The Magazine

Empathy, Anyone?

The politics of feeling.

Jan 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 19 • By STEVEN J. LENZNER
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The politics of hope? The politics of change? How about the politics of empathy? To judge from the 2008 campaign so far, a candidate could do worse than to promote herself, above all, as a person of feeling. Solicitude is--or is on the verge of becoming--the preeminent qualification for our nation's highest office.

Take Michigan: With his candidacy in danger of collapse, Mitt Romney went to the state in which he grew up and told his audience again and again that he was a Michigander's Michiganian: "You see, I've got Michigan in my DNA, I've got it in my heart and I've got cars in my bloodstream." Romney was part of the family--neither distant cousin nor prodigal son. And like a good member of the family, he cared. Really, really, cared: "I care about Michigan. For me, it's personal. It's personal for me because it's where I was born and raised."

The appeal worked. According to MSNBC's exit poll, Romney won about 60 percent of the 42 percent of voters who rated "Romney's ties to Michigan" as "very important" or "somewhat important." Of the 56 percent who answered "not too important" or "not at all," he won about a quarter.

Perhaps it is too much to expect a candidate in our day and age to echo the British statesman Edmund Burke's famous (postelection) declaration to the electors of Bristol that his parliamentary actions would be guided solely by considerations of the good of the nation. But we seem to be descending even from "Ask not what your broken federal government can do for you," to "ask how deeply I feel about Michigan."

Romney's Michigan victory is only the thin edge of the ascendancy of the politics of empathy. Of the leading contenders for the nominations, only John McCain and Barack Obama have largely steered clear. Romney's fellow GOP contender Mike Huckabee, flair and wit notwithstanding, is scarcely less naked in his appeals to fellow feeling, be it to his co-religionists or to the hitherto unidentified laid-off majority: "Because I believe most Americans want their next president to remind them of the guy they worked with, not the guy who laid them off." Though far less grating, Huckabee's appeals are more insidious than Romney's, for the former seek to wed empathy to resentment.

The Republicans, however, are mere tyros at the politics of empathy. The Democrats have been championing such a politics for the better part of two decades, ever since Bill Clinton (in)famously made "I feel your pain" part of the American political lexicon. So powerful and reflexive is this appeal in today's Democratic party that a serious candidate for its nomination based his campaign on little more than his capacity for feeling compassion for the have-nots and anger at their plutocratic oppressors. John Edwards even went so far as to suggest that politics should free itself from that invidious political imperialist, thought:

Edwards said his arguments come from the heart, rather than the head. "Every one of you can tell the difference between somebody giving an academic speech and somebody who's coming from right here," he said, gesturing toward his chest [Washington Post, January 2].

Though it is of some comfort that Edwards's candidacy will soon be a thing of the past, the fact that this Sinclair Lewis character became a serious contender for the presidency may cause thoughtful citizens some sleepless nights.

But enough of Edwards's artlessness. Since more bandwidth has been consumed in two weeks by Hillary's tears than ink has been spilled over Juliet's in almost half a millennium, I will tread briefly, if not lightly. Hillary Clinton's act took the politics of empathy--a politics in which feelings are disconnected from anything remotely political or rational--to new heights (or depths). It is no accident that her emotional moment was immediately followed by the words, "You know, this is very personal for me": the perfect postmodern marriage of empathy, emoting, and solipsism. And the voters responded to it--or should one say fell for it?