Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Empathy and Politics: See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me

I've been thinking a lot about empathy lately.

The subtext of this campaign seems - to me - to be about empathy, in two ways.

1. Empathy and Likability.

Yes, empathy is often considered a girly emotion (in a dismissive way), but I'm going to posit that what pollsters are testing when they talk about "likability" is actually largely a measure of a candidate's actual or perceived ability to empathize with other people.

Take Bubba.

Classic, textbook empath.  He "feels your pain."  He could read a phone book and sound interesting because he would stop and tell you stories about the people and businesses as he read their names and addresses.   

Scandals that would fell other politicians barely leave a dent on Bubba.  People get mad at him for his policies or actions, he says stupid things on occasion, but in the end he pulls out a speech or an interview and most people remember why they like him.  He understands people.  He understands how to explain complex policies to people, he understands what people are thinking.  He's empathic. 

(Grammatical note: I'm using "empathic" differently than "empathetic," because of the extra meaning of empathic to describe a person who "is very in tune with the feelings of others," rather than "of or related to empathy" - for which I'll use "empathetic.")

And that quality leads to large likability numbers, which rebound after an appropriate time whenever he faces criticism.

Or take W.

How do you think W became president?  "Compassionate Conservatism."  Yes, the Supreme Court helped.  But people liked W.  They wanted to have a beer with him.  And like Bubba, he has an ability to read people and to appeal to people that surpasses his policy choices (which many voters did not like).

And in a time when many voters were really angry at W, he won reelection - not coincidentally against a guy who seemed to have ZERO empathic qualities.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are actually similar in this regard - both capable of empathy, but both sometimes decidedly not.

They both can come off as snobby or cold - see e.g. "I'm not sitting here – some little woman standing by my man." (Hillary), and "it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." (Obama).  They don't seem to always understand what people are thinking, how people view them.  They sometimes seem not to care.  But both Obama and Hillary are also capable of impressive, popular expressions of empathy and communication that bring them back into popularity.  For Obama, it's often his gift for oratory and the unifying themes he uses when talking about America and Americans.  For Hillary, people like when she is working hard for others - as she has as Secretary of State - particularly when they believe she has been humble (maybe humbled, if you view people uncharitably): Hillary working hard for New Yorker votes and doing a listening tour through the state, Hillary crying in New Hampshire, Hillary taking the Secretary of State job from the President who defeated her and just rolling up her sleeves.

Luckily for President Obama, in Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan we have two guys who come off as the opposite of empathic.

This is partially because of their policies (which we'll get to in a minute), but also just because of their personal speaking and interaction styles.  Both men seem uncomfortable with others.  Romney seems to have NO idea how some things he says come off as seriously snobby and patrician.  Ryan comes off as arrogant and dismissive of ideas and people with which/whom he does not agree.  Ryan made a joke while an older man was removed from his town hall by the police for loudly disagreeing with Ryan's policy choices.  Romney/Ryan, in fact, bear more than a passing resemblance to the Kerry/Edwards ticket - personality-wise.

And that brings us to the second way that empathy is heavily immersed in our current political conversation...

2. Empathy and Policy.  The underlying thread of the policy conversation we are having on where we spend our money - and whether we should spend "our" money on social programs and common goals - is founded in a question of empathy.

The dog-whistling and welfare ads are trying to separate voters, emotionally, from each other.  They are designed to make people think that common goals are bad, because they are in some way a swindle by bad/exploitative people, rather than a way we can make our society better and build a better community.

That's why the Nuns on a Bus matter.

The nuns are talking about how our policy should reflect our values, how we should be our brothers' and sisters' keepers.  How we are one large community and our policy should be about serving the needs of our large community.  How we can use government to help people, alleviate suffering, and build ladders to help people climb out of poverty, joblessness, and ignorance.

We've done this before.  We do it now.  We have social security because before social security many of our elderly were poor and we Americans thought we could do better for them.  We have Medicare because the onerous, expensive task of finding and keeping health insurance when you no longer work and have more health needs, was something we Americans didn't want for our parents and grandparents.  We have Pell grants and federally-subsidized student loans because we believe in all of our American kids, and want them to get the best education - the best foundation - that we can give them.  We had the G.I. Bill and we have the new G.I. Bill because we Americans believe that people who fight for our country should have a hand in succeeding when they come back.

That only works, however, if Americans see our country as one community.  If Americans empathize with each other.  And racism, classism, religious and ethnic bigotry - these are things that can undercut empathy, by severing the ties we have to one another.  That's why the Party that wants to "Starve the Beast" is using every means it can to divide people into groups.

Maybe empathy is not innate.  Maybe it needs to be fostered and nurtured by parents, family, friends, and communities.  But empathy is the thing that allows societies to grow and flourish.  It is the thing that allows us to truly communicate with each other and help one another.  And there is a reason why people like and want to vote for politicians who are empathic, and for policies that are empathetic.  


  1. I think Hillary comes across as being quite cold and stiff, sometimes even fake, and being married to Bill Clinton did her no favors with contrast. However, I think she is learning to have that persona work a little better for her, like getting on board with that "Texts from Hillary" meme that was floating around lately. Sometimes cold and stiff can translate quite nicely into badass, in a way that empathic never could.

    I think that Obama is also cold, though not nearly as stiff as Hillary. It doesn't hurt him quite as much, because it is considered ok for a guy to be cold. I think even his stiffness was a benefit to him as a black candidate. I think it helped white voters distinguish him from "other" black candidates, traditionally thought of as looser.

    Romney has the Hillary problem of being both cold and stiff X10. That awkward "who Let the Dog Out" video, where he is trying to relate to black people. When he is laughing, or making a joke, you can practically see the gears whirring in his brain, wondering exactly how long he should be laughing, or pretending to be amused. He comes across as fake, and very insincere.

  2. I can see what you're talking about about Obama. With Hillary I think she's generally damned no matter what she does by some large portion of people, but she's maybe more comfortable with that now.

    Well, and with Romney the flip-flopping makes it worse. He just doesn't seem like he really believes anything. I honestly, truly cannot figure out what matters to him - other than being president, which seems to matter deeply. This morning's kerfuffle is just an extension of that. People are dead, because a whole bunch of people fanned flames of bigotry on various sides, and Romney quickly, inaccurately goes after Obama, for trying to calm the situation down.

  3. It's interesting that you think Hillary comes off as cold and stiff, Mandi, because I was recently thinking that in the years since Clinton's administration, she has loosened up a bit and settled into herself -- no longer having to force herself into the dutiful, uncontroversial, pretty First Lady role, and no longer the betrayed wife. I like her more now than I used to.

    As for Romney, I wonder yet again how he managed to get the nomination given how lukewarm everyone, even the GOP leaders, are about him. I don't see anything about him that could be appealing to voters except that he is not-Obama. And the lack of warmth and easiness plays into that -- he is an empty vessel that party leaders and voters are pouring there hopes and ideals into.

  4. I do think she has loosened up somewhat beadgirl, but given how stiff, cold, and angry she seemed before, that really isn't saying much. She does seem considerably less angry though, but still stiff and cold. Try as I might, I can't picture her dancing with Ellen on tv, doing the dougie, challenging Fallon to pushups, or kicking back and having a beer without a huge frown on her face. But I can picture Bill doing all those things, and Dubya at least attempting them. She just doesn't have that fun streak in her, at least not on the surface where she can project it.

  5. It all comes back to Hillary. I think Hillary is a brilliant, strong woman, but one who has been (reportedly) repeatedly, publicly cuckolded. She has also been subjected to constant, denigrating, personal attacks on her looks, character - hell there's a subculture built around calling her a murderer (of one of her best friends). There's nobody I can think of, except maybe Madonna, who has come under such intense, long-term, personal scrutiny. So yeah, she's stiff and guarded. Wouldn't you be? Yes, Michelle Obama has had awful crap thrown at her, and been incredible in her buoyancy and strength - but for nowhere near as long, and as far as I know her man hasn't strayed. I don't fault Hillary for being "cold" sometimes. I am very happy, however, when she gets to let loose a bit (like when she was dancing in South Africa).

  6. I hate it when Arthur Miller is right, but Willie Loman was onto something.

  7. I guess politics is about selling something :-)