The chicken and egg conundrum: Has political polarization killed compassion or did the lack of compassion drive polarization? Our country has not seen such vicious divisions since the decade running up the Civil War in 1860. However, in 1860, Americans killed each other over only one issue: slavery. Today, you need a scorecard to identify every disagreement that can rend families apart at Thanksgiving dinner: racism, lost sense of identity, loss of comfortable jobs, immigration, climate change, narcotics, rebellious children, lousy health insurance, vaccines and mask mandates, education priced out of reach, etc., etc. Readers can add many other reasons for screaming at a relative or, in some cases, reaching for a gun.
Psychologists define compassion as the feeling you get when you sense another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering. Our political polarization manifests an almost complete lack of compassion for people with whose views we disagree. Let us not confuse compassion with simple empathy, which is the ability to read your audience. Populist politicians (AKA demagogues to the ancient Greeks) have shown throughout history that they have empathy sufficient to read and exploit the resentments of their audience. Alcibiades exploited popular resentment at the Peace of Nicias, a Peloponnesian Wars truce between Athens and Sparta that many Athenians saw as treasonable when they thought they were winning. Alcibiades led the mob to demand war and to launch an expedition against Syracuse in Sicily that ended in a catastrophic defeat for Athens. Two thousand three hundred years later a German demagogue exploited resentment against the Treaty of Versailles – a surrender document signed when the German people still believed they were winning World War I – and devastated Europe. Eighty years after that an American demagogue convinced his supporters that a nuclear agreement with Iran was a defeat and brought the United States to the brink of war. The jury is still out on the damage he has done.
Without compassion for the legitimate problems of our fellow citizens, we will never restore comity. Compassion does not require you to agree with a particular solution to a problem; but it should make you want to find the solution that does least harm. In today’s world we have replaced compassion with a self-righteousness that says, “only I have a legitimate gripe,” that in turn generates rage against anyone who disagrees with us. Compassion’s absence threatens us all and, at the risk of getting everyone mad at me, is a problem that crosses partisan lines.
The majority of Americans enjoy a prosperity unprecedented in human history. Unfortunately, some have prospered more than others and seem not to care that a not small number have fallen behind. The urban dwellers of the two coasts do not display much compassion for the millions who lost their jobs and saw their way of life disrupted when the Midwest’s industrial base disappeared. Instead, they offer a modern version of Marie Antionette’s suggestion of ‘let them eat cake’ by advising unemployed people in Ohio, for example, to pull up stakes, abandon a house whose value has cratered, and move halfway across the country to take a job at a fraction of what they used to earn in jobs lost though no fault of their own. Demagogues have exploited this lack of compassion. They demonize foreigners to divert attention from the real culprits, American technology, and financial engineering. Urban dwellers across the country have no compassion for small farmers, once the backbone of rural America, who saw their way of life disappear in the face of monopolistic agribusiness. So many of us do not accept the reality that too many others cannot cope with the rapid rate of social change. If we do not show compassion but ridicule them instead, the demagogues will capture their hearts and minds.
Too many Americans have become amnesiacs, forgetting what drove their parents and grandparents to find a better life in the United States. This country needs immigrants and for that reason acts like a magnet for today’s potential parents and grandparents of future Americans seeking a better life. Because small-minded politicians have prevented orderly immigration reform for too long, the system for managing immigration has fallen apart. The demagogues, seeking votes, have demonized foreigners, especially darker colored ones, and preach building walls or dragging children out of their mothers’ arms rather than offering solutions. Too many Americans have no compassion whatsoever for the horrific financial and social poverty inflicted on black Americans by 400 years of slavery followed by years of Jim Crow, which has not gone away. Three self-righteous white men murder an innocent black man for jogging through a white neighborhood and local law enforcement covers it up. Our current demagogue-in-chief revels in inciting more hatred towards blacks. Opponents of abortion lack any compassion for the women (often just girls) who must choose abortion because the same self-righteous ‘pro-lifers’ oppose extension of health care, childcare credits, and other economic programs that might give those unfortunate women and their unborn babies another option. The latest Texas law denies a rape victim both an abortion and a future.
America innovates like no other country, but its most recent innovation has been to create divisions and hatred in an era of unprecedented prosperity. Perhaps we should blame innovations like social media for atomizing people and destroying social cohesion. Perhaps as my dad used to say, “people can’t stand well-being.” Who knows? Let’s hope that repeating 1860 is not the future.