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.