Butting Heads: The Roles of Empathy and Understanding Among Today's Political Parties

Was it always this bad?  

For those of us who study the current political landscape in this country, it's a question we have to ask ourselves.  At a time when our country is seemingly as polarized as it has been in well over a century,  we need to take a collective step back and take a long, hard look in the mirror.  How can we, The United States, the greatest country on Earth, be so divided?  How has it gotten to this point and will we ever be able to resolve our differences?  

To answer these questions, one must delve into the root causes of these political divisions. Why do we now have a time when our politics has moved to either the left or the right and completely dissipated from that common middle ground?  What happened to the days where there was wide consensus among both major political parties in regards to a problem with the only differences then being the different approaches to a potential solution?   When did the term "compromise" become such a dirty word?  Why do we now have our two major political parties with such varied and distinct world views?  

In order to tackle the issues, we need to start with the last question and work our way backwards.  How does each major political party view the world?  To understand this question, one must understand the basic principles behind the Democratic and Republican parties today. These principles have obviously changed over time, but for the past decade they have evolved into fairly consistent national party platforms.  That is why there is very little surprise at the national conventions as the beliefs of party nominees largely fall in line with those of the party as a whole.  It's why today if a candidate has differing views than the mainstream party, then he or she is essentially chewed up and spit out long before the nominating process gets going.  It's why we saw a candidate like Jon Hunstman  bow out of the 2012 presidential race immediately after New Hampshire.  

Huntsman was forced out because he didn't have the core beliefs on the mainstream Republican Party in the second decade of the 21st century.  These beliefs are centered on the idea of American exceptionalism:  That we are a free nation due to democratic ideals and personal liberty.  The belief that the American dream is possible to anyone as long as you work hard enough.  The idea that big government often gets in the way of success due to excessive rules and regulations.  The idea that a person's standing in life is due to his or her life choices and not any kind of systemic issues that might cause a competitive disadvantage.  The idea that true growth and economic success comes when those at the top are successful and their success trickles down to the rest of society.  The idea that America can and should be a force to be reckoned with in the world and that military options to resolve a conflict should be prioritized and pursued when given the opportunity.    

Compare this version of essential Republican core beliefs to those of Democrats.  Today's Democratic Party acknowledges that there are systems in place that prevent people from reaching their potential whether it's lack of housing, lack of jobs, or lack of money for higher education.  Today's Democratic Party acknowledges unregulated business has the potential to be disastrous just as we saw with the crash of 2008.  Today's Democratic Party acknowledges that constantly giving money, resources, and tax breaks to corporations doesn't create jobs but rather creates huge levels of inequality.  Today's Democratic Party acknowledges that cowboy diplomacy where we shoot first and ask questions later has been an unsuccessful policy for the last 30 years and diplomacy can, and should, be the primary option in dealing with international conflicts.  

As you can see, these two distinct worldviews then shape how a person views his or her world on a day-to-day basis.  A Republican goes out in the morning and is mad that he has to get his emissions checked by his local mechanic.  While at the shop, he laments that the mechanic probably thinks he should be making $15/hour when he doesn't even have a four-year degree and can't even speak proper English.  After leaving the mechanic, a Republican goes to his place of employment and gets his messages from his secretary.  He sighs that his secretary probably thinks she is entitled to make just as much money as him even though she doesn't work nearly as hard as he does.  While at work, a Republican helps his boss find a tax loophole that will save the company tens of thousands of dollars over the course of the next fiscal year. During his lunch, a Republican checks his stocks and investments, much of it in military manufacturers he knows will eventually be called upon for our next global conflict.  A Republican goes home, turns on Fox News, and gets upset that Obama just made another speech about the whole Black Lives Matters thing.  A Republican gets ready for bed by making sure his pistol is loaded and easy accessible should he need it as his neighborhood isn't what it used to be due to all the recent immigrants that keep moving into the area.

A Democrat wakes up and drives her car to the local Starbucks.  She bops inside and grabs a coffee and thanks the hard working barista named Linda whom she has gotten to know over these past few years.  On the way out, a Democrat notices a homeless veteran who has fallen on hard times and gives him a dollar to help him out.  She smiles and goes to work where she teaches at the local elementary school.  In her classroom, a Democrat has a giant world map and flags from where her students are from.  She greets her students in their native languages and even has the class sing Happy Birthday to one of her students in his native Spanish.  Before lunch, a Democrat pulls one student aside whom she notices has a large hole in her winter hat. She opens her desk drawer and gives the student a new hat and takes the old one in exchange. The student blushes and heads to lunch with her classmates.  On her way home, a Democrat listens to NPR and applauds the Obama Administration for trusting diplomacy and working out a comprehensive deal with Iran that will avoid war for the foreseeable future.  At home, a Democrat grades papers and lesson plans even though she is technically off the clock.  She glances at the note on her refrigerator reminding her to pay her bills in the coming week and vows to double check her accounts to make sure she has sufficient funds.  Before bed, she lets her dog out and waves to her new Korean neighbors across the street whom she just met the last weekend when they moved into their new home.  

And so, we now have two very distinct views of not only how America works but how America should work.  

The problem we now face is that there is very little overlap in these two camps.  If a Republican and a Democrat from our stories above were ever to meet on a blind date, one can imagine how quickly the date would end.  Just look at what they already disagree on before we even get to specifics:  Wages, finances, immigration, social safety nets, diplomacy, community.  There will be no room for compromise either as each person's worldview is shaped by their experiences.  A Republican has his views and they are reinforced to him on a daily routine by his environment.  The same can be said for a Democrat being shaped by her environment. However, it could also be argued that both these people chose to be in their situations based upon their worldview.  A Republican most likely came from a wealthy upbringing and felt that making money in the business world was just what people could and should be doing.  A Democrat most likely came from more humble beginnings and felt that she wanted to give back to her community in work that would be both personally and professionally meaningful. Two separate people, two vastly different views of how America can and should operate.  

So what we now have in America are these two very distinct views.  Like our characters, we as a nation as both shaped by, and are products of, our worldview.  Someone who believes that kids are punks and some of them shouldn't even be in school is not going to be a teacher in the inner city.  In contrast, someone who believes companies should be well-regulated and that trickle down economics is a sham will not end up working on Wall Street.  Someone who sees immigration as a positive influence on his or her community is more likely to support The Dream Act.  Someone who watches the news every night and who locks his or her doors when driving through the city is much more likely to be against gun control.  

When you understand where a person is coming from, you are much more likely to see why he or she has the worldview they have.  Unfortunately today, people don't realize there exists a large portion of the population who hasn't shared their own personal experiences.  It's why it's so easy for a politician to get elected from his or her home district that have been gerrymandered in such a way that there really is no way that he or she can lose.  And so, you end up with a politician bringing with them their own views which coincide with the party views because they've never known anything different.  It's easy to toe the party line and parrot what everyone else around you is saying if you've never had an experience that has run contrary to your accepted views.  

But what happens when something unexpected comes up?  

Herein lies the major issue related to our theme of political differences.  How do you react when something occurs that goes against everything you have come to know and believe?  For politicians today, they are often forced to swallow their pride and admit they were wrong. We saw it with then Secretary of State Colin Powell admitted the evidence he submitted to the United Nations in 2004 regarding Iraq may have been wrong.  We saw it with Republican Senator Rob Portman who came out in support of marriage equality in April of 2013 after he learned his son was gay.  And, most recently, we saw it with Lindsay Graham who now is in favor of disaster relief after having previously voted against it for victims of Hurricane Sandy.

Empathy breeds understanding.  It always has.  And it is the one thing that prevents the two major political parties from compromising today.  When is the last time a Republican volunteered to live on food stamps for a week?  When is the last time they visited a Planned Parenthood?  When is the last time they visited an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility?  When is the last time they spoke to an inmate who was in jail after receiving a mandatory minimum sentence?  When is the last time they attended a gay wedding?  When is the last time they visited a community of color?  

The answer:  Never.  

Because those experiences would simply shatter the American exceptionalism worldview that Republicans have grown to love.  It's why someone like Bill O'Reilly denies the existence of child hunger because he personally has never seen it so it must not be real.  It's why Ben Carson doesn't think a Muslim should be president because he personally doesn't have any close Muslim friends or know of any prominent Muslim leaders.  It's why Carly Fiorina has created a mythical Planned Parenthood video because she personally has never visited an actual clinic.  And it's why Donald Trump thinks he can deport 11 million undocumented immigrants because he personally has never interacted with someone who is living a life in the shadows to try and provide a better life for his family back home.

When historians look back on this era, they will undoubtedly see the rift in political ideology that occurred.  They will see a Democratic Party rally around the Obama coalition and advance a progressive agenda that suits the needs of this country going forward.  They will see a Republican Party devoid of a desire to share those progressive views and thus take the opposite stance on nearly every major issue.  While America has moved gradually left of center, the Republican Party has moved further and further to the right and has systemically alienated the millennial voting bloc who is now on the cusp of starting their own families. Historians will see that the Republican no compromise philosophy of the 'Freedom Caucus' may have won them some gains during the midterm elections, but ultimately created a political party unwilling to compromise on even the most basic legislation.  With each subsequent Congress becoming more and more historically unproductive, the Republican inability to compromise will be seen more for a party completely bereft of policy ideas and less for a party sticking to its principles.  You can only say no so many times before someone asks you, "Ok, so what then?" and you're forced to respond with a shrug of the shoulders.

What all this means is that we are at a time in our nation's history where we have one major political party devoid of empathy.  Of compassion.  Of caring.  Of being our brother's keeper. What we have today is a Republican Party oblivious to the struggles of anyone who is not an affluent, White male.  Republicans will go out on the campaign trail, go to a few diners, go and visit a factory, and report back that they have an understanding as to how everyone in that particular region lives.  They won't visit the schools, hospitals, or prisons.  They won't engage the local homeless population.  They won't visit the run-down apartment complex on the rough side of town.  Those places not only don't have political clout but they also represent a worldview that does not compute for the modern Republican candidate.  

Republicans today live in a bubble.  A bubble that conveniently coincides with their worldview. They all have confirmation bias.  When they believe something to be true and see it happen, it means it's always that way.  An illegal immigrant committing a crime.  An African American running from the police.  A single mother on welfare.  A struggling fast food worker who never received a college degree.  This makes sense to them because that is how the world works. Because based on their worldview, it is how the world should work.  When they see something that doesn't agree with their worldview they laugh it off and admit, "Well, there's a first time for everything I guess."  

History will not be kind to Republicans of this era, nor should it be.  At an age where we have the history of mankind's knowledge at the push of a button, Republicans are more willfully ignorant than ever.  They see, hear, and experience what they want to for fear of upsetting their preconceived notions and ideas.  Their worldview is stagnant; it does not change.  They believe that America is declining and needs to return to the polices of the 1950's when American educated was valued by society, women didn't work, we didn't have Mexican immigrants, and African Americans knew their place and didn't cause havoc.  It is a party that didn't have a single elected official support the Affordable Care Act which has given 16.4 million Americans a better quality of life.  They are behind the curve on women's rights, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, marriage equality, and immigration reform.  Rather than finding common ground with the Democrats and aligning themselves to issues that have popular support, Republicans have doubled down and refused to compromise because they feel it would be betraying their core values.  Somebody really should tell them that the Founding Fathers that they liken themselves to were among some of the best compromisers the world had ever seen.  Unlike today's Republican Party, they actually empathized with the people they were expected to represent.   

To understand where others are coming from would be a novel concept indeed.

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