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Empathy for the Middle
Democrats must understand voters in the middle — and call them into a big tent to avoid losing.
“Empathy” is a word that seems like it should fit squarely in the progressive camp, much like the hallmark liberal values of “fairness” and “caring”.
When it comes to American politics, however, empathy appears to be a distinctly moderate trait. It seems to be an approach held by the allegedly dwindling number of people who haven’t fallen down the rabbit hole of intense partisan and ideological polarization.
Empathy can be defined as “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.” Practitioners of politics must deploy these skills in order to understand (and persuade) at least two key groups:
Those who don’t agree with us on everything
Those who aren’t paying close attention
Critics of investment in moderate engagement allege that “The Moderate Middle is a Myth.” But the truth that “all moderate voters are not the same” obscures the fact that those voters are, in the aggregate, more moderate on every issue — and that moderate candidates perform better and are more popular than more ideologically extreme candidates.
Also, beyond the armchair academic schtick, everyone knows normal people in some capacity in their life (e.g. a neighbor, cousin, coworker, etc.). When in doubt, ask them what they think. The odds are high you’ll hear something that sounds like Van Jones dishing on the “weird stuff” Democrats are talking about:
Leading with Empathy
Empathy is the first of our WelcomePAC team values:
“We understand, respect, and value the diversity in thought, identity, and experiences of the American people. We respect that diversity in both our research and our engagement with voters and candidates.”
In a Slate interview earlier this year, we talked about why empathy is such a big deal when looking at districts and candidates to support:
“We now have tens of millions of voters who didn’t used to vote and now vote and we’re not sure if they will again. We have the fastest-growing segment of voters moving rapidly to the right. We have demographics like married white men moving slightly back towards Democrats. And there’s volatility in the electorate, and a couple points matters a lot. If you move 7 percent of voters, you put dozens more seats in play. If every Democrat ran as far ahead of Hillary Clinton as Heidi Heitkamp did, Democrats would’ve had 70 Senate seats. There’s a lot of volatility, and we’re going to have to authentically project empathy for people who don’t agree with us on everything. I think that’s the big opportunity for the center left—making people feel welcome again in our party.”
In an NBC opinion piece, we argued that Democrats need to understand Joe Manchin, not attack him:
“As upsetting as some of Manchin’s stances might be, blue-state Democrats need to understand where he’s coming from, both geographically and politically, both before they attack him and as they plan political and policy responses. A lack of understanding of those with whom we disagree is at the root of much of our country’s current partisan division. If we incorporate this binary thinking into our party itself, it will only set us back further.”
The fact that most Democrats disagree with party orthodoxy on at least one major issue makes for a compelling olive branch with which to woo new voters. Here’s Pew Research:
There’s also a reason to pay even more attention to this heterodoxy as turnout increases and control of the federal government becomes even more important: the least engaged Democrats (and Republicans) are more likely to disagree with their party on the issues than those who are the most engaged:
Political Hobbyism Breeds Contempt. Engagement Breeds Empathy.
Empathy aimed at understanding the perspective of a cross-pressured or low information voter should be easy to muster.
Cross-pressured voters are those who may align with some core tenets of the Democratic Party but may also be pulled away by a part of themselves — their deep faith, cultural community, professional interests, etc. For example, in 2018 many conservatives who were repelled by Donald became “Red Dog Democrats” and helped flip the House.
It should also be easy to empathize with lower-information voters without a strong tie to either party. Examples include an immigrant working a second job or coaching softball instead of watching the January 6th Committee hearings. Or a retiree turned off by today’s partisan vitriol who reads fiction instead of shelling out $1,040 annually for New York Times delivery. These persuadable voters are often those liberals care most about — those historically denied opportunities, such as low-education, immigrant, and minority voters.
The highly informed, highly ideological partisans who dominate most debates are contributing to a “doom loop” of every increasing polarization. But there is an antidote: spending time getting to know either type of voter in the middle can actually change you. The historian Lara Putnam found that the act of engaging a diverse electorate is a moderating force:
Complexity. Reality checks. Not things you will normally find on Twitter, or other new favored pastimes of the political hobbyists… But you will gain empathy.
Politics is a game of addition — and such addition follows when we emphasize areas of common ground (even when that common ground is a shared enemy, such as authoritarians).
In his widely shared piece in The Intercept on how Meltdowns Have Brought Progressive Advocacy to a Standstill, Ryan Grim highlights longtime progressive activist and scholar Loretta Ross’ call to address the gracelessness and destructiveness of today’s progressive movement with empathy:
Ross, in an essay for the New York Times, ends with a call for grace, pointing to the suppressed nature of the conversation. “I say to people today, as a survivor of COINTELPRO,” she told me, referring to the FBI scheme to infiltrate and disrupt leftist movements by sowing internal dissension, “if you’re more wedded to destabilizing an organization than unifying it, part of me is gonna think you’re naïve, and the other part of me is gonna think you’re a plant. And neither one of those is going to look good on you.”
To what extent are Sunrise Movement, Justice Democrats, and The Groups at large advanced by plants designed to destroy the Democratic Party and stop progress? Naivety — and the opposite of empathy —are more likely to be the culprits.
But whatever the answer to Ross’ question — and to the challenges more broadly for Democrats — “the secret is out” on The Groups, as Ruy Teixeira noted in The Liberal Patriot this week. In his words:
“A party that is serious about winning would be wise to start ignoring these organizations and concentrate on what is really important: connecting to the values and concerns of the broad majority of the American electorate. No doubt they’d get some flak from these organizations for doing so. But I suspect the trade-off in support where it really counts — among actual voters — would be very much worth it.”
The Groups do not have grace or empathy for the voters Democrats need to win over — they don’t even have it for each other.
It is clear that the perspective and rhetoric from the fringe has become focused on subtraction.
But politics is a game of addition, and that requires calling people in and building a big tent — even when we disagree.