Empathy

Decades ago Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy kicked off a cold civil war; Ronald Reagan kept it going with his apocryphal story of a Welfare Queen, George HW Bush had Willie Horton, and George W Bush had the duplicitous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. In the 1990’s Newt Gingrich weaponized “traditional values” in congressional elections and the culture wars, begun thirty years earlier (by Goldwater acolyte Phyllis Schlafly) were fully joined.

Trump isn’t the disease. He’s a symptom. He is the apotheosis of a cynical process begun by Schlafly and Roger Ailes, continuing in a straight line through Gingrich and Palin and on to Jim Jordan, whose feverish House speechifying would be hilariously funny were it not so scary: if he believes even half of what he says he is simply incapable of coherent thought and critical analysis; if he doesn’t then he is a proven liar.

So if Trump and all these others are symptoms, what is the disease? Why is our congress deadlocked, our legislative pipeline gridlocked? Why is our political discourse coarse? If politics is supposed to be the art of the possible, why is even the smallest compromise seemingly impossible? It comes down to one single word: empathy. There has long been an empathy gap in American politics: Republicans have none, Democrats a surfeit. (This might be a good time to point out the misleading way many polls are reported: breaking results down by political affiliation might seem useful but it has the effect of elevating the Republican Party to a status it does not enjoy. Independents and Democrats each outnumber registered Republicans.)

Politics is the art of the possible: compromise. But compromise is impossible in an environment where one party routinely engages in the most toxic rhetorical excess, demonizing policy differences and branding them as an Enemy who is seeking no less than the destruction of the nation. Compromise requires empathy, and a willingness to view the world — just for an instant —through someone else’s eyes. Before you judge a man, it is said, you should walk a mile in his moccasins.

The signal event in the transformation — or disintegration — of the Republican Party was the rise of Newt Gingrich to Speaker in 1995. What began as an election device to demonize the Other became, in Gingrich’s hands, a weapon of legislative havoc, a wrecking ball aimed not just at New Deal and Great Society programs but at the people who would preserve them and their legacy. Empathy is rhetorically conflated with sympathy, and both are denigrated as signs of weakness. That demonization is, ironically, itself a sign of weakness, the kind of professed certainty and absolutism that betrays fanaticism. (“The fanatic,” wrote John LeCarré, “is always concealing a secret doubt.”)

The transformation of the GOP into the POT is complete: there are no scruples (only “winning” is important), there is no objective truth (only “alternative facts” are allowed), and there is no actual leadership (only a bloviating void determined to airbrush failure after failure). Perhaps, in a few years, a new center-right party will emerge to honestly debate the things that must be debated. Everybody wants to win; but winning doesn’t mean somebody has to lose. Compromise used to be possible; it will be possible again when empathy is properly embraced as a political tool and a sign of strength.

2 thoughts on “Empathy”

  1. Interesting association to this piece: in psychology, there are those that argue that empathy cannot be neither taught nor learned. I am on the other side of this argument, although I have observed that “learning” empathy is not an efficient process, especially after childhood, and those who acquire it through instruction (rather than the more “natural” way) never seem to have the automatic tugs to feel for one another as did Dorothy’s tin man. So what must we do to build and bolster empathy? And where do we begin? Modeling empathy, even for those of the species that learn easily and swiftly through observation, is just too slow. And yet it is what we have.

    1. Ahh, thank you for this. It helps explain (to me) something that has puzzled me for decades: why does this gap exist at all. Are people drawn to the GOP by their own lack of empathy, or are the harsh policy prescriptions the result of the collective void? As you suggest, it’s a bit of both, each reinforcing the other. The genetic reckoning is dismal to contemplate, as empathy is little by little and year by year purged from the Republican DNA.

      This is “nature” versus “nurture” all over again, isn’t it? In Shakespeare it is the natural child — the bastard — who lacks empathy: Edmund (King Lear), Don John (Much Ado), Caliban (The Tempest). Will knew a lot about what we call human nature, and about humanity (in both senses of the word).

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