Politics and Empathy

Reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.  It is about Lincoln and his cabinet.  The book is endlessly fascinating.  I am only about a tenth of the way through and already I have learned an incredible amount about this country.  I read the following passage today, about Lincoln’s first major anti-slavery speech:

Rather than upbraid slaveowners, Lincoln sought to comprehend their position through empathy.  More than a decade earlier, he had employed a similar approach when he advised temperance advocates to refrain from denouncing drinkers in “thundering tones of anathema and denunciation,” for denunciation would inevitably be me with denunciation, “crimination with crimination, and anathema with anathema.”  In a passage directed at abolitionists as well as temperance reformers, he had observed that it was the nature of man, when told that he should be “shunned and despised,” and condemned as a the author “of all the vice and misery and crime in the land,” to retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart.”

Though the cause be “naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel,” the sanctimonious reformer could no more pierce the heart of the drinker  or the slaveowner than “penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.  Such is man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him.”  In order to “win a man to your cause,” Lincoln explained, you must first reach his heart, “the great high road to his reason.”  This, he concluded, was the only road to victory – to that glorious day “when there shall be neither a slave nor a drunkard on the earth.”

It is a hard thing to do, to change people’s minds.  Lincoln was such a great leader and was able to get so much done, precisely because he had empathy, the ability to put himself in other people’s shoes, even those he vehemently disagreed with.

Politics is a tricky thing, because you need people that are going to tell the truth no matter who it offends, to get the ball rolling a lot of the times.  Yet you also need people that can reach out and change people’s minds.  It’s a hard thing to know when to do what.

In George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, the second half of the book is his argument for socialism.  However, it is also a diatribe against socialists, because he feels that they are going about their cause completely wrong.  Even though he agrees with them politically, he feels that most of the socialists of that time are wrong in the way they approach people.  Orwell spent a lot of time with the working class in England, especially in the mining towns.  Orwell felt that if you wanted to bring the common man over to the cause of socialism you couldn’t do things like attack their religion, something that many people need to make sense of the world.  He felt that in order to influence people one needed to reach them where they were at.

I think different forms of communication require different kinds of tools.  If someone is a songwriter, for instance, you only have so many lines to get across an idea.  Music is also based on emotion.  I think because of this it is a form that is better suited to going all in and conveying something with passion.

However, politicians need to do the hard work of actually leading people.  I think they have to have more empathy in their approach.  Having empathy and trying to understand others is not to be confused with being wishy-washy, as so many politicians are.  I think one can take the moral high ground and at the same time extend an olive branch out to those that disagree.  Unfortunately we have very few leaders these days that are able to do both at the same time.

P.S. Although we all know prohibition was a nightmare and a mistake, one needs to understand how much people used to drink to understand, in part, the temperance movement.  Read up on it as it is a pretty good laugh.  I was just reading a passage in the above book where Senators in our government were described as being, “beastly drunk.”

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