This country is divided. It has been increasingly so in the wake of Donald Trump, but the growing partisan divide is not a new phenomena. In fact, looking at Gallup polling of 24 different issues starting in the early 2000s and going until to 2016 or 2017, the partisan divide widened on fifteen issues, stayed the same on six, and only decreased on three. Further, the number of individuals from each party who views the other as “very unfavorable” has grown by over 20 percentage points since 1994. Each party has seen a strengthening of their base and a decline in the number of individuals willing to break with party platform. Yet, recently people are calling for renewed reconciliation.
Politicians on both sides speak about empathy and understanding of each other. One of the main lines of rhetoric is that we need to stop playing identity politics and all join together in our higher purpose as Americans. Oftentimes though we don’t stop to think about who we are asking empathy of, and what empathy can mean in terms of power dynamics.
For the most part when we speak of empathy and impartiality as an American we are asking people to think like a straight, white, rich man. We often ask those with the least power to strip away their personal experience and inhabit the dominant viewpoint that more often than not seeks to oppress them.
When we tell individuals who have undocumented family members to sympathize with those who support Trump’s viewpoint that, “when Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people,” we are asking people to try to understand why the belief that their family members are inherently criminal and they deserve to be separated could be valid. When we ask “Black Lives Matter” protesters to sympathize with “Blue Lives Matter” protesters, we are asking people to try to understand that an officer’s fear and bias about skin color is on equal weight with their lives. When we ask women to try to understand why someone believes life begins at conception, we are asking people to understand that their body is not their own, but simply a vessel for reproduction.
As a country, when we use the rhetoric of reconciliation, empathy, or understanding, we rarely tell groups with political power to understand the plight of those who are disadvantaged. We are in essence propping up power structures by telling everyone to come together as Americans. We need to understand individuals with little political, social, and economic power and ask those in power to empathise not the other way around.
This is not to say empathy is bad. It is a useful political tool that we are greatly missing in today’s political arena, but we need to expect it on both sides. When empathy is asked only of those who are disadvantaged we are furthering a power dynamic. If empathy is taken on both sides we can have conversations and compromises that will push us forward as a nation. Empathy is never asked of those in the status quo.
If the call of “black lives matter” is only met with “blue lives matter” nothing will ever get done, but when both sides acknowledge each other there can be solutions made to societal problems. For example in July, Black Lives Matter came together and hosted a cookout which they invited the Wichita police force to. The community gathering helped to give each side perspective on the plight of the other and helped move the issue forward rather than widen the divide. More often than not it is misunderstanding that prevents empathy and causes a line to be drawn in the sand when it comes to discussing issues.
As a populous we need to stop having bright lines that end discussion once crossed. When gun owners say we will not have a discussion about any regulation they leave no room for any form of consensus. When anti-abortion advocates say they will not stop until abortion is outlawed, it forces the other side to never hold discussions since they will only serve to chip away at this vital right. When individuals deny the climate is even changing in the face of scientific fact we can never have conversations about sustainable living or changing economic structures to the benefit of all. When those in power ask those without to inhabit their viewpoint we are inhibiting progress.
The way forward is not to tell those fighting for rights to inhabit an impartial viewpoint, but to have conversations and engage in productive ways. Empathy is more than a buzzword it needs to be wielded by those in power to look at themselves and find compassion for those that society disadvantages. Calling something ‘identity politics’ and saying we need to come together as Americans is not just or a productive way of discourse it is simply a means to shut down conversation. Telling people they must look at the world through your eyes is wrong and not how we should engage in politics.
Political discourse now more than ever needs to be approached as a conversation, not as a battle to be won for ideologically, cemented parties. Empathy needs to be given on both sides or we can never move forward.