Empathy in American Politics

I’ve been writing a lot about empathy lately, and how it relates to life and relationships…but as I take a step back, I see this massive lack of empathy in American politics today. I have been listening to the Hidden Brain Podcast on NPR, and the series has many stories that that support the idea that American Politics lacks empathy.

Individuals in the country lack an understanding that people have varying opinions and thoughts based on their background. At a surface level, it is easy to get buy-in that people vary based on their background, but there is a lack of a deeper understanding and acceptance of this notion, hence why we are in such a stark political divide.

This idea of empathy in politics started in my head last week when I had lunch with a friend of mine who lies on the other side of the political spectrum. He is someone that has Conservative views. He voted for Donald Trump recently for a number of reasons: He felt it was important to have a Conservative replacement for Antonin Scalia in the Supreme Court. He holds fears that the current state of the world has a high risk for unstable immigrants and refugees who could end up being terrorists within American borders. He is worried about the national deficit. Lastly, he feels that money given to the homeless leads to them purchasing alcohol and drugs as opposed to food and housing. Donald Trump’s platform voiced these fears, ideas, and motives.

I am a moderate Liberal, and I had the opposite opinion on each of these ideas, but I could take a step back, and see my friend’s concerns, and empathize with the troubled emotions. When I discussed the immigration policies for refugees with my friend, he compared the situation to a bowl of M&M’s (which may seem callous to most, but bear with me). He said, “If you have a bowl of M&M’s, and you knew one in the bowl was poisoned and would kill you, would you eat any of the M&M’s?” I immediately said no, but I also noted that we are discussing people here, not M&M’s…that being said, I understood his point. Is it worth the risk of eating a single M&M, or taking a single refugee, if we know that 1 M&M or 1 refugee is poisonous? It really depends how you want to look at the situation…I personally have a hard time aligning with his thinking, because I sympathize with people in need and want to do my best to help as many people in need as possible…but from my friend’s perspective, he is more concerned with protecting his family and friends, than protecting a stranger. (I expand on this idea more in later sections of this post.)

I want to take this idea of empathy in politics a step further…I am a moderate Liberal who voted for Barrack Obama in 2008 and 2012. I love what he accomplished with the Affordable Health Care for America Act, but as it was being enacted, I could understand the Conservative perspective that the goal of this act could have been accomplished by forcing more competition amongst health insurance companies, removing boundaries and lines that prevent certain programs from expanding. In the end though, I was on the side of helping more Americans gain access to healthcare, however that may be accomplished. That is a perspective that all of our lawmakers should have had; it should have been the unanimous thought of “Let’s work together to do something good for the American people regarding healthcare.” Instead, Democrats walked all over the Republicans since they had control of the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the Presidency…producing Obamacare. Republicans were extremely against the measures taken in 2009, and vowed to repeal the law…and here we are in 2017, watching a backlash from the Republicans as they begin to repeal Obamacare in favor of Conservative alternatives that ultimately lower the number of citizens who will have healthcare.

Republicans condemned the Democrats for giving the government too much power and increasing the national deficit with Obamacare. Now Democrats decry that the Republicans are working to strip the legislation that will result in many American people losing their health insurance. In the end, both sides lost. There was very little compromise in the original legislation from the Democrats, and the repeals today have few concessions from the Republicans.

This example highlights such a deep lack of empathy on both sides of the aisle. In 2010, the Democrats could not empathize with the Republicans fear of putting the country at further economic risk with a higher national deficit. The Republicans could not empathize with Democrats desire to step in and improve healthcare for those who could not afford it. Now, we are left in a crossfire of pettiness and a lack of progress.

So why is this country so stuck? Why are we still fighting over healthcare 7 years later? What is it that keeps us so divided on immigration, gay rights, and more? I believe it all boils down to empathy and acceptance.

Where do political opinions come from?

Political opinions come from the family.

In the podcast “When It Comes To Our Politics, Family Matters”, Shankar Vedantam of Hidden Brain talks about an English teacher who teaches children who rely on government-supported lunch programs in order to have food everyday. She is very supportive of government funding and programs that help those in need.

On the other hand, Shankar describes a farmer who grew up believing in hard work, self-reliance, and personal responsibility. He leans on the side of being “fiscally and internationally conservative” with a perspective supporting less government intervention overall.

Naturally, the school teacher and farmer will disagree on the idea of government funding and intervention based on their respective backgrounds. Neither is right, and neither is wrong, they just have different origins resulting in different opinions.

Shankar digs deeper into this idea of political opinions starting in the family by discussing the work of George Lakoff, a cognitive Linguist who theorized that one’s political views could be traced back to one’s parental model as either a “strict father” or “nurturant parent”. A team tested this theory, and found that Lakoff was correct. Republicans tended to create campaign ads that embodied the “strict father” perspective which rang true to their supporters, whereas Democrats used the “nurturant, empathetic parent” tone to win their voters.

When you compare this idea of “strict father” and “nurturant parent” back to the school teacher and farmer, you can see how the school teacher embodies the “nurturant parent” character, whereas the farmer embodies the “strict father” personality.

This fundamental difference in parenting and how it affects political views has gone unnoticed by most, and prevents a deeper sense of empathy for the origins of both side’s beliefs.

How do political opinions permeate?

Political opinions grow and expand through emotion and fear. In the podcast “Strangers in Their Own Land: The ‘Deep Story’ of Trump Supporters”, Shankar Vedantam interviews sociologist Arlie Hochschild as she digs deep to understand why some people vote for leaders and political parties that stand against their economic needs.

In the podcast, Hoschschild describes that she discovered that a lot of people actually vote to serve their emotional needs rather than their economic needs. She found that many conservative, working-class citizens felt that their way of life was dying, that the policies enacted to help minorities gain access to jobs and education were hurting their standing in society. These people felt that they had put in the time, energy, and patience to achieve the next level of success, only to be passed over for minorities…this made the working-class conservatives view these minorities as “line cutters”. These same conservatives end up watching programs like Fox News, because Fox reports on “deep stories” that capture the “hopes, pride, disappointments, fears, and anxieties” of the frustrated conservative voters. The stories that Fox tells do not need to be factually true, they simply needed to feel true for these viewers. When the 2016 election came around, these voters who feared for their status in society viewed Barrack Obama as the leader who was supposed to protect their interests, but instead had encouraged and enabled the “line cutters”. These people voted with their emotions, thereby voting for Donald Trump, the candidate who voiced their fears and anxieties.

Liberals also have their own fears, anxieties, and deep stories, which can be found in the newscasts of MSNBC and other left-leaning media. Hoschschild describes how Liberals look up at the 1% and the Tea Party with rage for their role in the 2008 Economic Crisis. Liberal media thrives off of this emotion, and tells stories about the factors that created the crisis in order to align with these emotions; sources like MSNBC feed off of the anger that is felt by their viewers.

Overall, it is clear that emotions are a driving factor for starting and growing our political opinions on both sides of the political spectrum. Nevertheless, political opinions also exist and expand based on peer pressure, as found in the Hidden Brain podcast “We’re More Alike Than Different, Thanks to Peer Pressure’s Relentless Influence”.

In this podcast Shankar Vedantam interviews Johan Berger, a professor of Marketing at the University of Pennsylvania. Berger discusses how the social perception of a person or group’s “brand” can affect the perception of objects or ideas that the person or group associate with.

The examples highlighted were referring to Mike “The Situation” and Snooki from Jersey Shore, as well as the Democratic and Republican parties.

Berger describes how Abercrombie & Fitch paid Mike “The Situation” to not wear their brand so that his meathead/jerk personality would not be associated with their clothing. A luxury handbag competitor to Gucci sent a Gucci handbag to Snooki in order to associate her trashy brand with Gucci products. These companies knew the power of peer pressure’s influence on brands, and leveraged it to either save face, or hurt the competition.

In regards to politics and peer pressure, Berger described a study that found that when a focus group saw a policy, the participants’ opinion on the policy was affected by the political party who sponsored it. Liberals who heard a policy that was supposedly sponsored by a Conservative were quick to disagree with it, whereas Liberals who heard the same policy and were told that it was sponsored by a Liberal, were more likely to agree with the policy. The same pattern applied to the counter-examples for Conservatives. Berger continues to explain a more specific and relevant discovery while exploring opinions, specifically surrounding clean-energy policy. Clean-energy is supposed to be cheaper and reduce government spending, which aligns with Conservative values; however, Conservatives tended to reject clean-energy policies because they associated them with Al Gore, a prominent Liberal.

In the peer pressure stories described above, we see what power group mentality holds over our perceptions. Fashion brands with actors, and policies with political parties. In politics, we see that at a certain point, voters are not even thinking about what they want in a policy, they are just sticking with the status quo of the group that they have aligned with. We can see this not only in our voters, but also in the legislators that we elect.

This is not how democracy was meant to function. This country was founded without the existence of political parties in order to keep people from being one-sided. Rather, the government was built to support voting for the best possible outcome without pre-existing bias. When political parties did form, for hundreds of years, voters and legislators at least evaluated the issues before voting. They (ideally) did not just vote because of the political party association. Now when we look at the state of politics, legislators must vote to align with their political party, assuming that their voters automatically agree with all of the issues of the one party. Likewise, voters are immediately turned off by politicians of the opposite party. This means that once voters arrive at the voting booth, they are not even really making a choice, they are just casting the ballot of the choice that was made for them by their political party.

When did we as free citizens become so jaded with so little empathy? In the 80s and 90s, you would hear of Democrats voting for George H.W. Bush and Republicans voting for Bill Clinton. That does not happen now. Our citizens are so biased and will not listen to reasons nor opinions that are not their own. This country lacks empathy.

How do we recenter this country?

I see 2 ways for this country to recenter itself so that we can make progress on issues and take steps forward as opposed to chasing our tail.

First, we must learn to empathize with our “enemy”, or our political opponent. Second, our leaders must learn how to communicate the facts to the people with emotions.

Side Note: It is absurd that I have to refer to someone with differing political opinions as the enemy, but when you hear and read the conversations that occur on the different media outlets, amongst our politicians, and amongst ourselves, we truly have come to look at the opposite political party as our enemy.

We as people need to accept the understandings and actions of our “political enemy” through empathizing with them. The podcast “Tribes & Traitors: What Happens When You Empathize with the Enemy?” dives deep into this concept.

In the podcast, Shankar Vedantam tells the story of best friends, Sahr and Nyumah, who were torn apart and hurt by the civil war in Sierra Leone. The Rebellion Army would conquer towns, then force friends, family, and neighbors to harm each other. In this podcast, Shankar discusses how the rebels forced Nyumah to beat Sahr, then kill Sahr’s father in front of Sahr in order to avoid being killed by the Rebellion Army. This pitted these best friends against each other, and made them enemies. The point of the podcast was not to tell this gruesome story, but rather to discuss the process in which these two were able to overcome their animosity and hatred for each other, and become friends again. First, It involved Sahr empathizing with Nyumah’s situation in which he was threatened with imminent death if he did not commit the atrocities. Then, Sahr worked to accept that based on the context of the situation, Nyumah had the choice to kill, or be killed. Finally, Sahr forgave Nyumah, because he was able to empathize and accept that Nyumah did not want to commit these crimes, but that he was in an extenuating circumstance, and had no choice. Ultimately, Sahr’s forgiveness allowed the two to restart their friendship, and spend time working and praying together.

The fact that 2 individuals that were pitted against each other to become mortal enemies, were then able to mend bridges, accept each other’s differences, and accept the circumstances of a situation is incredible. Past that, the fact that these 2 were able to restart a friendship after such gruesome acts is amazing. When you compare this story to the situation in Washington D.C. and the United States as a whole, it really makes me feel embarrassed. Sahr and Nyumah were thrown into a hellish situation in which they were forced to harm each other and their respective families; however, they were still able to get past their differences through empathy, acceptance, and forgiveness in order to move forward, and live happily. Now compare this to American politics, where one comment, one vote, or one idea, can create such a sharp political divide that forces different sides to hate each other, and work tangentially without compromise. This is so petty, and so outrageous.

The legislators and citizens of this country can learn from Sahr and Nyumah. Even enemies can get past their differences in order to work together, and these enemies can even become friends. All it takes is empathy and acceptance of our differences; however, given the current political climate, this country should also take some time to forgive political opponents for words or actions that may have been offensive, or not aligned with one’s own beliefs. This is truly needed in order to move forward.

All things considered, this is more than just empathy and acceptance, it is an entire overhaul about how we approach politics. It is a new mentality that makes it is OK to have a stance on a policy that does not align with your political party. It is a mentality that makes it OK for lawmakers to vote on what is best for their region, and not how the party leader says they should vote. It is a mentality that makes it OK for lawmakers to make compromises with the other side, to say that I understand and accept you, and that despite our differing beliefs, we can come together and meet in the middle in order to move forward.

With all of this being said, there is still the issue of communicating these ideas, communicating these facts, and having the country understand them. How do we tell voters and lawmakers that it is OK to empathize with the other side and that it is good to understand them? Well, many of the podcasts referenced in this piece point to the fact that people are voting with emotion, not based on rationality, and not based on facts…so our leaders must communicate the facts and the understandings via emotion.

Facts cannot just be read as facts, they need to be communicated through the people’s emotions. The podcast “When It Comes to Politics and ‘Fake News’, Facts Aren’t Enough” talks about how people hear information, and what resonates strongest with them.

This podcast talks about the research of Tali Sharot, a cogitative neuroscientist at University College of London. Her research reviews how people can have all of the facts of a situation, but still not believe the truth. For example, there is no proof that vaccines cause Autism in children, yet, parents are ridden with fear by the way politicians like Donald Trump speak about vaccines causing Autism, so they decide to not vaccinate their children. In another instance, data shows that climate change is real, but no matter how much a Liberal might show the data, many Conservatives will still refute Climate Change’s existence. Similarly, a Conservative can highlight the trillions of dollars of growing national debt, but many Liberals will still ignore this in order to enact government spending policies that help those in need.

In all of the examples from the podcast, it did not matter what facts were communicated, the listener’s belief was always driven by emotion.

So how do we communicate facts? How do we help people understand empathy? Our leaders must communicate the facts, the ideas, the beliefs through emotions. Tali Sharot highlighted some key findings that support this idea. She found that “fear is a powerful motivator for inaction, but that positive feedback is a better motivator for action”. She also found that “some powerful speeches [such as John F. Kennedy’s speech on space travel] synchronize brain activity across listeners and between listeners and speakers”. These findings are very powerful. They can be used to lead people towards good situations, but they also can be used by demagogues to take people down a bad direction.


The key to peace, the key to progress, the key to our society, is empathy.

I believe that one being extremely left-leaning or extremely right-leaning is a sign of a deep lack of empathy. Moderates generally are able to see both sides of the spectrum, negotiate, compromise, and look for the greater good. An individual who is super far on either side of the spectrum is simply saying, “I have my set of opinions that are 100% correct and I will hear nothing that says otherwise.” Nothing gets accomplished when people are so steadfast in their opinion and intransigent to other ideas. It is a deep lack of empathy.

People need to accept that just because someone has a different set of political opinions, that does not mean that the individual is wrong in his or her thoughts. Our political opinions stem from our childhood and environment. It is not a sign of one’s moral compass nor purity, but rather a product of one’s lifetime experiences.

Our country needs to move away from this idea that we can only support policies that align with our identified party or group. It is OK to have opinions and beliefs that stray from the pack. That is called being an individual, and having a varying set of perspectives.

In order to start re-centering our country into a single people, we need to start empathizing and accepting the other side. We cannot learn nor grow if we do not take into account varying opinions and learn to compromise. This country is at a point of such deep divide, that we should take some time to forgive one another, and have a soft reset on the entire political conversation.

Finally, in order for our leaders to be truly effective, they need to learn how to communicate facts and truth through emotion. Alternative facts and fake news are simply sources that explain stories through certain demographics’ emotions. The strongest and smartest leaders will learn how to speak to the unheard demographics, empathize with their feelings, and disseminate the facts and truths with raw emotion.

This country is divided. It is not a quick fix, nor an easy solution to close this fissure. All things considered, empathy seems to be the clear starting point to a United States of America.