On Tuesday, the New York Times published what might prove to be the definitive statistical account of why Donald Trump won, and why Hillary Clinton lost, in November. The analysis concluded that fully a quarter of the white, working-class voters who cast a ballot for Barack Obama in 2012 defected to Trump four years later — and that this was the factor that ultimately swung the election.
This was not a shock. For months now, a wide range of commentators have been drawing a closely related political lesson from the 2016 election: In appealing to an increasingly diverse electorate, Democrats failed to empathize with white, working-class voters, and that nudged millions of them toward casting their ballots for the Republican.
To be persuasive, as a politician, you have to be persuadable — you have to put yourself in your audience’s shoes and demonstrate that, to paraphrase one gifted politician, you feel their pain. This is how a speaker meets people where they are, gains credibility, and, hopefully, builds support for his or her agenda. Even before November, there had been a growing interest in feeling the pain of folks in the quaintly named Heartland and Rust Belt, from sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild embedding herself in a Louisiana community for five years, to J.D. Vance’s best-selling Hillbilly Elegy about growing up in Kentucky.
But there is a more fundamental, discomfiting, question in all this: Does demonstrating empathy even work anymore for politicians? Or, to put a finer point on it, if you show empathy for everybody in your audience, does each person only hear that you care about someone else?
As one of President Obama’s speechwriters, I had the privilege of working for one of the most authentically compassionate leaders in recent history. He possesses a natural ability — and desire — to understand just about anyone. And as his speechwriters, we knew he didn’t just appreciate all sides of a story — he wanted to acknowledge those perspectives and reassure his audiences that he heard where they were coming from.
Yet, try as he did, message intended wasn’t always message received.
For example, whenever Obama addressed tensions between law enforcement and the communities they served, some critics would insist that he never had a nice thing to say about cops. After the horrific murder of two New York City cops, Rudy Giuliani was quick to blame Obama, saying, “The president has shown absolutely no respect for the police … All the president has done is see one side of this dispute.”
This couldn’t have been further from the truth, of course. As the fact-checking site Politifact detailed, Obama had on numerous occasions expressed support for police, praised their outstanding work, and strongly condemned violence against them. But it seemed as though a concurrent acknowledgement of communities that felt mistreated by cops, or of the Black Lives Matter movement, erased any trace of empathy detected by some in law enforcement. This happened on issue after issue, from gun violence to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has written that, “When it comes to policy decisions … we are better off putting aside empathy and employing a combination of rational deliberation and a more distanced compassion.” I asked him what this means for political communication. He said that empathy, effectively, is a zero-sum game. Anyone who has to speak to multiple audiences at once faces a trade-off: A politician might tell you he cares about you — but if he also tells you that he cares about someone else, you no longer trust him. We demand of our leaders an unfair and impossible monogamy.
Trump implicitly understands this — which is why his us-versus-them rhetoric, while so appalling to much of the country, appeals to the small group of people he has identified as “us.” They’re not interested in hearing that he also cares about others. They want him all to themselves.
And the sad truth is, it works. For all the noise about his low approval ratings, he’s actually doing fine among Republicans, including those who once balked at his ascendance. They now sheepishly applaud as he translates that us-versus-them rhetoric into the policy equivalent: Rather than call Mexicans drug dealers and rapists, for instance, he calmly weaponizes the bureaucracy and announces a new office to prosecute crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, an almost nonexistent problem. His supporters are satisfied with his plan. His opponents are impressed with his “restraint.” Thus does a con artist slither over the lowest of bars.
Throughout history, our greatest leaders — Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt — took the opposite approach. They were not naïve about the darker impulses that infect the human condition. But they deliberately chose to transcend our baser instincts and, instead, appeal to our shared humanity. Of course, before the internet age, they could tell one audience what they wanted to hear, turn around and tell another audience something else. The great trick of analog presidential communication was the ability to hedge.
A master of signaling to his base, Trump doesn’t face the same empathy trade-offs as ordinary politicians. Because he speaks almost exclusively to his most fervent supporters while ignoring just about everybody else, at long last they feel heard.
As they should. Communities that, for decades, have watched their jobs disappear across the ocean or, more likely, into a robot, deserve a government that addresses their concerns. Instead, they’ve been duped by a huckster who will only enrich himself off their continuing misery.
Which brings us back to the Democrats, still wondering how to listen to those who feel ignored. Should the party take a page out of the Trump playbook and focus on one group to the exclusion of others? Not only would doing so be impossible in a practical sense, it would also be an affront to everything this enormously diverse party stands for. Perhaps the lesson for Democrats is that empathy is not an electoral strategy. Now, it’s just a matter of convincing voters of that.
Sarada Peri was special assistant to president Obama and a senior presidential speechwriter. Follow her on Twitter at @saradaperi.