The term “bleeding hearts” refers to people who care deeply — so deeply that their hearts bleed — about the suffering of the needy. The term is almost always derogatory. It’s usually applied to those on the left, hence the phrase “bleeding heart liberal.”
“Bleeding hearts” has a long history in literature. Merriam Webster points out that the phrase dates back at least as far as Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer’s 14th century poem Troilus and Criseyde describes the experience of unrequited love as having a bleeding heart. “Bleeding heart” can also have religious connotations; in Christian religious writing, there are many references to Jesus’s feelings for the poor and the downtrodden.
Today, a “bleeding heart” is someone who empathizes very strongly with the oppressed and the poor. A bleeding heart liberal is someone who wants social programs and government safety nets to care for the poor. Bleeding hearts are criticized by their enemies for being naïve at best, or hypocritical at worst; the term is often used as an insult. The natural opposite of a bleeding heart liberal is a “heartless conservative.”
A newspaper columnist named Westbrook Pegler first used “bleeding heart” in a political sense in the 1930s. Pegler was a frequent critic of Franklin Roosevelt’s programs. He believed that they were using a humanitarian façade to win votes and rouse people’s emotions. In 1938, Pegler denounced an anti-lynching bill which, he thought, didn’t address the nation’s real problems:
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 in a fight to ham through a law intended, at the most optimistic figure, to save fourteen lives a year.
American liberalism probably reached its peak expression during the administration of Lyndon Johnson, whose “Great Society” programs aimed to roll back poverty and expand educational opportunities for Americans from all walks of life.
By the late 1960s, though, some former bleeding hearts were experiencing a change of sentiment. As the Brookings Institute has noted, that’s when some “maverick liberals in government and academia” started to question their own long-held assumptions. They wondered why the kinds of liberal programs they’d pushed for hadn’t, in fact, made a major difference in society; they questioned whether social policy was, in fact, beginning to have unintended and negative consequences. These doubters became known as neo-conservatives.
Not every bleeding heart is a liberal, of course. Jack Kemp, a Republican politician and a self-described “bleeding heart conservative.” Kemp talked often about his sympathies for the poor and for minorities; he believed that his particular brand of conservative economic policies would improve their lives. He famously helped to architect the Reagan administration’s sweeping tax cuts, which he argued would benefit the poor just as much as the wealthy. Kemp later tried to reform the nation’s public housing system by giving residents the chance to become owners of their own apartments.