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November 14, 2012

A victory for empathy

Now that the game is over, let not the larger lessons be lost amid the shouting. Obama won partly because he showed the electorate more empathy than did Mitt Romney. More candidly, the president successfully marketed his heart against an opponent who, many believe, sold his soul.

For years, Obama has been referencing an American empathy gap. In September 2010, Kirsten Powers, a contributor to the Daily Beast, traced his focus to 2004, when he told Charlie Rose, “I see the empathy deficit that damages so much of our politics.” In Obama’s 2006 “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream,” he wrote, “(Empathy) is at the heart of my moral code, and it is how I understand the Golden Rule — not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes.”

But in Powers’ piece, “Obama’s empathy deficit,” she urged him “to feel their pain” because his “much ballyhooed coolness seems more icy than reassuring.”

Last Friday, HuffPost published the definitive dissection of the campaign: “Why Obama Won: The Empathy Factor.” The author, University of North Carolina associate law professor Tamar Birckhead, noted Romney’s strong appeal among white males over 40 and “the Republican Party’s failure to be empathic. They could not imagine why those at the margins — women, people of color, gays and lesbians, young people and immigrants — would not care foremost about taxes … why women would object to outlawing abortion or why anyone would support government programs for children or the poor.” Or why voter intimidation would spark a backlash.

Birckhead also cited Obama’s 2007 criteria for a Supreme Court justice: “Somebody who’s got the heart — the empathy — to recognize what’s it’s like to be a young, teenage mom … to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old.”

An ABC News exit poll found that “Obama trounced Romney by a 10-point margin in being seen as ‘in touch’ with average Americans.”

He was concerned with empathy long before the summer of 2010, when a compilation of 72 studies confirmed a 40-percent decline in voting among college students from 1979 to 2009, with the most dramatic drop-off starting in 2000. Other studies showed a spike in narcissism. In the fall of 2010, the Boston Globe’s Keith O’Brien explored possible causes, including narcissistic parents, shallow relationships enabled by social media, and a constant onslaught of tragic news, “making it harder to care in any sort of sustained way,” he wrote.

“Perhaps young Americans are just evolving to focus on what matters most: their own tiny worlds” amid a hypercompetitive climate polluted by problems they feel powerless to solve.

Sherry Turkle, author of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other,” writes of the study and dehumanization in the face of too much information. “An online connection can be deeply felt, but you only need to deal with the part of the person you see in your game world or social network. Young people don’t seem to feel they need to deal with more, and over time they lose the inclination.”

She cites therapists who report a proliferation of disembodied patients who “seem close to unaware of the most basic courtesies. Purpose-driven, plugged into their media, these patients pay little attention to those around them. In others, they seek what is of use … Their detachment is not aggressive. It is as though they just don’t see the point.”

Nevertheless, Turkle is “cautiously optimistic.” The Digital Age is in its infancy. “We don’t need to disparage technology,” she writes. “We need to put it in its place.”

The president prevailed by coupling the proper mix of technology with face-to-face engagement, according to last Friday’s “Washington Week” panelists. The campaign used the 2010 census to update data mined for 2008. On the ground, it found voters the opposition didn’t know existed. “What the Obama team knew is what social scientists who’ve been studying elections for 40 years knew — that personal contact is crucial,” said journalist John Dickerson.

It was perhaps the most sophisticated, data-precise campaign in history. While Team Obama mastered political science, Team Romney practiced abstract art — and initially denied its loss. “Listening is a skill that we’re all in danger of losing in a world of digital distraction and information overload,” wrote Seth Horowitz in Sunday’s New York Times. Likewise in a homogenous, empathy-resistant bubble. 

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