Why is our democracy so dysfunctional...What's missing? Barack Obama knew.

March 24, 2018

Ask anyone who even remotely follows politics - something's terribly wrong with our democratic system. There are many people, experts, and pundits who will attribute the decline of our democracy to any number of things - the corrupting influence of money in politics being at the top of the list. While it's true that money in politics has a terribly corrupting influence on our democracy, I submit that it is a symptom of a bigger problem. In essence, money in politics is the fever telling us that we are infected with a virus. The virus infecting our nation is an extreme lack of empathy. In fact, we have become a self-interested, "me" not "we" society - and it is fueled by social media, mainstream media, and our political culture. If we are to again thrive as a democracy, we need an intensive vaccination of empathy - now.


Then - State Senator Barack Obama knew, and he made it the cornerstone of his 2008 Presidential campaign. In 2006, he communicated the importance of empathy to Northwestern University graduates:


From the speech:


"The world doesn’t just revolve around you...There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit...As you go on in life, cultivating this quality of empathy will become harder, not easier...You’ll be free to live in neighborhoods with people who are exactly like yourself, and send your kids to the same schools, and narrow your concerns to what’s going in your own little circle...we live in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us our principal goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained. A culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses."


Obama was, and is, absolutely correct. We live in a culture and society (and political culture) that is obsessed with promoting self. In fact, those who have worked and trained with me know that in terms of progressive ideas and language, we are in a state of "hypocognition" - meaning they don't exist. This is a tragic result of the disappearance of empathy from public discourse over more than five decades. And it has been well planned and executed by wealthy, corporate barons since the 1930's. 


To be clear, we are talking about true empathy, not sympathy. Empathy is a deep, largely unconscious emotion that evokes a moral responsibility to care for others as oneself. Empathy is critical to making authentic, necessary connections with other people. It is also something we have evolved a hard wiring for in "mirror neurons." This great video from renowned psychologist Brene Brown makes clear the difference:


 Since empathy is largely an unconscious emotion and is very suppressed in public discourse, even the most astute political observers miss the fact that the absence of empathy lies at the core of our dysfunction. A recent article in The Guardian comments on Yascha Mounk's new book, The People vs. Democracy. The article by Ganesh Sitaraman highlights three functions of social life which Mounk claims to be key to the decline of democracy:


1. Citizenry had a relatively similar worldview because broadcast news, newspapers, radio, and the like were all one-to-many forms of communication in which gatekeepers ensured that news and information remained within the mainstream.


2. Broadly-shared economic growth and relative economic equality.


3. Social homogeneity.


As I suggested at the outset of this blog, each of the three causes above are symptoms of our lack of empathy virus. If we infuse each of the three "causes" outlined above with true empathy, they no longer pose a threat to our democracy. Even money in politics has greed and self-interest at its core. If one truly cares for others, then it is that care which drives political decisions, not greed. Why? Because empathy is fundamentally necessary for democracy to prosper.


Consider this - the majority of our population acting only in their own self-interest negates what is critical to a functional democracy. What is critical to democracy is that people act with care towards others, as they would want for themselves, and do so through their government. The people exercise and act on their empathy through our democracy. We see the result of the absence of empathy everywhere in our system. Greed, self-interest, and hierarchical power defines how our system functions, and who benefits from it. 


In these troubled political times, there is something that can restore a prosperous democracy to our people. And while it sounds simple - caring for others, being kind, and acting toward others as we would want for ourselves (The Golden Rule) - it is not easy to put into practice. But as Barack Obama said in 2006, "we must persevere." 


Remember - the freedom we have and enjoy is only possible because of others. No one can be free or prosperous on his or her own. Therefore, our freedom comes with an innate moral responsibility for the freedom of others. We are all connected. Then State Senator Obama knew that empathy is our salvation:


"...our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. And because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential – and become full-grown."


Evoking and acting on empathy in our politics is not just a suggestion, it is necessary to restoring a prosperous democracy of, by, and for the people. Lest it perish from the Earth.