Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

13 September 2016

The Empathy Gap


[For an easy way to save our democracy if and after we dispose of Trump, click here.]
    “To just be grossly generalistic, you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it.” —Hillary Clinton, Sept. 9, 2016
Why do our media and campaigns obsess about gaffes that have little or no implication for policy? Because many voters have no basis for evaluating policy or competence. So they judge candidates—especially those for president—mostly on character.

Voters aren’t generally trained in abstract thinking. Most don’t stay informed—at least at any level of detail required to master policy. Many are swayed by the rawest, most unhelpful emotions, including tribalism, fear, scapegoating and nationalism. But they can and do judge any candidate’s character.

John Kerry’s loss to Dubya in 2004 proved that competence can’t trump character. Kerry was (and is) a smart, diligent, honorable and extremely hard-working public servant. His success in closing the Iran nuclear deal showed that. But he’s also stiff as a board, aloof and formal. His old New England virtues prevented him from defending himself against a pack of lies about his wartime service. So Dubya won, with some help from voters’ reluctance to change horses in midstream.

Al Gore probably sealed his electoral doom—and our recent national fate—during the presidential debates, when he sighed and rolled his eyes at one of Dubya’s routine stupidities. He often sounded like a college professor, and highly educated people loved him. But most voters are not highly educated. They put themselves in Dubya’s position, saw their “teacher” dissing them, and voted accordingly.

Romney had much less chance than Gore from the very beginning. But he sealed his fate by tarring 47% of all voters as “takers,” i.e., social and economic parasites. That, of course, was Political Error 1A: you tar the other candidate, not his voters, whom you want to vote for you.

Hillary’s “deplorables” gaffe made the very same mistake. For a grizzled pol like her, it was a rare rookie error.

Now she can apologize and backtrack all she wants, but few will listen. At least those she labeled “deplorables” won’t. They won’t listen any more than Mexican immigrants that Trump labeled murderers and rapists listen to the coda of his famous anti-Mexican rant: “And some, I assume, are good people.” Some things you can’t take back.

Empathy is perhaps the most powerful human character trait. It—and not our big brains, opposable thumbs, or language skills—is what makes human civilization possible. Nelson Mandela used it to negotiate an end to Apartheid and freedom for his people from inside a prison cell. Barack Obama used it to sweep into office over a tide of racism. Since character decides elections and empathy is a pol’s most valuable single character trait, you might say that it matters.

Is there an empathy gap in this election? At first glance, you might say no. Both candidates have huge negatives, and both have legions of voters who abhor them.

But dig deeper, and you find something strange. Beneath his scatterbrained, narcissistic braggadocio and egotism, Trump does seem to have some feeling for ordinary workers and their plight. He speaks their language. He laments their loss of jobs and self-respect. He appeals to their sense of grievance. He promises to fix what ails them. His empathy is bizarrely egotistic, but it seems genuine.

Of course no one with a sense of reality believes that Mexico will pay for his wall. Nor can anyone with an iota of economic training avoid fearing his plan to deport eleven million undocumented workers. Not only will that destroy innumerable innocent families and disrupt innumerable workplaces. It will also raise prices and invite native-born Americans to take the place of immigrants in our new class of serfs.

But Trump’s voters don’t have a good sense of reality or economic training. They have a sense of grievance and want someone to empathize with them, preferably someone in a position of power sufficient to do something about their grievances.

It’s among those people and their fellow travelers that Hillary’s “deplorables” comment stings. So do her oft-reported habits of hobnobbing with the rich, soaking them for campaign contributions, and relaxing and joking with them alone. She can coo like any grandmother in one-on-one meetings with grieving voters, but on the stump or the podium she exudes the aura of a nouveau riche who has turned her back on her origins. If she can’t fix that, and soon, she could lose this election.

The ultimate fault is one of several fundamental design flaws in our “exceptional” democracy. Unlike every parliamentary democracy, we don’t elect our supreme leader through representatives. Our people elect him directly—or our “electors” must vote for the popular choice, which is the same thing.

We compounded the error when our political parties took nominating candidates out of the proverbial smoke-filled rooms of seasoned pols and into direct primaries. Those smoke-filled rooms were the last bastion between us and the pathetic exercise in gossip and demagoguery that our election campaigns have become.

But Hillary can’t change that system. She has to master it.

There is no better guide for her doing so than Michelle Obama’s speech—the best of both parties’ conventions. After showing empathy for children of all people, Michelle sought it from her viewers. “I wake up every morning,” she said, “in a house that was built by slaves.”

Thus Michelle sought empathy for the crushing job of being a Jackie Robinson, Mohammed Ali, Thurgood Marshall, Harvey Milk, Tim Cook, or any other human being who has had to break a terrible tribal barrier. At the same time, she lauded the still-limitless possibilities of our nation and our ability to “form a more perfect Union.”

Well, you say, Michelle wasn’t actually running for anything. But her speech nevertheless made a vital point. As long your invitation to empathy doesn’t shade into self-pity, asking for empathy makes you more human and your own empathy more genuine. Empathy is a two-way street.

Unfortunately, Hillary doesn’t seem to understand that point. Her apology for supporting Dubya’s disastrous invasion of Iraq, like her apology for trying to control information at State from a private server, seemed far from genuine. She sounded like a child asked to apologize for stealing her sister’s share of cookies.

The reason badly done apologies hurt so much is that apologies are exercises in empathy. Everyone knows that you can’t change what you’ve done by apologizing. But you can show empathy for those you wronged. You can implicitly promise to do better. And you can seek others’ empathy for an honest mistake and for your own human fallibility.

Hillary does seem to “care” about ordinary people’s woes. At least she works hard to devise credible plans to fix them. But somehow genuine empathy, if she has any, gets lost in the details and a haze of noblesse oblige.

If Hillary is to win this election, let alone make a three-branch sweep, all this must change. She’s not responsible for the vast blunders in governmental structure that have turned our elections into Roman bread and circuses. But she and her campaign staff must make her seem more like Michelle Obama and less like a female Al Gore stepping in as headmistress. If she can do that, she just might save us from decaying into empire, with our very own Nero or Caligula at the helm.

Endnote: bringing back smoke-filled rooms

If a genie gave me one wish to save our Republic, I wouldn’t abolish filibusters. I wouldn’t repeal the so-called “Hastert Rule,” which gives us minority rule in our House. I wouldn’t even wish away Citizens United.

Instead, I would bring back smoke-filled rooms. I would have seasoned, savvy party elders pick the short list for every primary election from school board to president. I would have us do what every parliamentary democracy does: let people who know the candidates and have seen them close up and in action for years or decades screen the list before the people vote.

If we had had that system last summer, Trump would be on no one’s list. Neither would Cruz, whom most of his colleagues hate. Ben Carson would have remained an occasional pontificator for Fox. Chris Christie would have been out as too vindictive, and Carly Fiorina as lacking in relevant experience. John Kasich might have had a chance, although the elders probably would have cut Marco Rubio as too young and inexperienced. So we would have had a GOP field of people who actually held public office and did something.

As compared to direct primaries, smoke-filled rooms have four signal advantages. First, savvy, experienced professionals, who know the candidates intimately through long professional experience and contact, pick the short list. They know each candidate’s intelligence, character and weaknesses like family members, maybe even better. They don’t rely on the “judgment” of marginal electors who tune in two weeks before the election and get their information from TV ads and Internet slanders. (Doesn’t that sort of system give ad makers extraordinary power, not to mention the contributors who finance the ads?)

Second, the party elders who chose the short list would have the incentive and leisure to consider both positive and negative information. They wouldn’t, like a demagogued electorate, be bombarded incessantly with gobs of mud.

Third, selection by a committee of elders would encourage intra-party disclipline and cooperation. If you’re too much of a rebel and outsider (like Cruz), you’d never get nominated. So you’d learn to cooperate and compromise inside your party as you rose within it, and those skills would be useful outside the party, too.

Forth, the compromise and cooperation required to secure nomination would encourage moderation, and that moderation would slop over into inter-party affairs. It might foster bipartisan cooperation and compromise, perhaps even “getting things done.”

In contrast, today’s incentives are quite the opposite. If you are an effective demagogue like Trump or Cruz, you can march to your own tune, refuse to obey party leadership, and refuse to compromise with anyone, inside or outside your party. That, of course, is a recipe for anarchy, not democracy, which is precisely what we have now.

The nice thing about smoke-filled rooms is that we can bring them back without amending our Constitution. We might do most of the job just by changing internal party rules, although some amendment of federal election statutes might be necessary. If the GOP loses this election badly, as everyone expects, we might actually see some movement in this direction next year.

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