There has been a lot of discussion since Election Day about what went wrong for Republicans, and what they need to do to win again in the future. In my view, Republicans’ challenge is captured in one word: empathy, the act of understanding and being sensitive to the feelings and experiences of others.
While Republicans are not necessarily less empathetic than Democrats, they are perceived that way by voters. And in politics, perception is reality.
Mitt Romney brought many qualities to the campaign. He exuded competence and had a keen grasp of the issues and a plausible plan to fix the nation’s problems. He had a proven record of business accomplishment and had shown the ability to bring disparate political factions together. One quality that eluded him was empathy.
Polls throughout the campaign showed Romney behind President Obama by sizeable margins on empathy-related issues — on which candidate cared about average people; which would represent ordinary Americans; which was more likeable.
On Election Day, exit polls found more voters shared Romney’s values and felt he’d be a better steward of the economy. But Obama won the empathy vote going away.
Voters had a more favorable view of Obama, and he won by 10 points on the question, “Who is more in touch with people like you?”
And for voters whose top attribute in a candidate was that he “cares about people like me,” Obama won by a mind-blowing 63 points.
Of course, it wasn’t just Romney but the entire Republican Party that suffered from an empathy deficit. At pivotal moments throughout the campaign Republicans came across as uncaring and insensitive. Many of those moments came during the Republican primaries, just as voters were getting their first glimpses of the candidates.
On September 7, 2011, Republican debate audience members cheered when Texas Gov. Rick Perry said he had “never struggled” with the idea that one of his state’s record 234 executed death row inmates might have been innocent.
Five days later, A Republican audience cheered a debate moderator’s question about whether a hypothetical 30-year-old who suddenly needs urgent care should be allowed to die because he lacks insurance.
The perception of Republicans as heartless was reinforced when Republican Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Murdock made inept and uncompassionate remarks about rape and abortion.
It was further reinforced when a video went viral of Mitt Romney claiming that 47 percent of Americans see themselves as victims and don’t “take responsibility and care for their lives.”
More generally, this perception is reinforced whenever conservatives use “illegal” as a noun or use the word “alien” to talk about illegal immigrants, and whenever they advise, as Romney did during the primaries, that illegal immigrants “self deport.”
Democrats do not have a monopoly on empathy, of course. Obama often shows an appalling lack of compassion and understanding toward entire groups of people — for example, unborn babies and those who don’t want to be complicit in their demise.
Many conservatives also point out that government compassion cannot and should not displace personal compassion. It’s no wonder that numerous surveys have found conservatives are likelier than liberals to give their time and money to charity.
What’s more, Democrats too often exploit their perceived empathy edge for crass political gain, as when Obama suggested that Romney would achieve his goal of self-deportation by “making life so miserable on folks that they’ll leave.”
It was a mischaracterization, but one that stuck, because it fit the narrative of Romney as an unfeeling plutocrat who cares only about people like himself.
But Republicans don’t do themselves any favors. Former vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan believes individual initiative and self-reliance are important values, and they are. In Ryan’s “makers versus takers” philosophy, need, weakness, and dependency constitute threats to America.
But many people who need help struggle through little or no fault of their own. Weakness is usually a reality that people do not choose. Receiving help can be a sign of humility, a moral virtue.
Obama has written that empathy “is at the heart of my moral code.” He creates solidarity with struggling college graduates by telling them that he and Michelle spent years paying off student loans.
Empathy animated Obama’s first term choices. He regularly referred to empathy and fairness when talking about the qualities he looks for in judicial appointments. He once said that he would appoint justices to the Supreme Court who have the “empathy…to understand what’s it’s like to be poor, or African American, or gay or disabled or old.”
He talked about passing Obamacare to help the 50 million uninsured Americans, and urged the Supreme Court not to neglect the “human element” when deciding how to rule on the law.
Empathy is essential for any president. Bill Clinton told unemployed Americans that he felt their pain, and George W. Bush got elected by stressing a compassionate conservatism that combined personal responsibility with government spending for social programs.
Republicans don’t need to revert to the big government policies of the Bush era. But as they begin to plan their comeback, they must first acknowledge the crucial role empathy plays in politics, and the crucial role empathy can play in making others feel welcome in their party.