Empathy for the Devil

As so many narratives of the 2016 election continue to unravel in light of new data, I’m glad liberals have started to examine and reject the early interpretations from the “get over it and come together” crowd. In particular, we’ve begun to chip away at a master narrative stressing liberals’ “lack of empathy for the White Working Class” as the reason for this catastrophe.

For many reasons the explanation seemed apt to the point of being intuitively obvious at first, but if we are learning anything in this Brave New World, it is that we must be attentive to the meanings of any words oft-repeated. In this dog whistle world, even words that seem familiar can take on lives of their own. “Empathy” is a case in point.

By week two of the new regime, though the dust had yet to settle, “lack of empathy for the White Working Class” had gained traction as a plausible explanation for Democrats’ shocking loss. Highlighting Democrats’ inadequacies seemed reasonable and just, since there was widespread disbelief that Republicans could have pulled off a victory without major assistance, in the form of catastrophic miscalculations, from their rivals. The empathy narrative struck at the heart of liberal’s self-identity and sense of self-worth.

Empathy is a word we take for granted, much more nuanced than we give it credit for. But simply put, it’s the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. In its essence, empathy is amoral. It’s a tool in our social toolkit that has evolved to help us survive. This tool can be put to lots of different uses, honorable as well as exploitative, depending on one’s ethics and scruples. But most people associate it with a healthy sense of the inner life of others, and see its exercise as integral to a smooth-functioning society. Empathy is popularly perceived, in other words, as both necessary and good.

So the presumed “lack of empathy” responsible for Democrats’ catastrophic failure struck a nerve among a liberal base that saw empathy as integral to the mission of the left. This crushing loss wasn’t merely strategic, it was moral, due to a whole host of character flaws of the “coastal elites”: their smugness, condescension, lack of empathy. Here liberals were lecturing everyone on the dangers of othering, of the importance of empathy to the march of equality. But when it came to the White Working Class there was this glaring blind spot. It was a great Gotcha! Moment. The perfect example of liberal hypocrisy writ large.

And for those on the left who had felt uneasy all along about Clinton’s ties to Wall Street, the empathy narrative emphasized how out of touch with the working class the Party establishment had become. The focus on the White Working Class is not incidental here, but also seemed a terrible truth liberals had ignored from our bubbles of privilege. By ignoring white people, presumably by reaching out and focusing on other racial and ethnic groups, the story went, the Party had sealed its doom. Liberals had no one but themselves — oh, and People of Color, of course! — to blame.

It was all, it seems, a case of misplaced empathy! Womp womp!

The take-away was crystal clear: White Lives Matter. We had forgotten that, and we had reaped a whirlwind.

Remember how we talked about words taking on lives of their own? Well, “empathy” had somehow become code for outreach. What “empathy for the White Working Class” really means is “Democrats need to embrace White Supremacy.”

They don’t. We don’t. We can’t. We won’t.

Look, there’s no question that empathy is integral to human equality. We evolved the capacity for empathy for a reason. And while there’s no question Democrats need to do better reaching out to working people of all races, and that it’s high time for the party to shine a spotlight on income inequality, it’s also true that “Clinton won majorities among voters in the rust belt (and nationwide) who said the economy was their primary issue.”

Here’s the narrative the facts tell: the working class got it: Democrats feel their pain. White Working Class people who were concerned about the economy went for Clinton.

So when people use the “lack of empathy” line, remember: they’re not speaking for the working class, white or otherwise. Don’t fall for it. What they’re actually suggesting is utterly deplorable.