Yes, Empathy Is on the Ballot

We've heard it before, but it's true. Empathy moves voters.

Posted Oct 31, 2020

 Element5 Digital/Pexels
Source: Element5 Digital/Pexels

That may sound trite, but it’s true. When we make decisions about which elected officials we want representing us, there is a strong wish of wanting that person to understand us, feel our pain, or share our optimism. We want to be able to relate to them, and we want them to relate to us. 

However, there are two problems with wanting empathy from those running for political office: We don’t all want the same thing, and we have difficulty distinguishing between real empathy and the politician's ability to read us well enough to tell us what we want to hear.

The first problem can be overcome by a very skilled empathic politician, one who really tries to understand all sides of an issue. When they don’t agree with some positions, they present it in a way that conveys their understanding, but they retain their right to disagree. Those on the other side can feel heard, and hope to continue the debate. For example, politicians who own guns and consider gun ownership their constitutional right may also understand that people want regulations that make those guns safe and secure from misuse. The details of how to get both those positions met is at the heart of politics—advocacy, negotiation, bargaining, consensus. If people on both sides are operating on a basis of empathy, of trying to walk in the shoes of others and really understand their perspectives and lived experiences, then debate leading to consensus can happen. That is not just an ideal I teach in the classroom. There are lots of examples of public policy that became law through that process of advocacy, negotiation, bargaining, and consensus. One of our most cherished social programs, Social Security, was hard fought with lots of disagreement including challenging it up through the Supreme Court. It has also gone through multiple changes, all in an effort to meet the demands of competing interests to achieve consensus. There are still disagreements, but they are small compared to the events surrounding the passage of the program in 1935 and the early years that followed.

The second problem is much more difficult to overcome and is much more destructive. What happens when a politician is a skilled orator with deep abilities to read others and tell them what they want to hear? What the individual politician believes or feels is irrelevant because the politician is trying to negotiate for your vote and do so based on your emotions and needs. It is a long-standing practice and often is successful, but usually not for the long-term. The tell-them-what-they-want-to-hear platform only works if the audience and message stay narrow and cohesive. If the politician tries to broaden the play, those who are hooked on the original message may stray. Or, in an effort to get new people to support the politician, the broader message might contradict the early message. The problem is that there is no genuine empathy, just reading other people to tap into their emotions. Reading others for transactional interests is a short-term play. It works well for selling someone, but it does not work well for living long-term with that person. Over time, we see that our other needs are not being understood, and we feel disappointed and even abandoned. 

In the world of politics, it is rarely one or the other. So, too, in our lives. The challenge is for us to use our own empathic insights to figure out the difference between a person with real empathy and a person telling us what we want to hear.