Does citizen empathy absolve politicians of their sins?

This week Chris Benderev of NPR published an article entitled, When Power Goes To Your Head, It May Shut Out Your Heart. It featured a study conducted by neuroscientists at Wilfrid Laurier University in which participants were prompted to feel either powerless or powerful — the former by having participants write about a time when they depended on others for help and the latter by writing about a time when they were in charge. They then conducted an exercise, outlined in the full report, and tested whether the exercise tapped into proxy measures of empathy.

Empathy, in its broadest sense, is a reaction to the experiences of another person because one has either actually experienced similar experiences or can imagine being in that situation.

What they found was that feeling powerless triggered higher levels of empahty than feeling powerful. In other words, according to Benderev, “So when people felt power, they really did have more trouble getting inside another person’s head.”

My response to the study was the following tweet:

Empathy is an interesting concept when it comes to politics. In a representative democracy we elect fellow citizens to represent us and our values and concerns as a community, and we expect them to learn about these concerns by, in part, being a member of that community.

As such, it seems as though empathy is almost a necessary requirement for elected leaders. How else can they represent a community and its concerns unless they have empathy with the community?

The expression of empathy seems to have helped previous politicians. An iconic example occurred in the second 1992 presidential debate between George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Clinton and Bush at 1992 presidential debateAn audience member asked the candidates how the national debt had personally affected each candidate’s life, and if it had not, then how could they relate to Americans’ struggles?

Republican incumbent candidate Bush stumbled through his answer, first talking about interest rates, causing the moderator to repeat the question and prompting the audience member to recount how friends had lost jobs or could not afford mortgages. Bush then shared a story about reading in a church bulletin about families struggling to make ends meet, and stating, “everybody’s affected by the debt because of the tremendous interest that goes into paying on that debt everything’s more expensive.” This response, coupled with Bush overtly checking his watch during the debate, made him come across as out of touch, impatient, and unable to connect.

In contrast, Democratic challenger Clinton responded with empathy: “Well, I’ve been governor of a small state for 12 years. I’ll tell you how it’s affected me…I have seen what’s happened in this last 4 years when — in my state, when people lose their jobs there’s a good chance I’ll know them by their names. When a factory closes, I know the people who ran it. When the businesses go bankrupt, I know them.”

It is highly unlikely that a governor of a state knows each employee laid off at a factory, but the personal, more empathic appeal of Clinton’s response was clear. He felt the audience member’s pain because he had experienced it too. He could relate.

Perhaps as the challenger, the potentially less powerful candidate, Clinton had an easier time tapping into empathy. Whereas the incumbent Bush didn’t.

But what does it mean when candidates trigger empathy through their human errs. Is it possible that when candidates are less powerful and more vulnerable due to a scandal that they are not only able to feel more empathy, but perhaps also able to provoke more empathy from others?

Clinton, Gingrich, and Sanford

In the wake of the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, some of the public felt like Clinton’s infidelity made him more human, more relatable. And when I spoke with voters in South Carolina during the 2012 presidential primaries, many saw Newt Gingrich’s multiple infidelities and then later repentance through his conversion to Catholicism for wife Callista as a positive attribute: “Newt is human. He made a mistake; we all make mistakes.” Mark Sanford’s infidelity seemed to be forgiven by voters in South Carolina when his mistress María Belén Chapur became his fiancée, with voters saying, “He did what he had to for true love. Who wouldn’t?”

Each of these men have had political success after their scandal. Clinton is a demigod to the DNC, and the presence of Slick Willy at your campaign event is seen as a blessing. Gingrich won multiple elections after his affairs, including becoming Speaker of the House and he won the South Carolina Republican primary in 2012. Sanford made his way back to the limelight after his trek on the Appalachian Trail and won a seat in Congress.

In these cases, it is citizens’ empathy that seems to save the politician.

And I am sure that Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner are hoping voters are asking themselves, “Who among us hasn’t committed prostitution or had a Carlos Danger moment a time or two?”

As some point, empathy in politics shifted from demanding empathy from our elected leaders so they could properly speak for us to creating empathy for them.

In the cases above, it seems as though the “representative” in representative democracy stands for representing not just our concerns, but our human flaws as well.

Recent Ph.D. grad of the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. I am currently an adjunct in the Communication Department at Seattle University, and in the fall of 2014 I start as an Asst. Prof. at the University of Oklahoma. My main focus is political communication, gender, and news media. My dissertation examined how women and men political candidates communicate different presentations of self via their Twitter feeds depending on the sex of their opponent, and what the effects are of gendered communication on candidate evaluation.

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