Empathy in Politics

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how bad things have gotten in politics. When I started this blogging thing back in 2004, blogging about politics was a lot of fun. It wasn’t just that “my guy” was in the White House, if Bush was ever “my guy”. It was that the internet had opened up a million voices. It could allow someone like Lee to rise to some degree of prominence by making smart, focused and often hilarious arguments in favor of his beliefs.

Over time, however, a lot of that has curdled. Not just on the internet but everywhere. The most powerful voices are, often as not, those that demonize the opposition. Arguments tend to be less about facts than name-calling. Liberals are dysfunctional snowflakes who are, nevertheless, turning America into Nazi Germany. Conservatives are mindless thugs who are also turning America into Nazi Germany. It’s a big reason why I blog less and have been engaging less on Twitter. And it’s odd (or maybe not so odd) that the tone has gotten so bad considering that the policy differences between our two major parties are smaller than they were when I was coming of age in the 70’s and 80’s.

I’m used to a bit of crazy in politics, especially from the side out of power. Megan McArdle long ago coined Jane’s Law: “The devotees of the party in power are smug and arrogant. The devotees of the party out of power are insane.” But what’s distressing is that we’re now seeing insanity from the devotees of the party that is in power. We saw some of this with Obama but it’s been ratcheted up to 11 with Trump. Charles Skye has a great piece on conservatism and how it has lost its way:

If there was one principle that used to unite conservatives, it was respect for the rule of law. Not long ago, conservatives would have been horrified at wholesale violations of the norms and traditions of our political system, and would have been appalled by a president who showed overt contempt for the separation of powers.

But this week, as if on cue, most of the conservative media fell into line, celebrating President Trump’s abrupt dismissal of the F.B.I. director, James Comey, and dismissing the fact that Mr. Comey was leading an investigation into the Trump campaign and its ties to Russia.

While there are those like Sean Hannity who are reliable cheerleaders for all things President Trump, much of the conservative news media is now less pro-Trump than it is anti-anti-Trump. The distinction is important, because anti-anti-Trumpism has become the new safe space for the right.

Here is how it works: Rather than defend President Trump’s specific actions, his conservative champions change the subject to (1) the biased “fake news” media, (2) over-the-top liberals, (3) hypocrites on the left, (4) anyone else victimizing Mr. Trump or his supporters and (5) whataboutism, as in “What about Obama?” “What about Clinton?”

For the anti-anti-Trump pundit, whatever the allegation against Mr. Trump, whatever his blunders or foibles, the other side is always worse.

But the real heart of anti-anti-Trumpism is the delight in the frustration and anger of his opponents. Mr. Trump’s base is unlikely to hold him either to promises or tangible achievements, because conservative politics is now less about ideas or accomplishments than it is about making the right enemies cry out in anguish.

That’s the conservative side. But I would argue that the liberal side has gotten just as bad if not worse. The entirety of the Left Wing media has lost its damned mind. I’ve backed off of all the late-night TV shows except Oliver (on occasion) because the tone has gotten so bitter and angry. We are constantly deluged with outrages Trump has committed. And while some of those are indeed outrageous, others are stuff Obama did (executive orders), stuff every President does (Loyalty Day) or stuff that did not, in fact, actually happen (the MLK bust removal). Despite no evidence that Trump colluded with the Russians and little evidence that anyone in his campaign did, it’s routine to see him denounced as a traitor and to hear Republicans denounced as complicit because they haven’t impeached him yet. And it culminated last week with a Democrat — one who loved Maddow and Maher and belonged to Facebook groups calling for revolution — taking shots at a bunch of Republicans.

Look at the comments section of any liberal blog or even a New York Times article on bad rhetoric. Republicans are routinely denounced as, in one of the top-rated comments, “ignorant, mean-spirited, inhumane, racist, misogynist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, culturally backward and/or downright stupid.” And if you have the temerity to point this out, you are blasted for “false equivalence”. We’re told MSNBC isn’t as bad as Fox News or that Colbert isn’t as bad a Limbaugh. Maybe. But which side rioted in the streets after an election? Which side has Antifa thugs punching people, looting stores and shouting down speakers? Which side is turning places like Evergreen College into Mickey Maoist clubs?

None of these points are new. The press, the media and the pundits have been talking about the extreme partisanship for some time. But I think they have tended to misjudge the problem. Most of the time, they simply decry “partisanship” or “rhetoric”. But … we’ve always had that. And frankly, it doesn’t bother me that much. I want people to be passionate for and motivated by the things they believe in. If you think abortion is a modern-day holocaust, I don’t think you should feel any compunction about saying so. And if you think abortion restrictions make women slaves to their wombs, don’t hold back. I want people to speak powerfully for what they believe to be right. If you remember Lee, you’ll know he wasn’t one to pull punches at all. That’s what I liked about him.

In fact, partisanship can be a good thing. McArdle points out one of the blind spots in policy wonkage — people don’t look too hard for evidence that invalidates their pet theories. Partisanship, however, becomes a natural balance to this:

The idea of perfectly neutral arbiters looking for “just the facts, ma’am” is an illusion; we are all human, fallible, and more than occasionally blind. Ideological diversity within a group means that even if the individuals are blind in different spots, at least the collective has a decent panoramic view.

That base, irrational, often angry “I know that’s wrong!” feeling that people get when reading an op-ed by the other team is actually the start of something wonderful: the search for disconfirming evidence that can falsify bad theories (the other team’s, of course), and refine good ones (yours, of course). So that bit by bit, jab by jab, we get closer to the whole picture.

So I don’t mind partisanship. Debate and argument are not just “not bad”; they’re essential for the proper functioning of a democracy. Partisan opposition killed some of the worst parts of Obamacare. Partisanship brought us a balanced budget back in the 90’s. Often, when we’ve blundered, it’s because of a lack of opposition. “Partisanship” usually translates out of Punditese as “people disagreeing with me” and calls to end “partisanship” are often misguided calls for one side to just concede.

No, partisanship qua partisanship isn’t bad; what’s bad is the lack of empathy for the other side. The problem is that both sides have decided that the opposition is not just wrong, but evil. That every argument “they” make is a disingenuous front to conceal their real motives. So the pro-life side can’t honestly be concerned about what they see as the extinguishing of millions of lives; no, that’s just a front to conceal their hatred of women and desire to control their bodies. And the pro-choice side can’t honestly believe women should control their own bodies; they want a hedonistic society in which sex doesn’t have consequences. We’ve defined each side not by the millions of reasonable people but by the thousands of crazy assholes. We don’t just hate politicians; we hate everyone who supports them.

Look at our current healthcare debate. One side is telling us that the Republicans want to literally murder millions of people so that rich people can get tax cuts. The other side insists Obamacare is the step to fascist welfare state. Never can it can be considered that maybe Republicans honestly think handouts are a bad idea and maybe Democrats honestly think people shouldn’t be terrified of losing their insurance.

We can’t bring ourselves to think that gun controllers may not want to create a policy state or that second amendment advocates may care about gun violence but don’t see gun control as the answer.

We can’t admit that maybe thawing our relationship with Iran is a good thing. Or that maybe getting close to another terror state is bad thing. Or that maybe we should be less involved with NATO. Or maybe NATO is more important now than ever.

We can’t admit that a lot of this nation’s poverty is a result of people making bad life decisions. Or we can’t admit that it’s easier to make the right decisions (and recover from bad ones) if you’re not born into poverty in the first place.

This, of course, has been fed by a media and social media machine that insists on a constant cycle of outrage. They define the other “side” entirely by their worst imaginings. And every misstep — be it a comedian’s bad joke or a politician’s awkward quip — is recast into some peek into their inner awfulness.

But it’s a deeper even than that. It’s a cliche to say that our debates suffer from an unwillingness to listen to the other side and that we all live in “bubbles” of websites, blogs and news stations that agree with us. That’s true enough but those bubbles are not some law of nature; they are created on purpose. They are a result of our need to divide the world into “our” tribe of decent people and the “other” tribe of bad people. And in this, they reflect a deeper and more malignant ill that is afflicting our culture: an inability to empathize with anyone beyond our own social circle.

The great advice columnist Amy Alkon has written about this many times — that we have minds evolved for the stone age functioning in a modern world. We tend to see people close to us — usually limited to a couple of hundred people — as human and fallible. When they make mistakes or have misfortunes, we sympathize. When they make arguments we think are wrong, we engage them honestly. But we regard those outside of that small circle as alien and view them with suspicion. This is why we tend to be rude to strangers, why we scream at cars in traffic, why we get furious at people we don’t even know. It explains why we so readily form internet shame mobs: because we understand if your uncle makes a racist joke he’s just making a bad joke. But if someone we don’t know does it, they’re a vile person. If your sister leaves her children in the car for ten seconds, she’s just being practical. If a stranger does, they’re endangering their kid. And so we quickly revert to our primal need to stone foreign devils.

Returning to politics, the 2016 election was the eruption of this malignancy into the political sphere. The primary qualification of both candidates was their ability to enrage the other side. Democrats loved that Republicans hated Hillary Clinton. And Republicans loved that Democrats hated Trump. And now it has progressed to where what Democrats most love is hating Trump and what Republicans most love is Democrats hating Trump.

We need to get past this is we’re going to be a functional society. It’s not just a need to listen to the other side; it’s that we need to empathize: to see their politics from their point of view. You can still think they’re full of shit (and you’ll probably be right because almost everyone is full of shit about something). But we have to engage them on the arguments they are making not the arguments we wish they were making (typically because those arguments would cast them in a bad light or are easy to rebut). We have to remember that, if we’d been born in a different place or raised in a different environment, we’d probably have the same views. We have to imagine that their views are held by someone we deeply care about and respect. Because inevitably they are held by someone that someone loves and respects.

(I’m as bad at this as anyone. I try to be better, mostly because I have good friends and family members in both ideological camps. It bothers me to see them at each other’s throats, mainly because of scrounging carnival barkers persuading them that the other camp is filled with vile uncaring monsters. But it’s hard not to just write off whole masses of the body politic.)

There are people who don’t have any political principles, of course. Both the 2016 candidates come to mind. But we can’t let them define our country. As much as I despised Clinton, her supporters were fundamentally decent people. And as much as I despise Trump, his supporters are fundamentally decent people. Almost everyone is fundamentally decent, regardless of their politics. Yeah, there are the deplorables — on both sides. Antifa and the Alt-Right crowds come to mind. But they are a tiny, tiny fraction of this country and even their ranks are filled more with misguided idiots than evil zealots. We can’t let our politics be defined by such debris. And until we stop, until we stop defining political success entirely as “winning” one from that awful awful other side, our politics will continue to get not only more nasty but more dysfunctional.

Comments are closed.

  1. yabkpjo

    Definitely hit the nail on the head – what disgusts and terrifies me about our political climate today is not only peoples’ refusal to empathize with strangers of different political views, but also their eagerness to disassociate from friends/family in that ‘other’ camp.  I felt like my Facebook/Twitter feeds in late 2016 were filled with people bragging about purging their friends list of Trump supporters (usually coupled with some rant ascribing Trump’s worst qualities to all of his supporters).

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  2. stogy

    So I don’t mind partisanship. Debate and argument are not just “not bad”; they’re essential for the proper functioning of a democracy. Partisan opposition killed some of the worst parts of Obamacare. Partisanship brought us a balanced budget back in the 90’s. Often, when we’ve blundered, it’s because of a lack of opposition

    The argument you used here for partisanship is also a great argument for centrism, a philosophical position that I am returning to after a number of years. I don’t mean in the form that Alex assumed I was talking about the other day – as a political position on the left-right continuum, or a position on the libertarian-authoritarian continuum – but as a political process. It means that people with a range of views and different positions are necessary to generate good policy. And it’s the swing around the middle that is important.

    There are three problems for political centrism in the US. The first is the gerrymandering of elections, which makes it much more difficult for the centre to be found. The second is the increasing polarization of the media into left-right camps, where opposing views are set up just to be shot down – most pre-scripted (and yes, the late shows are as guilty of this as Fox). This means that people seldom get access to unfiltered political views that don’t match their own preconceived notions, as you said. The third is political donations and huge cost of elections (for both parties) that distort government decisions towards the big end of town.

    The result of all this, as you have pointed out, is when all of the shouting and partisanship drowns out the possibility of real discussion. And rather than engaging in reasonable reasoned debate, the Democrats are hysterical. The self-satisfied smugness and infantial rantings of some of the posts that appear on my facebook feed have driven me to write letters and e-mails expressing my frustration that they are doing such an incredibly shit job of opposing an administration that is the worst in living memory.

    But the partisanship from the Republican side is also driving me crazy. There were genuinely good things done in the Obama administration that are being  undone by the administration and the house simply because they were associated with Obama. Any policy position is OK provided it enrages the Dems. Shit is going down that attracted condemnation from the Republicans when Obama was in the house and now here they are doing exactly the same thing now that the worm has turned.

    I said a couple of months ago that I miss the Republican example of decency (even if it was more of a myth than a reality). There are any number of Republicans that I would have preferred to see in the White House than Trump, and some that I would have preferred to Hillary. Kasich would have been my number one choice – he embodies the principles of decency very well, even if I don’t agree with him on everything.

    I define myself as centre-left, with libertarian leanings. I want good schools and safe streets. I want market competition and innovation. I also see the need for public spending on infrastructure and providing basic services. I want market incentives as well as fair regulations to promote environmental protection. I want more evidence-based policy and better public engagement in the policy-making process. That’s why referring to me as a “collectivist” and  “marxist” (as some people do here) is really quite meaningless. I have read and studied Marx but I am not a marxist. His historical analysis of capitalism was interesting, but it bears no relationship to what I say or believe. Name calling someone a marxist/collectivist conflates everyone from the left to a single nonsensical position.

    But I also could be better at being better. I tend to react poorly to insults and often try to get in the first blow – particularly if I think it is funny to do so.

    If you remember Lee, you’ll know he wasn’t one to pull punches at all. That’s what I liked about him.

    I do remember debating Lee on the death penalty. I threw a whole bunch of facts at him about how it didn’t work to deter crime, how the legal process unfairly resulted in disproportionate verdicts against minorities, how some innocent people were also being executed, and other stuff. He came back at me with an argument that stopped me in my tracks – that he simply believed that some crimes deserved death –  as a moral position. I didn’t agree with him but from then on, I completely respected his position on it.

    I think it is a good idea to assume good-faith. I’ll try to be better.

     

     

     

     

     

     

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  3. Slothrop

    Coming out of my almost constant lurking since back in the Moorewatch days to say:  helluva post Hal.  Well done.

    Since Lee’s being brought up, I’ll contribute to the love-in.  I say this as a moderate leftist (by my standards, YMMV), when I found this site I immediately loved it.  Here was somewhere that opposed (for the most part) my views, and did so with humour and self-awareness, while also being willing to argue the points on their merits and taking absolutely no shit.

    It made me angry, it made me laugh, it made me think.

    OK, enough of that.  On to the meat (and props to Stogy, I agree with pretty much all of that post)

    My initial point was to mourn the fact that places like RTFTLC, or at least the RTFTLC I remember, are dying:  where you could argue with someone with almost diametrically opposing viewpoints and actually enjoy the debate, and take points away from it and refine your ideas.  The kinds of drunken bar arguments I loved, where we would yell and swear at each other and then hug at the end of the night.  They were few and far between to begin with (and RTFTLC was almost definitely more of a sounding board than I remember), but I’ll be damned if I can find them anywhere anymore.

    Second:

    This, of course, has been fed by a media and social media machine that insists on a constant cycle of outrage.

    This is a chicken or egg argument.  Most modern media is dying, fed by the ascendancy of more extreme internet media.  The most likely probability  is: media is becoming angrier because we want it to be.  Because it’s easier to have our base angers affirmed.  Because we’re simple creatures, and we want to be right, and we want to have a quick, simple enemy.  It’s easier, and ultimately more satisfying, to resort to tribalism than it is to question our own beliefs.  And that’s why we’re visiting those sites, because they comfort us, and in turn, those places generate more revenue.  We’re engineering our own madness.  My theory, but I’m sure it’s not unique.

    Almost done, Third:

    The idea of perfectly neutral arbiters looking for “just the facts, ma’am” is an illusion; we are all human, fallible, and more than occasionally blind. Ideological diversity within a group means that even if the individuals are blind in different spots, at least the collective has a decent panoramic view.

    McArdle’s view of partisanship, and your defense of it, are reasonable, but only because it assumes a centre (as McArdle presumably states by “the collective”).  It says “arguing at the fringes is great, it gives space for ideas that the rational people can evaluate on their merits”.  Remove the centre and it becomes madness.  Hell, remove one half of the “centre” and it becomes madness.  If either half, or both, are unable to agree on what reality, results, or cause and effect are, it just becomes a cacophony of accusations and insults.  And that’s what is being facilitated by the current news culture:  “You’re right, no matter what you believe, and I can prove it!”  See: Infowars.  (Fucking vaccines and fluoride?  Really?)

    TL;DR:  the media is facilitating extremism (which is in turn facilitated by the general populace eager to have its own ideas affirmed) which leads to an absence of centrists, and so we are now unable to evaluate the policies of either side because no one can agree on what reality is, because every result is filtered through our own partisanship.  Every positive is our side, every negative is their side, and everyone other than me is Hitler.

    Again, my theory.  And I am a dark and pessimistic person by nature.

    Okay, done.  Thank you for reading.  And because I’m Canadian, sorry for making you read this.

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  4. AlexInCT

    The argument you used here for partisanship is also a great argument for centrism, a philosophical position that I am returning to after a number of years

    Tell a lie enough times, and people likely will believe it to be the truth. – Some leftist turd.

    You sir are neither a centrists nor returning to anything like it. Believing the nonsense peddled by Marx and the left doesn’t make you a centrist in any way. In fact, I am far closer to anything that is a real centrist despite how much you would like to pretend otherwise, and your claims to be the one in the center.

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  5. ilovecress

    Tell a lie enough times, and people likely will believe it to be the truth. – Some leftist turd.

    Lol. That was Goebbels.

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  6. stogy

    In fact, I am far closer to anything that is a real centrist despite how much you would like to pretend otherwise, and your claims to be the one in the center.

    Again, you have failed to understand what being a centrist actually means.

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  7. CM

    Great posts Hal, stogy and Slothrop (what you described sounds a lot like Moorewatch forums where I hung out for many years, such a great group).

    Alex will now respond with “exactly, just as I said, a leftist turd”.

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  8. Slothrop

    (what you described sounds a lot like Moorewatch forums where I hung out for many years, such a great group)

    Well, I also lurked on Moorewatch back in the day (which is how I discovered this site.  I assume that’s a common refrain), however my memories of it are vague beyond turning initial distrust of Moore into distaste.  Which is a testament to it, I suppose.

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