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.