as what would become London. Even Christians couldn’t defeat it and so incorporated it instead.

      I decided to do some web searches on the “bleeding heart” as political rhetoric and its origins. It turns out that not much comes up. Or else Google is not givng me the results was lookng for. But I suspect it simply hasn’t been given much focus. That general lack of interest itself is interesting, considering how widely it became used for so long. Here are a few examples I was able to find, although most of them are casual and personal writings on the topic.


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