Should we empathize with Trump voters?

11 November 2016, 1930 EST

In the wake of the shocking US election results, what sometimes seems like an agreed-upon virtue has become controversial: the demand for empathy.

Writing in the New York Times, longtime Democrat Rabbi Michael Lerner has put out a call for empathy towards the many voters who supported Trump. As Lerner sees it, there are deep class fissures in America coupled with a spiritual crisis that requires redress. “We need to reach out to Trump voters,” Lerner writes, “in a spirit of empathy and contrition. Only then can we help working people understand that they do not live in a meritocracy, that their intuition that the system is rigged is correct (but it is not by those whom they had been taught to blame) and that their pain and rage is legitimate.”

It seems reasonable on its face: Lerner has long deployed the tool of compassion in what he has called the need for a “politics of meaning.” (His ideas were especially prevalent during the early 1990s when he had the ear of the Clinton White House, and in particular then-First-Lady Hillary Clinton.)

At the same time, it’s easy to see how Lerner’s position could rankle. Critics would say that the oppressed shouldn’t be required to empathize with the oppressor. And there was plenty of oppressive and hurtful and violent discourse emanating from Trump’s campaign. 

For my part, I am no stranger to the empathy debate in my own work on Israel-Palestine. But I admit a deep uncertainty about it — even, I will admit, a personal moral and intellectual flip-flopping. Sometimes I’ve actively embraced empathy as a scholarly tool. At other times I’ve actively rejected it. I’ve used it when I’ve draw on a narratives approach to understanding Israeli policy. And I’ve eschewed it, most recently in a co-authored op-ed last summer where Peter Eisenstadt and I argued that the Palestinians should not be required to empathize with the Israeli narrative: that a rights-forward discourse instead implies more urgent action.

The middle ground, of course, is the ordinary tool of the scholarly trade, and that is simply to seek to understand. It’s a position that academics — especially in IR — use much of the time.

In his blog, Jeremy Pressman has offered some smart and concise reasons for why Hillary lost.

There’s a middle-ground position between understanding and empathy. Michael Moore has been an important voice in translating the sensibility of middle America to those of us who may not be listening as closely as we should be. For a clarifying vision, listen to the 45-minute segment of Morning Joe where Moore speaks with great eloquence of the poisoned water of Flint, Michigan (and how hurtful it was to those residents when President Obama drank from a glass of tap water to declare the problem fixed when, according to Moore, it was anything but); the baseball caps so integral to Trump’s campaign; and America’s celebrity culture drawing us towards certain types of candidates and away from others. Moore understands Trump voters, he tells us. Like many of them, he is a White man who is over 35 and who has only a high school education. (And — something which is obvious to his TV and film viewers but which goes unstated in that interview — Moore almost always wears a baseball cap. Though unlike most of these Trump voters, of course, Moore has won an Oscar and been nominated for another, and reportedly has a net worth of $50 million.)

And so the question remains: when it comes to understanding why other voters vote the way they do, must we extend empathy to their understandable economic plight when the platform of the candidate for whom they voted was based not only on promises to bring back jobs and make the country “great again” but also on racism, sexism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and antisemitism? Do we extend empathy in spite of those things, or have those voters forfeited their right to be empathized with?

Patrick Thaddeus Jackson has microblogged telling voters that saying “‘”I voted for candidate X because of her/his position on A’ doesn’t absolve you of responsibility for supporting candidate X’s positions on B, C, and so on.”

Jackson continues:

So please remember when you are talking to someone who disagrees with your candidate on one of those other issues, you do *not* get to ignore that position or otherwise pretend that it doesn’t exist. Instead, you have to *justify* why, for you, the issue(s) that mattered most to you were more important than those other issues.

And please remember that when those other issues involve people’s identities, your vote…supports a candidate with a stance on those identities, whether we are are talking about race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or whatever else. Especially if your candidate was opposed to recognizing those identities as fully deserving of the same rights as others. Keeping this in mind may help to explain, or at least sensitize you to, the emotional context of so many of these post-election discussions.

Jackson doesn’t necessarily come down on either side of the empathy debate. But his call for cognitive complexity — to always remember the basket of issues at play in any given election — is helpful here. In this spirit, I suppose that we can seek to empathize with Trump voters’ economic pain while making clear our value boundaries when it comes to basic standards of human decency and dignity. And for those for whom empathy is too much to expect right now — for those who are feeling that the pain wrought by the ugliness of the Trump campaign and the aftermath we all fear — is just too enveloping, at least those voters, in the meantime, can simply seek to understand. Now go watch the Michael Moore segment and let’s talk.