The political empathy gap

The structural problems in American political discourse are legion. Polarized interests, corporate and special interests, the news/hype cycle, and pundits who serve no real political purpose but exist only as media entities. All of it conspires to misdirect discussions of where our country is, where it needs to go, and how to get there.

Underlying all that is a serious problem. There are two sides to every issue (or so we’re told), and they cannot fathom each other’s position. Empathy is not a characteristic of American politics.

This manifests itself everywhere. Dismissive rhetoric, talking past each other, insulting jabs, moral grandstanding, dehumanizing the other side, binary reasoning, and violent propaganda. Were it the case that conservatives and progressives could understand each others goals, fears, and dreams, these problems would exist on the fringe rather than the mainstream.

Intellectual empathy is a hard thing to come by. We all want to be winners, firmly on the side of the virtuous good. To accept that there is something valid in one’s debate opponent is challenging. To go further and accept ambiguity and uncertainty is even more difficult. It would seem that a majority would prefer comfort in wrongness rather than face up to a world where their side is not that of the virtuous good.

I’m not sure how one learns these things other than seeking out new ideas and opinions. Even then, there’s the intuition to sort the wheat from the chaff, the practice from the principle, the solid thinkers from the eccentrics. Political empathy is perhaps (but hopefully not) the endpoint on an intellectual journey that a pop culture is ill suited to embark upon.

I can’t say that my grasp on the problem is good enough to suggest solutions. Perhaps humor, perhaps better education, perhaps breaking bread, perhaps more journalists growing a spine. I should hope it happens soon, because I’m getting pretty tired of how cynical I am of what politics has become.