The Need to Restore Empathy in Our Politics
Biden may not be liberals’ first choice, but he can bring back America’s desperately needed moral compass
“Is this who we are?”
This is the question Democratic Nominee for President Joe Biden asked the nation the morning of June 2, almost a week into protests that gripped the nation following the death of George Floyd. The night before, police in Washington D.C. had teargassed peaceful protesters in front of the White House. People expressing their first amendment rights were choked and pushed off of the streets their own city, just so that President Trump could stage a photo-op.
Even for a President with seemingly no limit for cruelty, the moment was a new low. Republican senators denounced him. The ACLU and protestors filed a lawsuit challenging the brutality. Trump’s former Secretary of Defense, the widely respected James Mattis, stated that “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try.”
It was in this context that Biden posed the question, “Is this who we are?” The rest of his speech showed that to him, this question was far from rhetorical. Biden spoke eloquently of a nation that has risen from some of its darkest moments — from the depths of the Great Depression to the heights of prosperity, from the moral stains of slavery and segregation to the progress of the Civil Rights Era. He spoke of a nation that values freedom and open expression above all else, even when it’s difficult. And most importantly, he spoke of a nation that is waking up to the suffering of so many, listening to their voices and acknowledging the fact that they live fundamentally different lives because of the color of their skin.
This speech was powerful because of one important quality it displayed: empathy. Biden spoke of turning “anger and anguish into purpose,” not claiming to know all the solutions but offering concrete steps towards making the United States a more just place. Empathy is a critical quality of leadership, allowing leaders to learn, grown, and most importantly, care about the people they govern. Throughout this campaign and his entire life, Biden has displayed this quality. If Biden wins in November, his empathy will be critical in allowing him to heal the nation.
Biden’s actions in this moment are consistent with the character he has displayed throughout his life. During his vice presidency, he would often give his personal phone number to victims of tragedy. Families of fallen soldiers and victims of school shootings remember him for his compassion. Biden’s nickname of “Amtrack Joe” arose from the daily train commutes between D.C. and his home state of Delaware, where he’d chat with other passengers. Biden clearly displays a desire to improve the lives of others, connecting with voters on a personal level that many other politicians do not.
Biden’s empathy arises in part from personal tragedy on a level that few have experienced. In 1972 Biden’s wife and one-year-old daughter were killed in a car accident, leaving Biden to raise his two sons, Hunter and Beau. In 2015, Biden again faced deep loss when Beau succumbed to brain cancer after a drawn-out battle. Biden has described these losses as being trapped “in a constant twilight of vertigo, like in the dream where you’re suddenly falling … only I was constantly falling.”
Grief on this scale fundamentally alters a person. It forces a level of introspection and soul-searching that few can relate to. As our nation faces the twin crises of COVID-19 and systemic racism, both of which have led to profound loss for so many, Biden’s empathy is exactly what the nation needs. When Biden spoke as America surpassed 100,000 COVID deaths, he promised friends and family of the victims “the day will come when the memory of your loved one will bring a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eyes.” Biden can serve a role that our nation desperately needs at the moment: a healer-in-chief.
While Biden seeks to heal, his opponent in this campaign seems only prepared to divide. Above all else, Trump seems utterly devoid of empathy, incapable of even beginning to grasp the collective tragedies that have consumed his presidency. With the coronavirus crisis raging, Trump has offered little condolence to the victims, while complaining about how he has been “treated worse” than any other president. He has done nothing to understand the root cause of the protests, instead issuing threats to unleash “ominous weapons” and “vicious dogs” on protestors that harken back to some of the darkest moments in American history. Trump even co-opted Floyd’s death to boost his ego, bizarrely claiming days ago that “George is looking down right now and saying this a great thing that’s happening for our country,” after bragging about employment numbers.
“Is this who we are?”
Throughout American history, we’ve had presidents with a wide variety of beliefs and values. Vigorous political debate is vital for a healthy democracy and should be encouraged. However, it is also a deeply American tradition for presidents to pull us together at times of crisis. When FDR, stated that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself,” in the midst of the Great Depression or when George W. Bush shouted through a bullhorn, “I can hear you!” to first responders on Ground Zero, they weren’t only speaking to Democrats or Republicans. They were speaking to the entire nation, showing Americans of all political leanings that they heard them and cared about their lives.
The leadership of these presidents and many others shows that we are, at our core, more Biden’s America than Trump’s. As it has at so many points in its history, the US faces crises that will force deep reckoning. The scars from this moment will be devastating and long-lasting. However, history shows us that we can begin to heal them, by listening, coming together, and tackling much-needed reforms. Above all else, this will require a leader with empathy.
Empathy is the reason, above all else, that we need Biden in the White House rather than Trump for the next four years. Certainly, many liberals are disappointed that Biden, rather than Bernie, is the Democratic nominee. Failing to vote for Biden, however, is essentially a casting a vote by omission for a president lacking basic human emotion, of which we’ve seen the devastating results firsthand. Meanwhile, Biden has listened to voters and moved aggressively to meet the demands of the time. He now supports actions such as student debt forgiveness, a doubling of the minimum wage, and a commitment to affordable housing that would make him the most progressive president in American history.
Next November at the ballot box, Americans will have a chance to answer for themselves, the fundamental question, “Is this who we are?” We can let the division and fear of this moment define us, cementing a lack of empathy into our national discourse forever by reelecting the most divisive president in American history. Or we define this as a moment when we turned anger into purpose, elevating a man to the presidency who is willing to listen to the people he serves and cares about the future of this country.
The choice is ours.