So, a few weeks ago, I wrote about how a lack of empathy has wrecked our political system. There was an aspect of political empathy, however, that didn’t fit into that post and that I wanted to riff on. It’s the role that empathy plays in the success of politicians rather than in political discourse.
One of the big realizations of 2016 for me was that issues don’t matter as much as we’d like to think. Oh, they matter … on the edges. But our politics have become so tribal that 60 million Republicans would happily vote for a big-government authoritarian and 60 million Democrats would happily vote for globalist darling of Wall Street. There is a growing body of evidence that people define themselves by their political party, not their philosophy. And when that party changes its views, they change with the party. So suddenly, Democrats favored free trade while Republicans opposed it. Democrats though Russia was the quintessence of evil while Republicans thought they were misunderstood. An amoral sexual predator became an acceptable political leader for Republicans and an amoral money grubber became an acceptable political leader for Democrats … as long as they beat the other side’s amoral pig.
But while tribalism is an appealing and glib explanation for 2016, I think there’s more to it than that. One of the things that doesn’t get talked about too much is the importance of the perception — however flawed — that a party is listening to your concerns and cares about your concerns regardless of whether or not they have a solution for them. That is, that the party shows empathy to its constituents.
Every year, African-Americans voter overwhelmingly Democratic, despite the failure of the Democratic party to deliver anything resembling prosperity. Democrats have avidly supported policies — urban renewal, the welfare state, the War on Drugs — that I believe have made things worse for black people. So why do black people vote for them? Because Democrats listen to them. Because they go to churches and local meetings and listen. And even if they don’t do anything about black people’s concerns, the fact that they are being listened to matters. Remember when Rand Paul spoke at an historically black college? The media mocked him for making a few faux pas. But the students liked it. They were happy that a Republican was trying to reach out to them. Even if they disagreed with him, the fact that he made an effort and listened to them mattered. And if the GOP continued on that effort, they would start getting black votes. Because when the GOP does not try to get black votes, that sends a message too: “We don’t give a damn about you.”
And there’s a flip side to that, one that reared it’s head strongly in 2016. Every year, pundits wonder “what’s the matter with Kansas?” — why do rural voters vote “against their economic interests”. I’ll put aside the idea that wealth redistribution and big welfare states are “in people’s interests”. The real reason that rural voters support Republicans is because Republicans listen to them and Democrats don’t. Republicans may not have solutions to the problems of rural voters. But on many rural voters’ concerns — immigration, outsourcing, drugs, etc. — Republicans listen. And listening is far more important, politically, than solving.
We all used to joke about Bill Clinton saying “I feel your pain”. But we shouldn’t have. That was Bill Clinton’s greatest strength as a politician. He may have been a liar with the sexual habits of a Delta Tau Chi toga party. But he was probably the best President in my lifetime at making people feel like he understood, like he knew what they were going through. And a lot of the time that’s all people want, to feel like their concerns are not just being ignored, even if they aren’t or can’t be addressed.
The 2016 election puzzled a lot of people because Donald Trump won traditional Democratic constituencies in the midwest. But it was no puzzle to me. In “Shattered”, the authors note that Clinton did not want to campaign in the Midwest because she knew her pro-trade stance was unpopular. But by not campaigning, she gave a much worse message: “I don’t give a damn about you.”
Now imagine an alternative universe where Clinton gave a series of speeches like so:
Yes, I supported NAFTA. And I still think it was a good call. On balance, it has benefited our nation immensely. But over the last two decades, we’ve found that it didn’t benefit everyone. Some communities got hit very hard by it. This is why I changed my position on TPP. Because I want to make sure that this time we get it right and we take care of the communities that will be hurt before we sign the deal.
That wouldn’t necessarily have been truthful. But if she’d given something like that speech, she’d be President today. Because even if she didn’t have a solution to the problems of unemployment, drugs and crime hitting rural communities, she’d at least have given the impression that she cared.
We know that because that’s why Trump is President. Because for all the sexism and bigotry and pussy-groping and incoherence, Trump gave the impression, in his clumsy way, that he felt people’s pain. That he was aware of how people felt about trade and immigration and crime and Washington corruption. And while his policies were nonsense and he’s doing little to help people in rural America, they voted for him because at least he seemed to give a damn, no matter authentic you think that damn was. A good politician would have torn him apart, of course. But Clinton was such a poor politician, she made Donald Trump look like the caring sympathetic one.
(As an aside, this is one of the reasons why libertarianism will always be a niche political philosophy and a big reason why it tends to be male-dominated. It is filled to the brim with theoreticians who have all the ideas in the world but little understanding of human nature.)
Empathy matters. Being listened to matters. It’s matters in our politics; it matters in our elections. And until the Democrats start to empathize with unwashed masses between the coasts, they will continue to lose elections.