Ending the Empathy Gap

Our aim is a society where people are guaranteed the necessities of life not because they’re sympathetic, but because they’re human beings.

Bill Simms / Flickr

Callousness, it seems, is the political order of the day.

On Monday, New York magazine columnist Frank Rich published a piece entitled “No Sympathy for the Hillbilly.” Rich’s argument against pandering to “hillbillies” — the most vilified, if not actually archetypal, Trump voters — is that they made a choice and have to deal with the disastrous results:

Liberals looking for a way to empathize with conservatives should endorse the core conservative belief in the importance of personal responsibility. Let Trump’s white working-class base take responsibility for its own votes — or in some cases failure to vote — and live with the election’s consequences.

In the months since Trump’s election, many other liberals have held aloft the same banner of personal responsibility.

There was New York Times columnist Paul Krugman’s tweet last November: “I try to be charitable, but when you read about Trump voters now worried about losing Obamacare it’s kind of hard.” There was the infamous Daily Kos piece in December that ran under the headline, “Be happy for coal miners losing their health insurance. They’re getting exactly what they voted for.”

And now, as Paul Ryan twists arms and Donald Trump appeals to wavering Republicans to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, there’s another opportunity for “well they deserved it” enmity from liberals. White working-class voters, some of whom were Trump supporters and many of whom have benefited from Medicaid expansion and Obamacare subsidies, stand to lose big under the American Health Care Act (AHCA).

On the GOP side, unspeakable callousness is of course to be expected. The Trump administration’s recent budget request is essentially a blueprint for depriving the poor. (Even Meals on Wheels and after-school meal programs for children don’t escape Trump’s budget cleaver.) The AHCA is little more than an excuse to push through a huge tax cut for the wealthy. (The CBO estimates that the law would cause twenty-four million people to lose their health insurance by 2026.)

And Republicans know it.

Tasked with booster duty the morning after the AHCA’s release, Utah representative Jason Chaffetz went on CNN and ended up chastising poor people for spending money on iPhones instead of health care. Last month at a town hall meeting, after a woman angrily questioned Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell about sick veterans and coal miners unable to afford health care, McConnell replied, “I hope you feel better now.” And earlier this year, Paul Ryan coldly read premium increases off of an index card after a man told him that Obamacare had saved his life.

What are we to do when basic compassion is in such short supply?

Most obviously, don’t be like Frank Rich. Verbose New York magazine essays notwithstanding, you can’t win people over by browbeating them or shrugging at their continued descent into material deprivation. Combatting the GOP’s attempts to deny poor people health care will require reaching out to some disillusioned Trump voters, not sanctimoniously spurning them. To do otherwise would be to play into Republicans’ hands, strengthening efforts to make the health care system even more regressive than it already is, while leaving unchallenged conservative rhetoric about wasteful government and Trump’s used-car-commercial-sounding promises of health care that is “so much better and so much cheaper.”

And yet, it’s also not that simple. Because in addition to those explicitly denied empathy, there are those whose abject condition is not even remarked upon — those whose disenfranchisement is met not with public opprobrium but silent indifference. In the wake of the election, very few reporters rushed to black working-class or immigrant neighborhoods to see why residents had turned out in such small numbers. But they too are victims of the empathy gap.

So how can we solve the sympathy imbalance? How can we build a more humane society when the likes of Jason Chaffetz or Paul Ryan are never going to start empathizing with the plight of ordinary Americans — and neither, it seems, will many elite liberals?

We must struggle for a social order that doesn’t depend on the empathetic whims of political elites — a society where people are afforded benefits not because they’re sympathetic, but because they’re human beings; where health care is treated not as a commodity that people must beg for online, but a birthright that no one should go without.

In other words, contra Rich, the idea that benefits should be earned through personal merit must die. Such framing enables those in power to be selective about social programs, which ends up hurting workers and poor people of all races.

It is the exact same “personal responsibility” rhetoric that politicians have used over the last few decades to slash the welfare state, from Reagan-era budget cuts and Clintonite welfare reform to Ryan’s impending push to cut back and add work requirements to federal programs like SNAP. Indeed, Chaffetz’s iPhone remarks were not a solitary gaffe, but part of a longstanding bipartisan discourse that runs down poor people and scapegoats racial minorities in order to deprive everyone but the richest of economic security.

In response to efforts like Trumpcare, we should champion universal programs, free of stigma or means testing or empathic hurdles. Children deserve to be fed, not just because it makes them do better in school or because they’re especially sympathetic cases, but because everyone deserves to be fed; policies like a child allowance and universal school lunch would go a long way toward making that a reality.

In his New York magazine piece, Rich argues that it would be better for liberals to wait for Trump voters to suffer the consequences of their decision: “If [Trump’s] administration crashes into an iceberg,” he writes, “leaving his base trapped in America’s steerage with no lifeboats, those who survive may at last be ready to burst out of their own bubble and listen to an alternative.”

But this is cruelty dressed up as political strategy. Trump voters deserve health care because everyone deserves health care; Medicare for All is the only way forward.

Anything else — anything but the unapologetic protection and extension of social rights — is a concession to the Chaffetz-like rhetoric of deserving and undeserving persons, which is then used to bludgeon the welfare state.

When it comes to the necessities of life, the Left should insist that virtue has nothing to do with it.