In an interview with the New Yorker last month, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg expressed some empathetic leanings toward Trump voters. “You saw a lot of people… who were really angry at the system,” Buttigieg said. “The system really had let them down.” Trump voters were suffering, he reasoned. They deserve sympathy, not just condemnation.
The Indiana mayor’s solicitude is hardly surprising. It’s a line of thinking that’s been made over and over again since the 2016 election. Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders shared a similar belief at a CNN town hall in February. “I think many of these people are people who have worked hard their entire lives and their standard of living is going down,” Sanders said. “In many cases, they’re making less today than they did 30 or 40 years ago.”
The politicians and scores of advocates who preach a similar doctrine would seem to have the moral high ground. After all, how can you argue against empathy? Such feelings are supposed to bridge political differences. Empathy encourages us to fight injustice; it makes us better people. If we can empathize with Trump voters, we can counteract the poison of hate with love and go high when they go low, as former first lady Michelle Obama said. That’s the idea, anyway.
In practice, unfortunately, empathy is an imperfect tool for political or moral change, one that can exacerbate divisions rather than healing them. Trump himself leverages empathy to enable his administration’s bigotry and cruelty and to justify eroding political norms.
Our current political crisis is, in large part, the fault of empathy. And unless we are very careful, calls for greater empathy will only make it worse.
The first serious problem with empathy is that it is biased. Empathy is often presented as a way to overcome insularity or partisanship (that is, “seeing the other side”). But in practice, empathy more often simply reinforces in-group prejudices, because people find it much easier to identify with those who are like them or on their side.
An example: A curriculum recently used in a Northern Ireland school was designed to teach adolescents about the Troubles. The hope was that Protestants would learn to empathize with Catholics, and vice versa. However, a 2012 study published in Theory and Research in Social Education found that students who took the curriculum were no less polarized than those who didn’t. In fact, the authors of the study wrote that “identification of students with their group’s historical positions grew even stronger” after taking the courses. Students did empathize more — but only with people on their own side. Empathy simply increased polarization.
“Empathy likes to travel up the social hierarchy.”
Similarly, Trump supporters don’t necessarily lack empathy; they just reserve that empathy for their own in-group. Consider, for example, alt-right leader Richard Spencer, who greeted Trump’s victory with an enthusiastic Nazi salute. Spencer advocates for the removal of non-white people from the United States and argues for this policy with an appeal to empathy: “We need an ethno-state so that our people can ‘come home again’… We must give up the false dreams of equality and democracy,” he said in a 2013 speech. Empathy for supposedly dispossessed white people justifies authoritarianism and ethnic cleansing.
As Spencer shows, empathy doesn’t necessarily lead people to put themselves in the place of the disempowered. In fact, Kate Manne, a philosophy professor at Cornell University, told me that empathy “is often directed towards the most powerful people rather than to those who might be more vulnerable and more deserving of empathic treatment.”
In her book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, Manne discusses “himpathy” — which she defines in the text as “the tendency to dismiss the female perspective altogether, to empathize with the powerful man over his less powerful alleged female victim.” Manne points to Brett Kavanaugh as an example. When the Supreme Court justice was accused of sexual assault, there was a huge outpouring of concern for the effect the accusations might have on his career and the personal distress it would cause him. The effect of the alleged assault on his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, was, among partisan Republicans especially, presented as less important. Many conservatives were reluctant to put themselves in the shoes of the accuser; they asked why she didn’t come forward earlier or why she couldn’t remember details more clearly. Her decisions were opaque and culpable. In contrast, Kavanaugh’s fate — the fear that he would not get a seat on the Supreme Court — tugged at the heartstrings.
It may seem counterintuitive that an inconvenienced judge would garner more sympathy than an alleged sexual harassment victim. But it’s not unusual. “Empathy,” Manne says, “likes to travel up the social hierarchy.” We often think of our country’s most privileged people as being deserving, normal, and appealing. That’s why white-collar criminals receive more lenient sentences. Judges worry about their suffering in prison and their loss of status; they empathize with them.
This dynamic also plays into the treatment of Trump voters. The president’s supporters were disproportionately white and disproportionately men — and white men have significant power in the United States. Further, despite the insistence that Trump voters were working class, they in fact tended to be relatively affluent. Just as important, perhaps, Trump voters won. We like to empathize with winners.
Why demand empathy for the white, male, relatively affluent people who got exactly what they wanted? Why not instead point out the need to empathize with black women, who are, as a group, massively impoverished and discriminated against, and who voted against Trump almost uniformly?
The answer reveals a kind of feedback loop: Black women receive little empathy precisely because they are discriminated against and because their suffering is seen as natural and unremarkable. In an extremely close election, Democrats could have won by turning out more of their base as easily as by picking up more Republican crossover voters. But there was no flurry of reporting on the black electorate after 2016 or calls to empathize with them. Instead, there were endless articles about traveling to Trump country to interview Republican partisans, because Trump voters are seen as real heartland American and because they are seen as having power.
The problems with empathy bias are compounded by the fact that it’s possible to weaponize empathy to create support for ugly political programs, and even for violence. Trump leverages our empathy bias by presenting himself as the spokesperson for good, normal, white people against untrustworthy, dangerous, racial others. When he talks about immigrants, for example, Trump constantly aligns himself with those he claims are victims of immigrants. He focuses on the people who will supposedly suffer when immigrants take jobs or commit crimes.
“Trump is a master of empathy,” says Fritz Breithaupt, a cognitive science professor at Indiana University. “He is better at using empathy than virtually anyone I have ever seen.”
According to Breithaupt, Trump uses empathy by positioning himself as a lone figure struggling against a horde of powerful others — the Republican Party, media elites, immigrants. “He likes being accused and showing that he has lots of opponents.” Breithaupt says. “Then he lashes back against the majority.”
In a February 2019 appearance, for example, Trump had a woman whose husband had been killed by an undocumented immigrant stand up as he dramatically said, “Your husband was just killed in Maryland. Incredible man. Just killed. Beautiful children. Won’t be seeing their father again.” Trump encourages empathy with these particular victims to suggest that any policy to prevent such atrocities is justified, up to and including separating children from their parents (though most Americans did not support him in that).
If empathy doesn’t provide a good moral or political guide for engaging with Trump voters, what other options are there? Paul Bloom, a psychology professor at Yale University, argues that we should set aside empathy in favor of what he calls “rational compassion.”
Rational compassion can mitigate and redirect the claims of empathy, Bloom says. For example, when Trump calls for empathy for victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, Bloom suggests a caring person should look for data. “You don’t have to be a cold-blooded utilitarian,” Bloom says, “but people should appreciate that facts matter. If Trump says or implies that an extraordinary number of illegal immigrants are murderers and rapists, before you start putting yourself in people’s shoes and feeling their pain, you should ask, is it true?” (It is not.)
The problem is that reason is also subject to bias. For example, Peter Singer, a moral philosopher who advocates for basing philanthropy on a reasoned analysis of costs and benefits, has suggested that disabled infants should be killed in cases where parents can have another healthy child. “[T]he total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed,” he explains. That argument is presented in the form of dispassionate inquiry. But disability activists like Harriet McBryde Johnson have pointed out that abled people tend to vastly undervalue the quality of life and happiness of disabled lives. “We take constraints that no one would choose and build rich and satisfying lives within them,” she writes.
Bias isn’t just an individual problem; it’s institutional. Science long provided major support for racist theories (and still does); homosexuality was officially considered a scientific mental disorder until the 1980s. Empathy may be corrupted by prejudice, but so is reason.
People like the idea of empathizing with Trump voters because it seems to offer a way out of partisan division — an escape from politics altogether. If you can just feel as your opponents feel, they won’t be your opponents anymore, and we can all move forward together. Reason is appealing in some of the same ways. People like to think that if we could evaluate evidence logically, we could reach conclusions about what is best without the animosity, rage, anger, and despair we’re all feeling.
But there is no magic shortcut to unity or consensus. Neither empathy nor rational compassion can rescue us from partisanship. Political problems require political solutions. Maybe instead of looking for empathy or reason to give us an out, we should embrace the idea of solidarity.
Solidarity isn’t an effort to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, like empathy. Nor is it a program for objectively evaluating happiness and morality, as if such a thing were possible. Rather, solidarity is a promise to stand with others when they ask you to do so.
How do you decide which others to stand with? Well, there you need to look to your own politics and your own morals. Unless you’re already a MAGA enthusiast, you wouldn’t say, “We need to show solidarity with Trump supporters,” because showing solidarity implies working together for shared political goals. And that hesitation to grant support to those working against you is as it should be. Demanding and granting attention, sympathy, and legitimacy are all political acts. When you center the emotions and the narrative of Trump voters, you empower them and their leader. Before we do that, we should think carefully about who we harm with our empathy, as well as who we help.