A little over a year ago, on my old blog, I wrote a post about what I see as the biggest problem in our political system, if not our society: a lack of empathy.
The press, the media and the pundits have been talking about the extreme partisanship for some time. But I think they have tended to misjudge the problem. Most of the time, they simply decry “partisanship” or “rhetoric”. But … we’ve always had that. And frankly, it doesn’t bother me that much. I want people to be passionate for and motivated by the things they believe in. If you think abortion is a modern-day holocaust, I don’t think you should feel any compunction about saying so. And if you think abortion restrictions make women slaves to their wombs, don’t hold back. I want people to speak powerfully for what they believe to be right.
I don’t mind partisanship. Debate and argument are not just “not bad”; they’re essential for the proper functioning of a democracy. Partisan opposition killed some of the worst parts of Obamacare. Partisanship brought us a balanced budget back in the 90’s. Often, when we’ve blundered, it’s because of a lack of opposition. “Partisanship” usually translates out of Punditese as “people disagreeing with me” and calls to end “partisanship” are often misguided calls for one side to just concede.
No, partisanship qua partisanship isn’t bad; what’s bad is the lack of empathy for the other side. The problem is that both sides have decided that the opposition is not just wrong, but evil. That every argument “they” make is a disingenuous front to conceal their real motives. So the pro-life side can’t honestly be concerned about what they see as the extinguishing of millions of lives; no, that’s just a front to conceal their hatred of women and desire to control their bodies. And the pro-choice side can’t honestly believe women should control their own bodies; they want a hedonistic society in which sex doesn’t have consequences. We’ve defined each side not by the millions of reasonable people but by the thousands of crazy assholes. We don’t just hate politicians; we hate everyone who supports them.
I still believe this: that the biggest problem in politics is a lack of empathy for the other side. We take obscure bloggers or dumb late night talk show hosts and blow any vile utterance up to represent what the other side “really thinks”. We don’t engage in the arguments the other side makes because it’s much easier to knock down straw men than to admit that they might have a point. We refuse to countenance the idea that most of the people in this country — yes, even those who voted for Trump (or Clinton) — are decent folks who probably agree with us on a great many things.
Rarely has this thesis been more distilled than it was in the just concluded war over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. I have not commented on it much on these pages since, among other things, it became readily apparent that the fight was not about his judicial philosophy or whether the allegations of sexual misconduct were true. It rapidly became a war between our two political tribes in which the only thing that mattered was victory and in which each side was living in its own reality.
To the pro-Kavanaugh side, these last few weeks were a vicious smear campaign against a sitting justice and a good man. They were genuinely concerned abut the first allegation. But as the allegations became increasingly less certain and even fantastical, their position hardened. And when we descended into parsing yearbook quotes and bar fights, when everything Brett Kavanaugh did or said was interpreted as a sign of how vile he was, Republicans saw it as increasingly deranged.
But the anti-BK forces refused to concede this. No, they insisted, the Kavanaugh supporters just didn’t care about sexual assault. Some event went so far as to claim the Republicans liked Kavanaugh because he was a sexual predator. To be fair, Trump’s attacks on the alleged victims fueled this perception. But it was rarely acknowledged that maybe the GOP honestly thought that Kavanaugh was the victim of a slime campaign and were outraged by it.
The anti-BK side was a little more divided. The debate became, at least in part, an outlet for their frustration over the Merrick Garland stunt and their inability to stop a rightward shift in the Court. But there were many who were genuinely upset that a man with a credible assault allegation was considered suitable for one of the most powerful positions in the country. To many many people, an allegation like Ford’s — credible, but not supported by any direct evidence other than her testimony — might not have been enough to charge him with a crime; but it should have been enough to make the Republicans find someone else from their long list of Federalist judges.
But the pro-BK forces refused to concede even that much. No, it was all Trump Derangement Syndrome, hatred for Kavanaugh, hatred for white men, political correctness, or whatever. The most common claim was that the Democrats were trying to stall the vote past the election. That wasn’t completely unfair; Feinstein’s (arguably defensible) sitting on the Ford letter and numerous commentators linking the BK fight to the seat “stolen” from Merrick Garland fueled such claims. But never for a second did they concede that maybe people really believed Ford and thought this was disqualifying.
(I’m only scratching the surface here. The last weeks have featured an onslaught of horrifyingly bad arguments from both sides. You’ll notice this article is devoid of my usual heavy links. There’s a reason for that.)
In a sane world, the Republicans would have gotten Kavanaugh to withdraw to clear his name and nominated someone else in his place. In a sane world, the Democrats would have conceded that the allegations were shaky but said they should be disqualifying anyway. But we don’t live in that world, if we ever did. And the reasonable people seem to be fleeing the field to leave the crazies in charge.
I don’t know that there’s a fix for the disease that has afflicted our politics. It’s not just that we live in echo chambers. It’s that there is always some idiot on Twitter, on television, on Facebook, somewhere who will make the worst possible argument that can be made. And that argument will be easily amplified in the echo chambers as an example of what “they” really think.
Some of this is human nature, as I argued in the linked post:
The great advice columnist Amy Alkon has written about this many times — that we have minds evolved for the stone age functioning in a modern world. We tend to see people close to us — usually limited to a couple of hundred people — as human and fallible. When they make mistakes or have misfortunes, we sympathize. When they make arguments we think are wrong, we engage them honestly. But we regard those outside of that small circle as alien and view them with suspicion. This is why we tend to be rude to strangers, why we scream at cars in traffic, why we get furious at people we don’t even know. It explains why we so readily form internet shame mobs: because we understand if your uncle makes a racist joke he’s just making a bad joke. But if someone we don’t know does it, they’re a vile person. If your sister leaves her children in the car for ten seconds, she’s just being practical. If a stranger does, they’re endangering their kid. And so we quickly revert to our primal need to stone foreign devils.
I’m not pretending to be immune from this. I’m on Twitter and engage in this sort of thing from time to time. But this willingness to indulge our inner medieval villager is becoming a luxury we can no longer afford. It’s going to have to change — not just in politics but in everything. From online shame mobs to Twitter flame wars to the Outrage of the Day, we are in a deadly spiral of callousness toward each other’s motives, perpetual anger over real or imagined slights and deranged certainty in the morality and justness of our own causes. It’s tearing at our society and making us all miserable.
The Kavanaugh War was only the latest and most alarming symptom of this disease. I don’t see a cure in sight but we need one. Desperately.