Appealing to Empathy to Overcome Polarization
By Arnold Kling
- When 66 million Democrats and 69 million Republicans lost their empathy toward each other, lack of civility, loathing and anger erupted, resulting in a partisan power struggle with no brakes or constraint that has been eroding the guardrails of our democracy.
- —René H. Levy, Mending America’s Political Divide: People Over Partisan Politics1 (page ix)
In Mending America’s Political Divide, René H. Levy offers a neuroscientist’s perspective on the phenomenon of political polarization. Our politics is stimulating our tribal instincts, which lead us to lose empathy with the other side. This lack of empathy has dangerous consequences.
Levy describes the deterioration in our political culture by asking rhetorical questions, including:
- Americans are known for their civic spirit: what made them become so uncivil and hostile toward each other? (pages 17-18)
He sees people reverting to primitive psychological patterns.
- Political tribalism erupted because it is based on our intuitive binary instinct that allows us to classify others as “us” or “them” in a fraction of a second. The second mind deception, political hatred, was triggered by a natural defense mechanism located in our inner brain, the seat of our emotions. Hatred emerges subconsciously whenever our primitive brain (including the amygdala) detects a potential threat. For partisans, a political threat is as real as a physical threat and it activates the primitive brain, resulting in some form of hatred. (page ix)
For Levy, the most harmful characteristic of tribal politics is lack of empathy. We lose sight of the humanity of our political opponents and instead treat them as an evil force.
Levy offers a vision for a healthier political culture.
- • To have policy disagreements without allowing partisanship to become the cause of our disagreements
- • To consider our political opponents worthy adversaries who are fit to rule our country
- • To reject perceptions of threat and contempt, tribalism and hatred, as ways to discharge our civic duties or to obliterate the beliefs of others. (pages 40-41)
In short, we need to view those with whom we disagree as having honorable intentions and legitimate reasons for believing as they do. We may regard them as mistaken, but we should not think of them as evil. We need to lose the apocalyptic mindset that foresees dire consequences should we lose an election. Instead,
- Constructive partisanship is politics with integrity. It is about partisans who believe in their party’s platform but without disrespect, demonization, contempt, or hatred toward opposition partisans. (page 113)
Levy says that to do better we must adopt four behaviors. He calls these Impulse Control, Empathy Skills, Contradiction/Discordance, and Mutual Responsibility.
By impulse control he means a mindfulness that allows us to overcome the instinct to fear and hate political opponents.
- The primitive brain takes policies of the opposition, sees them as an imminent reality as if they had already become law, and makes us feel that we must fight back right now. The wisdom approach on the other hand takes the time to untangle potential from actual impact, and derails the perception of threat. The perception of threat is transformed into the correct perception of a potential future challenge. (page 132)
Levy sees lack of empathy as a core flaw in tribal politics.
- Without empathy, a partisan turns from victim to aggressor and becomes judgmental, inconsiderate, and callous. This partisan will react not just to the policies of the opposition but become intolerant and “allergic” to political opponents as individuals, to the point of screaming to the TV screen when they appear. (page 135)
In contrast, when we listen to others with empathy,
- We make eye contact, we do not interrupt the speaker, do not counter-critique and do not judge. We try to figure out the emotional state and feelings of the speaker. We are open to the speaker’s position and when needed ask follow-up questions to discover what is actually important to them. If possible, we also repeat or paraphrase the speaker’s thoughts to show that we heard her/him and thus build a connection. (page 138)
By Contradiction/Discordance, Levy means that we must be ready to tolerate ambiguity. Some issues have valid considerations on both sides. He offers abortion as one example, where there are valid concerns both for the quality of life of the woman and the right to life of the fetus.
Levy’s description of Mutual Responsibility differs from that of the other three behaviors in that it is a problem for one side but not the other. Whereas both left and right may be guilty of lack of impulse control, lack of empathy, or inability to tolerate ambiguity, the opposite of mutual responsibility is a form of rugged individualism that Levy sees in libertarianism. He makes it seems that Mutual Responsibility is automatically appreciated by the left, but the rest of us have to learn it.
This discussion would have been more balanced had Levy talked about how Mutual Responsibility is not easily understood in a large, complex society. In a simple, small-scale society, such as a family, the morality of actions is readily judged by using the intention heuristic, because there is usually a clear, direct connection between intentions and outcomes. But in a large, complex society, the unintended consequences of actions often differ from their intended consequences. As a result, the question of which policies and institutions best promote mutual responsibility is a contestable issue.
I see one other flaw in Mending America’s Political Divide, which is that it does not adequately address the question of why polarization appears to be more severe now than in the past. Some hypotheses that I have offered include the way that social media changes the way that we experience political events and the way that our culture has sorted along political lines.2
These quibbles aside, Mending America’s Political Divide offers a sound diagnosis of our political ills. It offers a prescription that I wish more people would take to heart.
 René H. Levy, Mending America’s Political Divide: People Over Partisan Politics. Independently published, April 2020.
 See “Healing Our Political Culture: A Conversation with Jonathan Rauch and Arnold Kling”. AEI.org, December 12, 2019. Video available at the link.
*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of several books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy; and Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.
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