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.

The Spinning Plates: A Fable

There once was a man who lied incessantly but who suffered no consequence for it: a modern-day Pinocchio whose nose did not grow when he lied, nor did any other calamity befall him. He simply lied, day in and day out, and if anybody called him a liar he flew into a rage and threatened to sue for defamation.

“But sir,” said one courtier (for although he was just a small appliance salesman he fancied himself a king), “But sir, truth is an absolute defense.” But the man, not being terribly clever, did not understand and so became even angrier, and he glared at the poor fellow until he — poor soul — could take it no more and slumped where he stood while his employer stomped back to his make-believe throne.

The man’s lies had made him very rich, though not as rich as he always said he was; and his lies and his make-believe wealth had made him very famous, too. But this did not satisfy him, and so he looked for ways to increase his fame. The more famous he became, the less satisfied he was, and the more he lied. It was not enough for him to be on television with a large audience. He began to demand from his producers larger blocks of time, and more money to pay him for the valuable time he spent on television. And to extract even more payment he would lie about the size of his audience, because he thought the producers were fools who did not know how to read a Nielsen report or analyze a photograph.

Now, there came a time when something strange happened to King Wannabe — that was not his name, and he was not a king, but we have to call him something. It isn’t clear how it happened, or why, but one day he told a lie that was simply too much for the Universe to contain. No sooner had the lie left his mouth than *P O P* there was a spinning plate above his head. King Wannabe had a stick in his hand and had no choice but to keep twirling the stick so the plate would not come crashing down on his head. 

“What is that, sir?” asked a courtier, for he had never seen King Wannabe do much of anything except sulk and watch television. Certainly nothing that required any energy, or eye-hand coordination.

“What is what? Oh, this? This is for you to hold for me.” And with that he freed himself of the offensive object. Except that no sooner had the words left his lips than *P O P* another plate appeared above his head. “Oh, yes,” said King Wannabe. “I remember now. I ordered plates for everyone.” *P O P* *P O P* *P O P* *P O P* and the plates appeared in his small hand almost sooner than he could hand them off.

It happened at about this same time that King Wannabe found himself, for the first time, employed by someone else. He had never before worked for anyone except his father, or himself. But suddenly — because he had lied about his own competence — he found himself at the head of a Very Large Corporation with more employees and departments and products and just moving corporate parts than King Wannabe had ever known existed.

“That’s all right,” he said. “It can’t be that difficult. I’m so much smarter and better than everyone else.” Well, you can guess what happened. His hands were full again, and he had to yell for his lieutenants to come and hold these damned plates and you’d better not let a single one drop. For it turned out that the Very Large Corporation was itself in the plate-spinning business and it took a lot of expertise to keep them all in the air at once. In the entire history of its plate-spinning the Very Large Corporation had always kept the plates in the air, and had always had very talented plate-spinners. Plate-spinning was an honorable profession, and those who worked for the Very Large Corporation were held in high esteem. Men and women of great talent, in many fields of expertise, came and went at the highest management levels and their efforts helped the Very Large Corporation grow to be envied and even feared in some parts of the world.

But King Wannabe knew that he did not need the talents of talented people to spin his plates for him. He could do what he had always done — he could hand them to his underlings. After all, everyone who worked for the Very Large Corporation worked for him, and there were many thousands of them. Even if he lied all day every day for several years, generating plate after plate after plate, he would never run out of underlings who would keep his plates spinning. This soon became a problem when people who had worked in various departments — making plates, testing plates, glazing plates, cleaning plates, and, yes, spinning plates — began to leave, because King Wannabe was creating left-handed plates with all of his lies, and the Very Large Corporation dealt only in the finest right-handed plates.

“It’s no problem!” he said, and of course as he did another plate popped into existence. “We don’t need those people. We can hire them back whenever we need them. Everyone wants to work here.” Pop! POP! POP! King Wannabe was running out of underlings to hand his plates to, and he was running out of hands and energy to keep them spinning. Somehow, though, he did. Nobody was sure how and they were drawn to the hours upon hours he spent on television, doing nothing but lying plates into existence and keeping them all spinning above his head.

People are drawn to disaster scenes like a train wreck or a car crash. It isn’t that they want harm to befall anyone; it is simply a morbid human compulsion. More than that there is a certain fascination in experiencing the slowing of time, everything — life itself — suddenly in slow motion in the moments before the inevitable calamity.

And so it was with King Wannabe. Everyone watched. Everyone held their breath. There was nothing else they could do, and they did not understand how this small man had kept so many left-handed plates spinning, for so long, without any of them falling on his head.

Until, one day, they did. But there were so many plates by this time that the crash buried not only King Wannabe but his remaining underlings — few, and not nearly as competent as the right-handed plate-spinners they had replaced. The force of the crash brought other plates, right-handed plates being kept aloft by the remaining professionals, crashing down as well. In just a few seconds the Very Large Corporation was no more, buried under the broken crockery of an unpleasant and needy man too small and incompetent to hold a real job, who had somehow lied his way into this one.

Our House, Divided

Abraham Lincoln, before he ran for President, famously said, “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.” America was the house, and slavery — the debate over slavery, the passions over America’s original sin — divided that house and threatened to collapse it. Today we are again a house divided, but the root of that division is not quite so clear. Or is it?

We have today in the White House a man who revels in division, who sows it deliberately. It is the old Roman strategy of divide and conquer, in new clothing: those who might oppose this regime are not weakened by geographical divisions but by a kind of mental and physical exhaustion. It is exhausting to hear, read, watch, the outrages that pour from a man who occupies Lincoln’s office, sleeps in his bed, bears the standard of Lincoln’s party; a man who has never before held public office, who defiles his oath, from whom lies pour more easily than truth, who has shown by every act and every utterance his unfitness for public life in the lowest possible capacity, let alone President of the United States.

That he has corrupted his office is well beyond doubt. The senators who voted to acquit, who quickly decided against hearing from witnesses and thoroughly examining the evidence, have openly admitted as much. They want you to believe that repetition of the words “no harm” and “perfect call” will convince you, but you won’t be gaslighted — you are smarter than that.

Politics is supposed to be the art of the possible: that means, compromise. The hyperpartisan era — ushered in by Newt Gingrich — has made that all but impossible. “Compromise” has become a dirty word, and “political” a subtle derogatory for “partisan.” You know that neither is really true: you are smarter than that.

Senator Murkowski, explaining her vote to hear no witnesses in the impeachment trial, said it was due to the “partisan nature” of the entire case. She and her party would have you believe that because they refused to participate in any meaningful way, the case was partisan. You are smarter than that.

Senator Alexander would have us believe that demanding foreign interference in our elections, though “improper,” is not an impeachable offense. The correct remedy, he says, for a president who would corrupt an election is — to vote him out. That would be news to our founding fathers, as it is to you. You are smarter than that.

And Senator Collins?  What to make of her assurance that, “I think the president has learned his lesson.”  Really?  Is she that credulous?  You aren’t.  You are smarter than that.

The Republican party would have you believe that a process is fatally flawed and hopelessly partisan because they have chosen non-participation. You know better: you see through their excuses, you know that by withdrawing they can label any process or legislation as “partisan.” Their vision of “bipartisanship” and “compromise” is strained at best: legislation, in their view, is only bipartisan if Democrats cross over to support it.

Laws aren’t supposed to be Republican or Democratic, depending on the party in power. The values that made America great aren’t the exclusive property of Lincoln or Jefferson. They did not spring, spontaneously and fully-formed, from Madison’s pen. Our constitition has endured precisely because it was forged in compromise: hammer on one side, anvil on the other. Some truths — these truths — are self-evident, and yet the president and his co-conspirators would tell you that black is white, up is down, wrong is right; and through ceaseless repetition they would exhaust you until you relent. You know better; you are smarter than that.

A house divided against itself, Lincoln told us, cannot stand. Today we seem to be more divided than ever, certainly more than we have been since Lincoln’s time. The great social divider of a half-century ago, the war in Vietnam, did not prevent the Congress and our national government from achieving great milestones. The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Clean Air Act: we have seen few similar legislative accomplishments since. These were all products of compromise, of Democrats and Republicans working together to achieve a common purpose. The Affordable Care Act is the accomplishment of this generation, and it has been labeled “partisan” because Republicans saw political advantage in refusing to participate. Think about that for just a moment: men and women sent to Congress by their constituents for the purpose of legislating in the national interest, sought political advantage in refusing to participate in the legislative process. Don’t fall for their ruse. You are smarter than that.

We are now in a worldwide public health crisis like none seen in two generations: It has been a century since the last great pandemic, and the president of the United States has, by his inaction, made it worse. His go-to mode is denial, followed by deflection. Not long ago he insisted this was something that “nobody could have predicted.” The next day he continues to say he is smarter and more prescient than anyone else: “I thought it would be a pandemic long before anyone said the word ‘pandemic’.”  And this week, “it could have been stopped, should have been stopped a long time ago but somebody decided not to do anything about it.”  Well, yes.  He casts blame outward, the buck stopping everywhere except his desk or even his White House.

You are smarter than that. You know that both statements cannot be true: either it was unpredictable, or he predicted it. If he
predicted it, why are we only now learning of this? Why were we caught flatfooted and unprepared?  Either earlier action could have stopped it, or it could not.  The story changes with dizzying speed, the lies and nonsense spewing faster and faster while he tries not to reap the fruits of his own incompetence.

You are smarter than that.

Our government has been hollowed out, from Justice to State, from Energy to Interior, from the EPA to the CIA. Professionals — career men and women whose choice was to serve the American people regardless of the president’s party or the congressional majority, have departed in droves. In their place are hacks who want only to serve the president — this specific president — not the people, not the country. It is Amateur Hour aboard the ship of state.

A house divided against itself cannot stand.  We must stand together — apart, for now, united in our agreement to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.  We must also stand together, shoulder to shoulder, to arrest and reverse the continuing decline of our institutions, the guarantors of our freedom and of our democracy.  We are smarter than that.

Party Differences

No matter what anybody says about the two parties being “no different”: they are.  The GOP doesn’t care how deep in the mud they have to get to win.  Race-baiting ads and dog-whistle code words have been standard practice since David Gergen and Roger Ailes kicked off Nixon’s Southern Strategy.  Reagan had his Welfare Queen and Strapping Young Buck, GHW Bush had Willie Horton. The list goes on and on.  (McCain and Romney were arguably more principled — and lost.  The lesson for the GOP wasn’t, “Improve your product.”  It was, “Whatever it takes.”)

The difference between the parties comes down to two things, I believe:

  • Democrats want to win on the merits; Republicans want to win.
  • Democrats want to govern; Republicans want to rule.

The second point shows why the first is so important.  We ignore the difference between “govern” and “rule” at our peril.

Calvin Coolidge and The Business of Government

“The business of government is business.” Coolidge didn’t say that, exactly: what he said was, “The business of the American people is business.” In today’s Republican Party (indeed, the Republican Party of the last half-century at least) that is a distinction without a difference. We have, in this country — in the world — an awful lot of people who have taken much too literally the adage that “the government that governs least, governs best.” The GOP has, since that day in 1986 when Ronald Reagan — President of the United States, leader of the free world, and his own government’s Chief Executive Officer — declared war on the idea that government had anything useful to offer. “The nine most terrifying words in the English language,” he declared to a cheering crowd, “are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help!’” It was a great applause line, and it certainly caught on. But it begs the question which too few thought to ask at the time: If you don’t believe in government, why are you in it? And, mightn’t the energy and effort required to dismantle government be better spent improving it?

I have always understood Coolidge’s line — even, or maybe especially in its misquoted form — to mean that government, to be successful, must create and preserve the conditions that allow and enable its citizens (and their businesses) to thrive. Government’s role is to build out and maintain essential infrastructure: good roads, clean water, adequate sewerage, excellent schools. This infrastructure must be available to all regardless of station or stature. Established firms will rely on it; entrepreneurs will leverage it.

And when there is a disaster — a 100-year storm, say — government has to step in to provide emergency assistance to those suddenly in need: a roof, a meal, a helping hand with cleanup and rebuilding. Floods, being local matters, are generally left to the state governments; the federal government, with its wider reach and greater resources, provides a backstop whenever necessary.

Well, now it is necessary: we have a global pandemic that in three months has infected over 1 million Americans and killed over 56,000; to say nothing of the millions of other people around the world. And where is the federal government, whose coordinating role is essential to preventing the spread, mitigating the damage, and developing a vaccine? “I take no responsibility at all,” says Donald Trump. And, “It is up to the governors to decide when to reopen their states.” Reopen?? We’ve barely begun to understand how this new virus spreads let alone its mechanisms for ravaging the body; a speedy return to business as usual almost certainly will mean a second wave of infections and another tsunami of job losses and economic devastation. The “cure” of reopening will surely be worse than the disease of stay-at-home orders, quarantine, and social distancing.

Instead of a single, coordinated, and effective response to this crisis we have fifty separate jurisdictions each managing its own response; they have given up pleading with the federal government for leadership or even a single supply chain for essential medical equipment like protective gear and ventilators.  A crisis response regime under which the states must compete against each other in a world market for scarce resources while FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — sits back or, worse, seizes shipments arriving in New York for domestic redistribution by well-connected private companies? That’s not a system of government by and for the people, it’s kleptocracy and just one small step away from anarchy. That’s profiteering, aided and abetted by the feds.

“When you drown the government in a bathtub, people die.” That arresting headline in The Washington Post’s opinion pages got my attention a couple of weeks ago, because it is so very true. Sure, small government is great, and the government that governs least, governs best. Until there is a crisis. Until you actually need a government to step in and do what only governments can do. When that government is filled with apparatchiks and cronies, with people whose only purpose in being in government is to shrink it further, with men and women without relevant experience but who will pledge undying loyalty to the cult leader, the enormous and deadly consequences should surprise exactly nobody.

There is plenty more that big government can and should do; I hope to explore that soon. It seems I’ll have plenty of time because the governor of my state — unlike the governors of at least a few other states, and unlike the president — is proceeding with very sensible caution. He knows what he doesn’t know, and when he needs to rely on expert advice from epidemiologists and crisis managers who have spent years training themselves for this. (The day-to-day manager of the HHS coronavirus task force has also spent years training — labradoodles.)

Government exists to improve the lives of all people, not just a few. Because the business of government isn’t business: it’s governing. At the end of the day, competence and relevant experience matter.