Pretty Persuasion: The Art of Empathy in Politics


We’ve all seen it: a poor, trodden upon soul steps to the mike of a carefully choreographed town hall meeting to tell a politician of their grievance.  The grievance is usually in the wheelhouse of one of the politician’s cause celebre attempts to portray a society in chaos.  That politician then steps to their mike to provide their remedy.  Depending upon our politics, we swoon (or grimace) at the high minded (or short-sighted) response the politician gives.  It’s what some would call political theater.  Is this woman’s grievance emblematic of a larger problem in our society?  Doesn’t matter.  It’s good theater, and both sides engage in it for political gain, but it usually does not benefit the society in any way.

angry-townhall-01Some would love to step to that politician’s mike and say to the poor, trodden upon soul by being American you are already in the one-percent of the world financially.  The location of your birth happens to have given you opportunities that millions around the world would, and have died for.   Some would love to tell this woman that her case, while temporarily sad, is an anecdotal one that government should not do anything about.  We must vie with what works for the greater whole, and we have social safety nets set in place for those who either don’t or can’t take advantage of all of the wonderful opportunities out there for her.

The politician that said such a thing would, of course, have hell to pay for such a comment.  For that politician’s opponent, and the news networks, and the talking heads would talk about how that woman was indicative of what millions are facing in this current crisis.  The politician would then be told that their show of empathy was insufficient for the job for which they were campaigning.  The latter would happen regardless of the time and regardless of whether there was an actual current crisis or not.  What all these groups are attempting to manipulate is what primate political scientist Frans de Waal calls an evolutionary inclination to empathy.

Frans de Waal argues that empathy and collaboration are just as natural (to human nature) as aggression.  “Empathy,” says de Waal, “is an automated response over which we have limited control. We can suppress it, mentally block it, or fail to act on it, but except for a tiny percentage of humans known as psychopaths, no one is emotionally immune to another’s situation.”

De Waal argues that “if biology is to inform government and society, the least we could do is get a full picture, drop the cardboard version of social Darwinism, and look at what evolution has fully put into place.”  He says that “biology constitutes our greatest hope.  One can only shudder at the thought that the humanness of our societies depends on the whims of politics, culture, or religion. Ideologies come and go, but human nature is here to stay.”

“Human nature,” de Waal, “is to attempt to solve every problem.  Human nature does not dictate that we calculate the cost benefits ratio of each solution.  That’s politics.  That’s economics in its truest and coldest fashion.  That’s logic and rationale.”  

Those of us that have followed politics for the last generation would suggest that the very opposite is true.  We would suggest that a politician weighing the cost benefits ratio, at the expense of one individual making unreasonably selfish demands of them, is a problem solver.  That politician would be placing his short-term advancement in jeopardy by answering this town hall screamer with logic and rationale.  The politician that leaves the impression that he can solve every single person’s problem is engaging in theater.  Ideologies come and go, we would argue, but the federal debt that is amassed by trying to help every single person’s problem is here to stay.

Americans do want to solve every single person’s problem.  No one wants to see another person suffer.  It breaks our heart.  It tugs at our heartstrings.  We donate to the charity that shows us the best pictures; we demand action to the latest worldwide tragedy that has pictures; and we want our government to step in on every malady we’re seen pictures of; but the question becomes can a government afford to solve every individual’s problems?  Can we put the fact that a woman in a town hall meeting cannot find a job in a statistical model and find out that it’s not beneficial to the current economic model of our government to act in the manner the politician proposes, or is that too calculating? Is that going against human nature?

It may be human nature for us to want to help, but is it human nature for a person to ask a politician, for a federal seat, to help her get a job at her local McDonald’s, to help her get a car, or the number of other odd complaints that town hall criers have asked of these politicians in the last generation?  Is it human nature to remove your hat and beg the king for some generosity, as has happened in previous centuries, in other countries?  And is this a consequence of an ever-expanding government, or is human nature such that the individualistic dynamic that used to define Americans, picking themselves up by their own bootstraps was, in fact, the anecdotal evidence of human nature, and we are now returning to our core?

We’ve had times, recent times, that de Waal would surely call times of cardboard social Darwinism. During those times, there were record percentages of donations given to charity to those less fortunate.  We had church groups rally congregations to make donations, get together soup kitchens, and organize local support efforts to help their fellow man out.  In the past, before the federal government spent our money to such massive degrees, we saw neighborhoods help their fellow man out, and in years past government locales used to solve their own problems? America has never been a country that showed the poor, the down on their luck, and the indigent the bottom of her boot.

We’ve turned this effort of humanity into a call for humanity from our federal government. We’ve turned to politicians to help us get employment at McDonald’s, to renovate our homes, and to buy us the latest sedan with all-wheel drive? I know de Waal would decry such simplistic, social Darwinistic tenants, but whatever happened to the “callous and mean” social Darwin nature that suggested that the best you’ll ever see come out of a human being is what occurs shortly after they’ve had their backs against a wall?  And what happens to human nature when sympathy and empathy leads our kings to triumphantly tear down that wall, for nothing more than the political theater it provides them?

Is our society in chaos?  Have we reached a point where we have to turn to our politicians in federal seats, because no one else will help us?  If you watch a town hall forum, or debate, you’d think so when hearing the questions these politicians select to manipulate our evolutionary predilection to empathy?  Or is the society in chaos due to the multitudinous solutions the politicians propose to appeal to our short-term, theatrical need for some humanity?

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