Empathy is a Two-Way Street
For the past two weeks, I’ve heard multiple variations on “electing Trump will really stick it to the coastal elites” and “this will show those DC insiders they need to get outside of their bubble and empathize with real Americans”. Having lived in DC for over 10 years, I suppose I qualify as one of the hated coastal elites and DC insiders. However, my patience with the simplistic, one-sided argument that we need to get out of our bubble and see the “real America” is gone. What is more “real America” about a suburb in Ohio or a rural town in Iowa than my neighborhood in DC? Maybe it’s those who live in middle America who need to get out of their bubbles.
Yes, I saw the latest viral SNL sketch. Go ahead, laugh at our affection for pretentious coffee shops, overpriced organic farmers’ markets, and (gasp) bookstores in The Bubble. How is this different than mocking middle Americans for their tastes and interests? Everyone lives in a bubble, some do so consciously, some not.
I empathize with those Americans who feel left behind by the changing economy, country, and world. However, those feelings shouldn’t give people license to blame immigrants, minorities, and women and elect someone who has a stated goal of destroying the country to enrich himself and his cronies. Virtually everyone — in cities, suburbs, and rural areas — has economic anxiety, whether it’s being able to feed and house your family, put your kids through college, or help aging family.
Many of us coastal elites grew up in, still have friends and family in, and spend time in the rest of America. For a variety of reasons (educational, economic, cultural), we’ve chosen to make our homes elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean we are unaware of what is happening in the rest of the country. I grew up in the rust belt and spent my college years and 20s in Chicago. I have more than a passing acquaintance with the working class and am proud of my Midwestern values. Those values include working hard, appreciating what I have, and helping those less fortunate than me. They do not include discriminating against and hating those different than me just because I’m angry or anxious.
Despite what much of America thinks, real people live in DC. We have homes, families, hopes, dreams, and fears just like everyone else in the country. And many of us dislike politicians and “business as usual” as much as the rest of Americans. Regardless of the fact that less than 5% of the votes cast in DC were for Republicans, many political decisions affecting my life and the lives of the more than 600,000 people who live here will be made by a Republican-controlled Congress and administration. Where’s the empathy for our lack of representation in Congress in spite of the significant amount of taxes we pay? There is a real fear that our community and culture, on both a local and national level, are about to profoundly change for the worse. That fear deserves as much understanding as the fears of those living in the rest of the country. Yet I don’t hear anyone telling people in Middle America to break out of their bubble and empathize with us.
An astounding number of people in America have never been to DC or New York City or Los Angeles. Come out of your bubble for a visit and see why millions of people have made the choice to live in these areas. It’s really not as bad as you think it is. You like your safe, quiet cul de sacs with giant shopping malls or your open spaces and gated communities. We like the energy of cities and being able to get great pizza at midnight. No option is better than the other, but until we all get outside our comfort zone on occasion, there is no hope that we will be able to understand each other.
When you come to a city, you might be surprised to find that the people aren’t really that different at the core. Yes, you will encounter more people who don’t look, talk, believe, and love the same way you do. That doesn’t make them any less American or any less human. Get outside of the tourist areas, at least for a few hours, and see what we’re really like. Talk to an immigrant cab driver and you are likely to encounter one of the most interesting, well-informed people you’ll ever meet. Talk to an inner-city public school teacher commuting hours on the bus because he’s passionate about educating the next generation. Talk to a government bureaucrat (the ones who actually do the work, not the ones you see on TV) and you might be surprised about the dedication she has to serving her country. Talk to a millennial who came to DC to change the world and lives in a group house, lives on instant ramen, and has a side hustle because public service doesn’t actually pay that well.
We would all benefit from a little more tolerance and understanding right now. Rather than putting that responsibility entirely on coastal elites, what are those of you in middle America doing?