No, but clear thinking is: In recent weeks, we've started to wonder about the quality of the help President Obama received.
It started with Alyssa Mastromonaco, the former Obama aide who, just to be totally fair, is already peddling a book. We blanched at one or two cable appearances, then gagged at the way she complained about Kellyanne Conway, who had dared to put her feet on an Oval Office couch.
To hear her bellyache, kvetch and complain, click here, then jump to 13:30. Color us less than impressed.
It started with Mastromonaco. Today, we were struck by a New York Magazine essay by Sarada Peri, who served Obama as a senior presidential speechwriter and as a special assistant. We were struck, as we often are, by Peri's problem navigating the logic of "some" versus "all."
Peri seems like a very nice person. That said, her essay appears beneath a gloomy headline:
"Empathy Is Dead in American Politics"
Is empathy dead in American politics? Maybe yes, almost certainly no. Plainly, though, cool clear reason is on its last legs, or at least so it can seem.
Like everyone else, Peri is wondering about those white working-class voters who voted for Donald J. Trump. Like Amanda Marcotte before her, she cites Nate Cohn's analysis in yesterday's New York Times.
Peri wonders if Democrats have shown enough empathy for these voters. Soon, though, a more troubling question appears:
PERI (3/30/17): To be persuasive, as a politician, you have to be persuadable—you have to put yourself in your audience’s shoes and demonstrate that, to paraphrase one gifted politician, you feel their pain. This is how a speaker meets people where they are, gains credibility, and, hopefully, builds support for his or her agenda. Even before November, there had been a growing interest in feeling the pain of folks in the quaintly named Heartland and Rust Belt, from sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild embedding herself in a Louisiana community for five years, to J.D. Vance’s best-selling Hillbilly Elegy about growing up in Kentucky.Does demonstrating empathy even work any more? We'll start with a basic suggestion:
But there is a more fundamental, discomfiting, question in all this: Does demonstrating empathy even work anymore for politicians? Or, to put a finer point on it, if you show empathy for everybody in your audience, does each person only hear that you care about someone else?
If you want to show empathy for white working-class voters, you probably shouldn't start with a snarky remark about the "quaint" term "heartland." Some of those voters will think you're rolling your eyes at them, which of course you are.
(It's in our liberal DNA. We do it without even thinking.)
That's a minor point. As she continues, Peri explains why she thinks empathy no longer works. As a matter of basic political logic, this passage is visibly bonkers:
PERI (continuing directly): As one of President Obama’s speechwriters, I had the privilege of working for one of the most authentically compassionate leaders in recent history. He possesses a natural ability—and desire—to understand just about anyone. And as his speechwriters, we knew he didn’t just appreciate all sides of a story—he wanted to acknowledge those perspectives and reassure his audiences that he heard where they were coming from.In that passage, Peri complains that Obama's compassion and empathy weren't always well received. For example, Rudy Giuliani once offered irrational criticism, this presidential assistant says.
Yet, try as he did, message intended wasn’t always message received.
For example, whenever Obama addressed tensions between law enforcement and the communities they served, some critics would insist that he never had a nice thing to say about cops. After the horrific murder of two New York City cops, Rudy Giuliani was quick to blame Obama, saying, “The president has shown absolutely no respect for the police...All the president has done is see one side of this dispute.”
In what world will a politician's compassionate gesture always be well received, even by political hatchet men in the other party? Peri has established an other-worldly standard, but she sticks to it right to the end.
In that passage, Peri complains about a partisan hatchet man. Within a few paragraphs, she's complaining about the way the public behaves, empathy-wise.
Forget about Giuliani! The public is unfair, impossibly so, she says. She's so convinced of her complaint that she ends up thinking that Trump's uncaring, us-versus-them approach works better than Obama's empathetic concern for all people and groups:
PERI: Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has written that, “When it comes to policy decisions...we are better off putting aside empathy and employing a combination of rational deliberation and a more distanced compassion.” I asked him what this means for political communication. He said that empathy, effectively, is a zero-sum game. Anyone who has to speak to multiple audiences at once faces a trade-off: A politician might tell you he cares about you—but if he also tells you that he cares about someone else, you no longer trust him. We demand of our leaders an unfair and impossible monogamy.Plainly, that passage is bonkers. Obama left office in the mid-50s, approval-wise. Trump, who's in his "honeymoon" period, is now down to 35. And by the way:
Trump implicitly understands this—which is why his us-versus-them rhetoric, while so appalling to much of the country, appeals to the small group of people he has identified as “us.” They’re not interested in hearing that he also cares about others. They want him all to themselves.
And the sad truth is, it works. For all the noise about his low approval ratings, he’s actually doing fine among Republicans, including those who once balked at his ascendance. They now sheepishly applaud as he translates that us-versus-them rhetoric into the policy equivalent: Rather than call Mexicans drug dealers and rapists, for instance, he calmly weaponizes the bureaucracy and announces a new office to prosecute crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, an almost nonexistent problem. His supporters are satisfied with his plan. His opponents are impressed with his “restraint.” Thus does a con artist slither over the lowest of bars.
(By the way: which of Donald J. Trump's opponents are "impressed with his restraint?" Can anyone locate such people?)
Donald J. Trump's approval rating stands at an historical low. Despite such facts, Peri has somehow come to believe that Trump's approach works better than Obama's. On this basis, we are told, at least in the headline, that empathy is dead, that empathy no longer works.
As she ends, Peri returns to the question at hand: how should Democrats relate to the white working-class? The following passage makes no sense at all. Combined with earlier passages, it seems to imply that major Democratic Party groups don't want to hear about the problems of people in the white working-class:
PERI: Which brings us back to the Democrats, still wondering how to listen to those who feel ignored. Should the party take a page out of the Trump playbook and focus on one group to the exclusion of others? Not only would doing so be impossible in a practical sense, it would also be an affront to everything this enormously diverse party stands for. Perhaps the lesson for Democrats is that empathy is not an electoral strategy. Now, it’s just a matter of convincing voters of that.We don't understand those last two sentences. Combined with earlier passages, Peri makes it sound like major Democratic constituencies wouldn't like being told that their leaders care about the lesser among us, if such struggling people come from the white working-class.
Is that true? Let's talk about the party's most reliable group, black voters:
Within this country, people defined as black are among the most empathetic people in human history. Black America has produced moral and ethical traditions which are looked upon with awe all over the world.
(Have we forgotten the still-recent events in Charleston, and the world's reaction to them? Dr. King is revered around the world because he insisted on ethic of love and on the refusal to hate.)
Not long ago, Sarah Kliff described a 59-year-old, white working-class woman who can't afford to go to the doctor. Democratic constituencies would know how to react to news of this type.
Everyone won't react with pity, certainly not liberal elites. But large numbers of other people will know exactly how to react.
Rudy Giuliani would know what to feel. So would the vast majority of people in the Dem Party camp.
Empathy isn't dead in this world. The more we read the work of our liberal elites, we become more and more convinced that cool clear reason is.