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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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.”

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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.”

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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.