By Dave Thomer
Special Guest Blogger
As the Democratic National Convention opens, many speakers and presentations will attempt to convey the idea that President Barack Obama understands and cares about the challenges and opportunities that a wide variety of American citizens face. Witness, for example, Day One’s speeches by Stacy Lihn, a mother who is concerned about the cost of medical procedures necessary to save the life of her daughter with a congenital heart defect, or Lilly Ledbetter, whose remarks continue to stress the importance of wage equality. This effort aims both to convey the Democratic Party’s empathy for voters and convince the voters that they should value empathy in their public officials. Partisan Democrat that I am, I think this is a wise and necessary move.
Empathy has been an important part of Obama’s vision for a long time. In general terms, his frequent mention of the Biblical notion of being “my brother’s keeper,” modified to include being “my sister’s keeper” as well, demands a degree of empathy. In order to look out for each other, it’s necessary that we think about how our actions will affect another person. In order to think about how my actions will affect someone else, I have to understand that person’s position and circumstances. It’s not enough for me to say, “How would this affect me, if there were somehow an exact duplicate of me in a position to be affected by my action?” I have to know something about the actual person who is going to be affected.
Obama has also been more specific in citing the need for empathy. He ran into some pushback when he was getting ready to nominate Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court because he cited empathy as one of the qualifications he was looking for in a justice:
[T]he issues that come before the court are not sport. They’re life and death. And we need somebody who’s got the heart to recogni– the empathy to recognize what it’s like to be a young, teenaged mom; the empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old. (Full Quote.)
Critics accused him of wanting a justice who would ignore the law and the Constitution in order to follow her feelings. But the law is often vague and incomplete. Certainly the Constitution is. Witness the ongoing argument over the meaning of the Second Amendment, or the fact that the notion of a right to privacy is not explicitly stated in the Constitution but must be inferred from the text based on the existence of other rights as well as our own expectations as citizens. There is always a context to be taken into account, and there are often multiple valid but conflicting interpretations that one can choose. Obama makes the explicit claim that when we do so, we should do so by understanding the effect that our chosen interpretation will have on others.
I would make the argument that this empathy isn’t just a requirement for presidents and Supreme Court justices. It’s a requirement for every citizen in a democracy. When we choose our positions on issues, or choose which candidates to support, we shouldn’t just think about how that choice affects us. We should think about how it will affect our fellow citizens, and then decide which option will have the best overall result, even if it means that we make an individual sacrifice.
There’s no formal requirement that we do this in a democracy. We can treat voting the way that many economists treat the market: a group of disconnected individuals all making their own decisions about their individual self-interest. In the aggregate these individual decisions will create a majority that will drive society forward, hopefully creating the highest possible good. I don’t like this vision of democracy because it seems short sighted and disrespectful of fellow citizens. It encourages us to treat politics and government as a matter of winners and losers. In a democracy based on self-interest it becomes rational for some voters to oppose something like the Lilly Ledbetter Act because it will redistribute certain resources. In a democracy based on empathy, we can feel and understand the unfairness of wage inequality and it becomes rational to search for a solution to that problem.
I know which of those societies I prefer, and I’ll be taking my stand on the question on election day. As important as that vote will be, it’s just as important to remember that every day, every one of us has a chance to build that society, empathic act by empathic act, and create more space for our leaders to act accordingly.
Dave Thomer is a public high school teacher and college instructor. He blogs about education, philosophy, politics, and more at NotNews.org.