Empathy Bowl '08: Palin vs. Obama
I'm telling you, the big blog you want to start yesterday is Palinography. 24/7 on what she means, who she really is, and what we all want from her. (Yes, I know, someone already took the domain name Palinology, but they're not really doing anything with it.)
Every time I mention Sarah Palin--let alone devote a column to exploring what her supporters find so deeply appealing about her--the mail pours in by the hundreds. Most of it is vitriol and assurances that readers know who I'm really for and what I'm really against (the mail is running about 30 percent that I'm a secret agent for the Palin camp, 30 percent that I'm on the Obama payroll, 35 percent that I'm sickening proof that Washington and the media and the whole concept of knowledge need to be taken out to sea and blown sky high, and five percent really smart and piercing insights from people who just want to try to figure the whole thing out.)
A good number of readers picked up on the theory that I posited in last Thursday's column, that the Palin phenomenon is an expression of our pop culture's turn away from respect for knowledge and experience, toward a sense that people who have good values and try hard can succeed at almost anything. Reader George Cordell offers this argument:
Too much experience blinds you to other possibilities, and knowledge is, according to Karl Popper, a relative and changing thing. Maybe ignorance is the best alternative.... Perhaps what we need in this country is leaders who do not know how things are done by career politicians. Perhaps what we need is leaders who understand that they do not have the knowledge to lead. Our founding fathers, I think, were keenly aware of this when they drafted the constitution and limited the powers of the presidency. Sarah Palin may or may not be a good candidate for the VP job; the same can be said for Barack Obama and the presidency. But the fact that someone may not have the qualifications that the media thinks are important poses no limitation on the capability of the person. I do not want more of "experienced leadership" that considers itself wise enough to make decisions for me. I want principled people who understand their own limitations and, yes, their own ignorance.
Ok. But the note that I've been thinking about most came from Colleen Shogan, a research manager at the Congressional Research Service, who very presciently has been exploring the role empathy plays in presidential leadership. She presented her paper on that topic to the American Political Science Association in August, just days before Palin's selection, so there's nothing specifically on Palin, but she has a lot of good stuff to say about empathy from Lincoln to Bush to McCain and Obama:
Abraham Lincoln told of traveling down the Mississippi River in 1831 as a hired hand, Shogan writes. Arriving in New Orleans, he saw the cruelty of slavery for the first time. In an 1841 letter, Lincoln writes:
From Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio there were on board ten or a dozen slaves shackled together with irons. That sight was a continued torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave border. It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable.
Empathy, Shogan says, is a politician's path to discovering the "common good" that is supposed to be the goal of a leader's actions.As our political parties have diminished in authority and cohesion, the individual character of a presidential candidate has become ever more central to how voters make choices. She argues that Bill Clinton "may have overplayed his empathetic skill, George W. Bush is a telling example of leadership lacking in empathy, [and] in the middle, Abraham Lincoln is an example of a president who used his empathy to enhance his political leadership and decision-making."
Lincoln had the enormous advantage of being an extraordinarily skilled rhetorician and strategist who was also comfortable delving into philosophy and poetry. But Shogan argues that what sets him apart from all other presidents is what biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin terms Lincoln's "acute sensitivity to the pains and injustices he perceived in the world." Shogan quotes the daughter of Lincoln's private secretary, Helen Nicolay, who said that the president's "crowning gift of political diagnosis was due to his sympathy...which gave him the power to forecast with uncanny accuracy what his opponents were likely to do."
Shogan attributes this ability to Lincoln's own experience with a deep and painful melancholy. This being before the age of TV, Lincoln didn't exactly go around boasting of or laying out his depression for voters. But he made his humanity clear to those on both sides of the slavery debate, refraining from tagging slaveholders as immoral even as he made clear his profound identification with blacks' plight. "Lincoln's empathy enabled him to make a distinction between the individual and the institution," Shogan writes.
You can hear Obama harking back to Lincoln in his speeches that focus on how Americans today are not nearly as divided as we might think. This bit of Lincoln--speaking about Northerners and Southerners--ought to sound familiar to anyone who heard an Obama speech this spring: "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other."
Shogan brings us back to those defining moments when Bill Clinton demonstrated that he had enormously greater empathy than President George Bush (the father), such as the campaign debate in which Bush impatiently checked his watch and Clinton then stepped out from behind the lectern to connect with a woman who had asked how the candidates were personally hit by the growth of the national debt.
But how convincing, how genuine, how effective were the Clinton lip bite and voice quiver given what we later learned about his moral blindness and his inability to take political risks? Shogan concludes that Clinton "used his empathy as a political crutch, relying upon his 'I feel your pain' posture to compensate for his own personal and political failures."
At the other end of the spectrum, George W. Bush recoiled from Clinton's "ostentatious shows of sympathy" and steered clear of most public displays of emotion, even during weather disasters and other such events. After 9/11, he substituted tough talk for more vulnerable emotions--quite effectively at first--but when Hurricane Katrina hit, the absence of empathetic appearances by the president hit his popularity hard.
Shogan sees this year's matchup as a contrast between Obama's specific emphasis on empathy and McCain's apparent lack of interest in the idea. Obama has often spoken about what he calls an "empathy deficit - the ability to put ourselves in
someone else's shoes; to see the world through those who are different than
us - the child who's hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman
cleaning your dorm room..." But as much as he talks about empathy as the heart of his approach to politics, it's not clear how he would translate those ideas into action as president.
McCain, by contrast, has ranked far lower than Obama on polls asking voters to measure the candidates' ability to "understand the problems Americans face in their daily lives." But Shogan notes that McCain consistently scores higher on the "strong and decisive leader" question--an indication that eschewing public displays of empathy can help a candidate solidify his image as determined and confident.
Shogan--writing before the Palin choice--sums up this fall's contest like this:
If McCain can turn empathy into a characteristic that voters believe is diametrically opposed to decisiveness and strength, he could transform the "empathy gap" into a political liability for Obama. The challenge for Obama is to avoid sacrificing decisiveness for empathy. Obama must determine - perhaps using Lincoln as his guide - the correct complement of both attributes.
Add Palin's empathetic demeanor and the campaign's account of her life and you see the brilliance of McCain's choice--she complements him far more (at least emotionally) than Joe Biden complements Obama.
Will we therefore soon see a tougher and more demonstratively decisive Obama? So far, it doesn't look that way. But if he is to overcome the Republican combo, he will either have to toughen up his act, or find ways to demonstrate how the kind of empathy that makes voters believe substantive action will follow.
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