If last year’s presidential election taught us anything, it’s that extreme divisiveness can overwhelm our better nature. The sheer magnitude of negative political campaigning we were exposed to led to high levels of dissatisfaction among the American people, as well as discord so severe that both sides slammed the other as being hateful and brainless. The result of this hostility was that we, as a society, have slipped further and further away from our innate empathetic nature.
Empathy is what you feel when you step outside of yourself and experience another person’s emotions, conflicts, or aspirations from their vantage point — and research has shown that it’s hard-wired in all of us. The connections formed by our ability to feel empathy for others is what allows us to build healthy relationships, which are an essential part of our mental health.
However, empathy is declining among Americans. A recent study from Michigan State University shows that America ranks seventh in the world for empathy, behind countries such as Ecuador, Denmark, and the United Arab Emirates. Even war-torn Saudi Arabia ranked higher in empathy than America. What’s behind this sudden drop in basic human decency? The answer lies in politics.
It’s no secret that American politics is being steered by people on both ends of the political spectrum — people who range from deliberately insensitive to blatantly vicious toward anyone they disagree with. The vast majority of these politicians are either numb to or completely uninterested in the problems, sufferings, and needs of their constituents.
All one has to do is turn on any news channel and take in the statements of politicians or pundits on talk shows. You see them unable (or unwilling) to step into someone else’s shoes and relate to what other people experience — especially constituents who think differently than they do. You see it in the way they spout anger and hatred towards groups of people who differ in belief, traditions, values, and ways of life from their own.
These attitudes are incredibly dangerous in today’s interconnected world. At a time when we need to be embracing our neighbors and opening the doors of commerce, our politics have become so polarized that people’s’ patriotism is questioned when their views welcome globalization. It’s even more troublesome when you see them opposing policies that might require small personal sacrifices for the common good — when they encourage the American people to turn on members of their own community.
The political dynamics of our country — that is, the way politicians interact with each other, the policies being put into effect, and the alarming increase in public hate groups — have shown that as time passes, Americans are beginning to lose their capacity for empathy. Our views toward others have become increasingly heartless, if not downright hostile. We’ve lost our ability to feel for one another, and what’s worse, we don’t care.
But what is it exactly that’s promoting these divisions and the almost complete lack of human empathy on a society level? It’s the federal government — or, to be more exact, the politicians making changes within it. It’s been a long time since society as a whole has felt nurtured by the federal government, our parent figure. This, in turn, has led us to not feel the need to nurture others.
Far too many policies have been put into place that weaken the federal government and destroy its ability to take care of American citizens. Funding and budget cuts for FEMA, Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, and our education system all leave the American people feeling neglected and betrayed by the government. They come to the natural conclusion that the government isn’t looking out for their wellbeing.
As this feeling of neglect grows, their trust in the government wanes. Then political candidates come along and proclaim the government to be the enemy — an enemy that needs to be torn apart. And so the citizens vote these politicians into office, and the politicians continue to pass legislation that does more harm than good, and the cycle continues. And so the people, who are overlooked, undervalued, and in pain, lose faith that caring about anything bigger than themselves actually matters. And empathy dies.
Why We Need Empathetic Politicians
Empathy is a beautiful thing. It heightens appreciation of commonality and our connection with fellow humans. It allows us to relate to people who struggle with life in many of the same ways we do. It overpowers self-centered responses to superficial differences such as religion, race, or ideology. Tolerance grows from empathy, giving us a stronger, more enlightened foundation for resolving conflicts when we face them. In short, empathy is the means to both a healthy life and a healthy society.
In closing, it’s important to point out that disdain and indifference have become key elements of American politics. Outsiders are continually vilified and targeted for blame, and rationality has be thrown out the window. Nationalism, militarism, anti-intellectualism are being heralded as the American way. As each day passes, more and more hate groups (such as the Alt-Right, Ku Klux Klan, and White Supremacists) are coming out from the woodwork and marching in the streets. Without strong, kind, and empathetic leadership to set us back on the right course, we are headed down the path to disaster.