Viewpoint: Only Empathy Can Transform the GOP

Republicans are pivoting on issues such as immigration for pragmatic reasons, when what they really need to be able to do is step into an undocumented immigrant's shoes

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Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, speaks at the podium as he concedes the presidency during an election night event at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center on November 7, 2012 in Boston, Mass.

Twenty-one years ago, candidate Bill Clinton told a nation hit hard by recession, “I feel your pain.” He was greeted with bipartisan mockery. He was a panderer, they said, an unctuous fake. But the thing was, he did feel our pain. The American public knew it, and they filtered out all the other noise about the man.

Today’s Republicans could learn from President Clinton. Ever since the GOP’s national defeat in November, party leaders have engaged in some unusually public self-examination. Some, like chair Reince Priebus, have been admirably blunt, saying the GOP now is seen as “narrow-minded, out of touch,” and full of “stuffy old men.”

(MORE: Rob Long: Go Ahead, Round up the RINO’s!)

But that kind of candor goes only so far. For every sincere admonition from a Priebus or a Jeb Bush, there’s a “wetback” gaffe from a Don Young: a stuffy old man who appears narrow-minded and out of touch. Most Republicans, it can be said, aren’t Neanderthals. But most Neanderthals, it often seems, are Republican.

The lesson the GOP has drawn from the election is that it has to do a better job of outreach and positioning: meeting minority voters, explaining to them why they should vote Republican. GOP leaders, in short, think their problem is more with marketing than with product.

They’re wrong. Although prominent Republicans chastised Young for sounding retrograde, the real problem he revealed was a profound lack of empathy. It hadn’t occurred to Young, or to his embarrassed colleagues, what it might be like to be a migrant worker, past or present – any more than it had occurred to Mitt Romney what life would be like among the 47 percent, the so-called “takers.” That ability to step into another’s shoes, to things from that person’s perspective, is critical to success in a democracy.

The GOP’s newfound flexibility on immigration reform seems promising. But Republican leaders are pivoting for pragmatic reasons, not because they suddenly began to imagine life undocumented. When a prominent GOP leader does exercise empathy, the way Senator Rob Portman recently did when he reckoned with his son’s coming-out, party leaders respond awkwardly. “Everyone is entitled to their positions,” was majority leader Eric Cantor’s reaction (note the plural). “It sounds to me like a really personal thing in his life,” said Senator Jim Inhofe, “and I’d rather not respond.”

(MORE: Has Empathy Become the New Scapegoat?)

To be sure, Democrats have no monopoly on empathy: some liberal reactions to Portman’s conversion were disdainful and decidedly not empathetic. It would have been better, some progressives complained, had Portman come to this view without requiring a gay son to force the issue. Perhaps. But it certainly would have been worse had Portman held to his prior view in spite of his gay son. In this instance, empathy (if even only for a family member) did trump ideology.

It would be a mistake to assume that other conservatives can’t get better at considering the worldviews and yearnings of those outside their ideological tribe. (Remember early George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”? It seems ripe for revival.) Schoolchildren are now being taught the skills and habits of empathy. There’s little reason why motivated political adults can’t.

But of course, motivation is the key. The task of politics is ultimately to change minds, which requires imagining what’s in those minds. Republicans will either learn this or become, well, a minority group. Democrats, meanwhile, should try hard to feel their pain. Empathy keeps you on top.

10 comments
adoramaze
adoramaze

The republican leadership appears to be broken. Is there something in the air in D.C. that causes amnesia about the purpose, goals, ideals of their party. This is not about marketing ( yes they could do a better job) or branding, about telling people you feel their pain (ba bla) or bout announcing you are 'hip' because your son is gay and certainly it is not about saying yes instead of no and then scratching your head and wondering.. but about what??? How anemic. Where is the fight for smaller government, (instead of news circuses about fights on budgets that were all in all the same), where is the fight for states rights, where are the serious proposals to balance the budget (and it could be done) , discussions about civil liberties, , about jobs that don't exist because businesses are buried in regulations. Contrary to what the junk news media feeds, most welfare recipients would rather work, with an incentive system that didn't punish them for doing it. Why does the Federal government own 40% of the land in the US, entire states. Why is there inflation that robs medicaid and middle class equally in gas, in food, and soon in medical care but not in bank interest rates that we get if we save a couple of dollars.


There IS hope, in North Dakota, in electric cars, in manufacturing returning to the US, in the power and wealth this country has for the taking, if  the greedy and the spineless people who are supposed to represent us, stopped doing whatever it is they are doing and got to work. 


I vote: None of the above


cleverlyc
cleverlyc

So, in a nutshell, the GoP is screwed, huh?

armandocdll81
armandocdll81

LBJ felt America's pain and enacted his ill-fated "Great Society." Americans responded by electing Richard Nixon twice, the second time in an historic landslide. Jimmy Carter also felt our pain - he even had a fireside chat with us about our "malaise." Americans responded by electing Ronald Reagan twice and George Bush once. Bill Clinton felt our pain and also the thong-swallowing buttocks of his portly intern. Americans responded by electing George W. Bush once. 

No pain, no gain. 

Leftcoastrocky
Leftcoastrocky

The Teapublican party is an "empathy free" party.

nitrat
nitrat

You can't teach empathy to sociopaths.

HarryGantz
HarryGantz

The new HBO documentary American Winter follows 8 families falling from middle-class to poverty in the aftermath of the great recession.  We made this to help breakdown the stereotypes of the 47% as takers.  If this film doesn't engender empathy on both sides of the isle, then nothing will:  

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wJJR3lG72AA

MartiWilliams
MartiWilliams

If one advocates for empathy, then one also sees 'shades of gray'. Shades of gray do not lend themselves to easy answers which is what the Republicans and even libertarians want to deal with. In an ideal world, every one would respond to education the same way, go to college, and proceed on the same tract to be in a better place, but through no fault of their own , there are people who can not do what is 'expected' of them and they 'fail'. Failure to turn out like you do is considered a failing in the person and not seen as a failure in the system, or a circumstance beyond anyone's control.

adoramaze
adoramaze

@HarryGantz Have seen it . It's great. Not surprising as I know people, former high level professionals, who lost houses because they couldn't pay tyhe tax or who are living in their  vans. Sad.. so so sad

KarenHayes
KarenHayes

I think Armanocdil81 is trying to tell us Americans don't have compassion and anyone who does is displaying weakness. What does that tell us about armanodedododo?