Is there room for empathy in politics?

Majorities of voters in both major U.S. parties say it is essential for someone in high political office to be compassionate and empathetic.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Joe Biden hugs Brayden Harrington on a campaign stop in Gilford, New Hampshire, on Feb. 10, 2020. They have spoken about dealing with a stutter.

If you have limited patience for verbal sparring, you might be forgiven for tuning out partisan political bickering. American presidential campaigns inspire a particular kind of vitriol. The volley of attacks began early in the election cycle – well before 2020 even began. And the battles only intensified with efforts to fill the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

When I first read Linda Feldmann’s cover story “Who is Joe Biden?,” what stayed with me wasn’t her analysis of his skills as a campaigner. It was the time she devoted to exploring his capacity for empathy.

Regardless of how they felt about his political views, source after source told Linda that they felt heard by Mr. Biden. Majorities of voters in both major U.S. parties say it is essential for someone in high political office to be compassionate and empathetic, though Democrats tend to give those soft skills more weight than Republicans do. 

So why does empathy matter? 

In my time as science editor, I’ve seen political trench digging around climate change. But I’ve also seen how empathy can turn a battle into a conversation. When we start to explore the experiences and fears that fuel the intensity of this debate, these two warring factions come into focus as people. 

Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin says empathy has been essential for many presidents too. Her 2018 book, “Leadership: In Turbulent Times,” draws attention to the role of compassion in the presidential administrations of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson. Each of these presidents came to power amid “unprecedented” partisanship, not unlike today. But each of these politicians employed empathy as a guiding light through dark times.

That spirit of compassion and the desire to understand the perspectives of others were on display in Illinois during the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858. Lincoln was trying to unseat incumbent Sen. Stephen Douglas. A staunch abolitionist, Lincoln denounced slavery, but he stopped short of writing off the people who supported it. 

“I have no prejudice against the Southern people,” he said. “They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up.” 

Empathy played a role in the success of Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats during the Great Depression. Roosevelt saw these talks as an opportunity to speak to the American people as individuals. He explained policy decisions, but he also showed voters that he understood their worries, and he enlisted their help. “Let us unite in banishing fear,” he implored in his first such address on March 12, 1933.

Then, as now, it was difficult for Americans to imagine common ground. But it’s worth remembering Roosevelt’s closing remarks from that first fireside chat: “Together we cannot fail.”

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