The upcoming election offers many choices, some stark and others more nuanced. Many are related to policy extremes, but, perhaps, the most important is about empathy. Biden demonstrates it in his speech and acts; Trump lacks it entirely. He may claim he is empathetic, but his actions show its complete lack. Think of the many times the President has belittled, denigrated, or dehumanized others. Other people are always only props to serve his insatiable need to glorify himself. The many times he has dismissed others via a tweet is both cowardly, and also without empathy.
Empathy is a critical trait in a leader, especially among the most powerful in institutions as diverse as government, business, or family. Empathy is a form of connection between people, where one acts out of some understanding or acknowledgment of the others’ concerns. It is often expressed as standing in the shoes of the other. In its absence, human beings and everything else out in the world show up merely as objects to be controlled and manipulated. There is nothing inherently wrong with this mode of behavior. It is essential in the execution of routines.
But if that is all there is, everyone being controlled will eventually lose all or a large part of their meaningful selves, their sense of being human. When that happens, moods turn dark, hope fades, and despair may find an opening to enter. Sound familiar? So-called deaths of despair have about doubled in the last twenty years according to CDC data. Some of the reasons include the commoditization of work and the fragmentation of unions, the disappearance of the nuclear family, demographic changes, and the rise of social media. It is virtually impossible to develop empathetic relationships via a computer or mobile device screen.
Empathy is more than a feeling; it is a particular way of being, of connecting to the world. According to the work of British scholar, Iain McGilchrist, it results from the way the right-brain hemisphere attends to the world. McGilchrist has developed a convincing argument that the two sides of the brain present different worlds to us. The right looks out and connects to the world of the present; the left looks inward to a cache of fragmented pieces, abstracted from past experiences. This dichotomy has a many consequences, as he notes in The Master and His Emissary, but among the most serious is the difference in the nature of actions resulting from the unmitigated dominance of either side.
The right-side, being connected to the outside world, leads to actions that exhibit care or concern for whatever it sees out there.The left, being disconnected and interior, cares only about the actor and produces actions that serve only the actor’s purposes. What we might consider normal requires both sides acting in concert; the right providing a picture of an ever-changing world in need, and the left offering up generalized suggestions as to what might be done about that.
Empathy is a critical element in the very essence of the United States. It is perhaps best exemplified in the immortal words from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “government of the people, by the people, for the people. . .” He may have cribbed these words from a sermon by Theodore Parker that his law partner relayed to him. Parker said, “Democracy is direct self-government, over all the people, by all the people, for all the people.” Such a democracy is clearly impossible without people understanding the needs of and caring for other people. Even Adam Smith, whose invisible hand concept is still used to argue for a political economy based entirely on the selfish needs (left-brain), wrote earlier that sympathy (right-brain) guides that hand.
Racism is, in part, due to a lack of empathy, the inability to stand over there in the Other’s shoes. Empathy’s lack underpins white privilege, which is blind to the situation of people of color. The polarization and dysfunction in the Congress arises from the inability to see others as humans with concerns that should be heard. Bipartisanship cannot happen without empathy. To work at any level, democracy absolutely needs citizens who are aware of the state of the body politic beyond their own concerns. Jefferson spoke of the need for an educated citizenry, but, even that, without empathy could not maintain a democracy.
In de Tocqueville’s famous essay, he pointed to the many civic (read empathy-based) organizations that gave the young America its staying power. He wrote, “Among democratic nations all citizens are independent and weak; they can achieve almost nothing by themselves and none of them could force his fellows to help him. Therefore they sink into a state of impotence, if they do not learn to help each other voluntarily.” Of all the institutions that shape our society, none have more power to affect our national character than government. Its half-life can be as short as the election cycle. Other social institutions take much longer to change. And nothing affects the personality of the government more than the President. An empathetic President begets an empathetic citizenry. FDR set the example in another time of great unrest and crisis.
The choice for every voter is clear. It is more about empathy than party. Trump is completely devoid of it. His demeanor shows an almost complete absence of the right-brain-in-action: little or no emotional affect other than anger (left-brain) that is present much of the time; denial of what has to be staring him in the face; doesn’t learn by reading; can’t maintain attention; and lacks a moral sense. Other aspects show left-side dominance: narcissism; controlling; needing to “win”; constantly confabulating and lying; unrealistically optimistic; prone to denial; trouble following narrative or story; flat manner of speaking; and grandiosity. His constant, abnormal lying signals a significant detachment from the same reality that the rest of us, Democratic or Republican, face every day.
Biden is not a perfect human being, but has shown himself to be empathetic. At this moment in time, this may be the most important quality to get in our President. If we do not begin to draw closer together and see each another as a human being with the same goodness and frailties we all possess, no amount of policy or partisanship is likely to save our democracy. United we stand; divided we fall. Only empathy can unite us.