Last night, Barack Obama won re-election because of one big reason: empathy. More specifically, he and the Democratic Party were more successful at expressing empathy than Mitt Romney and the Republicans.
In the election post-mortem, one number stuck out to me more than any other. If we put aside which candidate the voters thought would be a better steward of our economy, what people thought about the multitude of issues, there was plurality of voters (by a margin of 10 percent) who felt that Barack Obama understood what they were facing, or to be more exact, that he was “in touch” with their problems.
I am obsessed with empathy. I have written about it in the past and I am writing about it today because in the coming weeks and months, I intend to address this idea of the empathy gap. Empathy should not be confused with sympathy; to put it simply, empathy is about feeling and understanding the pain or joy of another. Moreover, empathy is not about pity…far from it.
Empathy is incredibly healing and incredibly powerful in life, and especially in politics. The ability or inability of a political candidate to make people feel like they are being understood, that they exist, that what they are facing–good or bad–is something that can be appreciated and understood, can either move a candidate forward, or cause voters to extinguish their passions for that candidate.
People can try to explain that Mitt Romney did many wonderful things for many people, that his advisors should be blamed for poor messaging, or that the Democrats “swiftboated” him, but in my mind, it is nearly impossible to manufacture or message empathy. While a political candidate can say all the right things, without a sense of empathy for the population, he/she will eventually display a lack of humanity and understanding.
Perfect example of this was Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” moment (notice I didn’t use the word “gaffe”).
But excuse-making doesn’t work for either of the political parties. Perception is everything in politics. If you have to spend time explaining why people are misunderstanding your message, you’re never going to gain their support. There are no “buts” in politics.
To prove that I’m not delving into partisan attacks here, I want to look at a Democratic defeat. The many factors that led to John Kerry’s loss in 2004 (key word: many), there is one that he shares with Mitt Romney: disconnection.
I honestly don’t think that their supposed disconnection from the rest of America has anything to do with wealth. In other words, the fact that both men are incredibly wealthy did not and does not lead to this disconnection. People who don’t have money can be just as lacking in the empathy department as people who do have money. We connect wealth as a way of explaining why they don’t understand or why they at least lack the ability to project that they understand. However, these two men wouldn’t be able to express empathy if they were working in a minimum wage job.
People make jokes about this, but when Bill Clinton said “I feel your pain” in the 1992 presidential election, it had a startling impact on how he was seen.
“I feel your pain” may be seen as cheesy, but anyone in a difficult position wants to know that what they are facing is understood by others, especially by the man or woman who is vying to lead their country.
So how does this all play out in real life? If you’re a part of one of these groups that is struggling, this is what you heard/hear from the Republican Party, and this is what many voters perceive of the Republican Party:
Undocumented Immigrants: You should be ashamed of yourself for trying to give your family a better life. Look over your shoulder. And if your parents brought you here as a young child, too bad. Not our problem.
Gays and Lesbians: Your love is impure and you don’t deserve validation or any legal protections. Your relationship doesn’t exist.
Women: You have just faced the most gut-wrenching, painful trauma in your life: sexual assault. And now, you realize that you have been impregnated. Now get over it. Too bad.
Anyone On Government Assistance: You are a lazy thief.
Again, the intention of the party or candidate doesn’t matter, it’s all about perception.
When we look at the issue of empathy on a practical, political level, it doesn’t mean you can’t disagree with someone. Having empathy for someone else just means that you have to understand and care about the “how” and “why” of a person or groups of people in their life journeys.
For example, on the issue of immigration, it would be much more effective for someone to say “I don’t blame a single person who is living in America undocumented. We are the greatest country in the world and any person, and especially any parent, would want to seek a better life here. But unfortunately, we simply can’t sustain this in the short or long term.”
If a politician or speaker opens a statement about a difficult issue like immigration through expressing empathy, he/she immediately diffuses a bomb; when people feel understood, they are more easily willing to engage in debate, discussion and forgiveness.
I woke up this morning hearing in my head, the lyrics of Nina Simone’s song, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,”
I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood
That’s what it’s all about folks: everyone just wants to be understood. Oprah Winfrey, on the finale episode of her talk show put it simply by pointing out the one thing all of her guests over the 25 years of her show (30,000 total) had in common was the need for their experiences to be understood: “They want to know: ‘Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you?”
This morning, several news clips featured Mitt Romney’s his close supporters and friends sharing their frustrations that “the real Mitt” wasn’t exposed to voters and that his intentions were misunderstood. That may be the case, but his inability to empathize–to understand–led to this misunderstanding.