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There's No Empathy in Partisanship: New Study Highlights Key Problem in Washington

by Edgar Wilson, published

Our leaders lack empathy.

That, in a sense, is one of the conclusions of a new study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

The study assigned participants the task of creating a compelling argument to win over subjects with opposing views. Somewhat predictably, results showed that most participants were ineffective at getting subjects to change their minds. More surprising, perhaps, was how frequently the attempts to craft compelling arguments devolved into ad hominem attacks on morals and beliefs.

Of course, Americans have been conditioned to jump from logic straight to verbal assault by the combination of what passes for news media, and the hyper-partisan tendencies of political leadership. What is missing—and was missing in the study—appears to be a basic human emotion: empathy.

Rather than trying to win arguments through persuasion or a frontal assault on someone else’s basic beliefs, a little dose of empathy can help both sides better appreciate where their shared goals can overlap.

Conservatives were more inclined to support universal health care when presented with purity-based arguments that more uninsured people might lead to more disease spread. Liberals showed an uptick in support for higher military spending, when shown an argument based on the principle that the military and the employment opportunities it provides help to reduce inequality.

Prior to this study, there has been plenty of research indicating that the deeper problem is that we don’t like to change our minds—politics is one of many examples of how humans take beliefs (or assumptions) personally, and both consciously and unconsciously ignore contradictory facts that would force a reconsideration of those beliefs.

The type of empathy recommended by the study involves not breaking down walls and converting the opposition, but emphasizing common ground as a means to avoid entrenchment and confrontation. In the context of Washington, the greater issue isn’t just framing arguments to win converts—it is diminishing the attitude that treats arguments as zero-sum contests of will.

Congress’ job is to work together to get things done, not simply convince one another that their platforms are misguided, wrong, or could do with fundamentally flipping around. Yet the prevailing attitude among the partisan majority is not one of progress or acknowledging humanity: it is a rhetorical winner-take-all brawl.

Empathy is a critical mechanism that is fundamental to human survival, cooperation, and progress. Bill Nye framed the concept well in a recent #TuesdaysWithBill video:

Why are we empathetic? Just consider what a tribe of humans would be like without empathy, without an ability to feel what someone else is feeling, without an ability to see it from another person’s point of view. It probably wouldn’t be a very successful tribe. You wouldn’t take care of each other.”

That genuine empathy seems to be chronically absent in partisan conflicts suggests that, as a tribe, America’s political leaders are failing the most basic test: can they cooperate? Clearly not—or rather, they probably could, but choose not to.

Partisan politics is not, despite the marketing messages, as concerned with ideas and solutions, as it is on casting any and all opposition under a veil of “otherness.” Turning an opponent into an "other" makes him or her easier to vilify, belittle, contradict, and ultimate defeat in an election.

Consider the plight of drug addicts, LGBTQ individuals, or any of the myriad minorities whose “otherness” is the basis for all conversation—as opposed to their humanity. They aren’t looking to win any arguments—they are looking for some basic compassion, an iota of understanding, for empathy.

Social workers employed to engage and uplift the disadvantaged aren’t successful in convincing their clients that their lifestyles and identities are wrong; they interact with empathy, and build a relationship of trust to make positive changes. It isn’t just a matter of one person rescuing the other, it is about collaboration and communication.

Those features are absent from the competitive, aggressively narcissistic environment of partisan politics, which goes a long way to explaining why Congress is so loud without being comparably effective.

In America, we don’t have two leading parties so much as we have two opposing parties: the competing messages are less important to either side than the assurance that the Other Side is wrong. The environment is such that nothing is more validating than knowing that you aren’t The Other—they are.

Rather than inviting members to share values and visions, America’s parties screen voters for partisan purity. Even when selecting a presidential candidate, the primary contest is obsessed with defining Republicans and Democrats in opposition, and filtering the candidate pool down to find the Most Republican and Most Democratic candidate.

Empathy looks past the artificiality and shortsightedness of this obsession with segregating people based on their “otherness” and instead focuses on commonalities.

Republicans and Democrats ultimately have the same goals: financial stability, economic prosperity, national security, and equality of opportunity. All good things. That they put their faith in alternative pathways toward these universal goals doesn’t make them mutually exclusive, but reflects the reality that there is more than one possible road forward.

Making this relevant to the 2016 election (and surrounding events) depends in part on the media taking as great an interest in reasoned, thoughtful discourse as it traditionally has in hyperbole and manufactured outrage. That might be too great a leap to make in such a short (12 months) period of time.

In the longer term, however, the optimist in me wants to say it is inevitable that empathy will play a greater role in American politics. Without it, our tribe simply cannot survive.

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