Thomas Jefferson wrote frequently about the importance of an educated electorate to the durable protection of our individual freedoms. His central argument was that the infrastructure of democracy is not only in its mechanisms and institutions, but in the capacities and behaviors of the electorate itself.
As we think about the progressive infrastructure, we need to look beyond the programs and strategies that drive policies and also consider more deeply the audiences that receive those ideas. We need to invest in a skill that is central to human identity, success, and problem-solving, but seems lacking across the political spectrum. We need to invest in empathy.
Empathy is the ability to identify with and experience the perspective of another person or group, and it competes with the antipathy we feel for those outside of family, clan, or tribe. Both are innate, biologically driven traits (often credited with our success as a species). But in our globalized world empathy can and must be deliberately developed if we are to overcome that antipathy and build a more progressive society.
We live in a society in which not everyone understands why it’s important to say that Black Lives Matter, that refugees fleeing war need and deserve compassion, and that economic migration generally involves life-altering risks and sacrifices. But if you think this is a problem only of the American political right, consider the number of times you heard Trump voters castigated as bigoted, ignorant, or selfish before you bothered to read Hillbilly Elegy.
Because empathy formation is rooted in social and ultimately personal experience, investing in it requires a continuous process of experimentation and measurement, extracting from experience generalized principles that create opportunities for scale. The Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, which presciently has been investing in empathy for more than a decade (and receiving a lot more interest in its work since the election), has developed a useful framework that focuses on three elements: ensuring a calm and safe environment, establishing relationships of trust, and creating opportunity for empathic experiences that help develop the skill and behavior.
In many areas, passing progressive policies would be the most effective way to create favorable conditions for empathy formation. Housing, employment, and education policies that promote diverse and integrated communities create the opportunities for sustained interpersonal contact that spur empathic responses. Community policing and other police reforms would promote public safety and reduce environmental stress.
But even within our flawed policy framework, the Einhorn experience demonstrates that there is ample room to intervene. StoryCorps, for instance, offers tools for anyone to record an interview with someone they care about, and the results are often intimate, funny, and moving. When these stories are shared more broadly through StoryCorps’ podcast or radio broadcasts, they transcend distance and help us understand and, importantly, feel what we have in common with others, rather than our differences. Similarly, service programs like City Year, which create opportunities for young adults to work on public service projects, can overcome our physical segregation by deliberately placing people into communities different from their own.
As important as the opportunity to intervene is the intention to promote empathy. High quality, fully integrated, public education may create a better platform for empathy formation, but a curricular program like Facing History and Ourselves, which focuses on studying history through the source materials from multiple perspectives and forces students to grapple personally with the ethical choices on which historical events turned, actually promotes it.
Investing in empathy as an essential component of our infrastructure is not about building a single new enterprise, but linking a network of new and existing organizations that share an intention to make empathy formation a measured outcome of their work. Within that network should be organizations that aggregate and disseminate research and best practices, and that promote an appreciation for the importance of an intentional approach to empathy. It will be far more potent to embed these ideas with those who, for instance, are already creating curricular content or writing media policy than to recreate those capacities in a new organization.
Barack Obama spoke frequently of the “empathy deficit” while President, once calling empathy “a quality of character that can change the world.” He recognized that empathy is not only a tool for problem-solving, but changes which problems we see.
To achieve the inclusive prosperity that is central to modern progressivism, we cannot live in a world divided between “us” and “them.” We must strengthen the common ties that bind us together. That, in large part, requires more empathy.