Main idea: Using an observation that Clinton supporters’ thinking tends to focus primarily on personal attributes of the candidates and that Sanders supporters’ thinking tends to focus primarily on policy issues, I conclude that they could work better with each other by taking that into account as they talk to each other.
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Empathy is, among other things, the ability to see the world—at least momentarily—from the perspective of another without judging—at least momentarily—that perspective to be ‘bad’ or ‘flawed.’
When you agree with someone, it’s easy to see what they see and withhold negativity. But when we disagree, empathy takes effort and practice. It becomes the most useful skill for reaching mutual understanding.
In this presidential election year, I get twenty opportunities every day to both practice and observe empathy. My friends include both Clinton supporters and Sanders supporters, and—you may have noticed—tensions are high between them just now.
Disclosure: I voted for Sanders. For several reasons, however, I didn’t think that working for him in Wisconsin would be the most effective use of my energies. I was right; he won the primary here without my help. So as far as the presidential race goes, I’ve been in observation mode pretty much all along.
My conclusions: Clinton supporters and Sanders supporters share almost all the same foundational civic values—freedom, justice, a nation that pulls together and works cooperatively to achieve equal opportunity and shared prosperity for all.
But they have come to support different candidates because of where they look to find evidence of those values.
My sister- and brother-in-law provide a clear illustration. He supports Sanders, she Clinton. I asked them at lunch the other day to give me three reasons why they initially decided to support their candidate. Not the arguments they have might have developed in response to others, which get shaped by others’ perspectives, but the factors that first clinched it for them.
Their answers didn’t surprise me, and they won’t surprise you. As you read their answers below, appreciate and accept the fact that each of these fellow citizens is sincere: These really are the factors that were decisive for them. Notice they both have their facts straight. Notice the absence of conflict in their core values—but notice that they look at different things to see evidence of those values in the candidates.
My brother-in-law said he was drawn to Sanders by: 1) Regulation of the financial industry. He believes that Wall Street is causing most of the biggest problems hurting Americans right now, and believes that we need to regulate their conduct more effectively. Sander’s positions on Wall Street regulation precisely agree with his own. 2) Use of America’s military force. He believes America’s foreign policy has been too reliant for too long on military power, and that creates more terrorists than it stops, costs us too much money, and is immoral. He likes Sanders’ positions on military policy. 3) College expenses. Sanders won him over with his early, clear, and strong focus on higher-education debt as a significant factor limiting opportunity for an entire generation of Americans, and his bold proposals to address it.
My sister-in-law said she was drawn to Clinton by: 1) Her experience. She has worked in many jobs, at very high levels, for a very long time. That amount of experience gives Clinton the most impressive resume of any presidential candidate ever. 2) Her ability to weather storms of criticism. She has endured years of the most vitriolic and relentless criticism that any public figure has ever had to endure—some of which could have sent her to prison had her accusers prevailed—and she just kept going. Didn’t crumble. Didn’t surrender. 3) Her gender. Having a woman in the White House will be of benefit to the entire nation because it will provide undeniable proof that women can do anything. That will help millions of American women achieve their individual potentials, and that will help the entire nation.
Do you see what I see? The Sanders voter looks at policy positions for evidence of a candidate’s value. The Clinton voter looks at personal attributes.
For months, I’ve been analyzing the posts that roll by on my Facebook feed. There have been hundreds, because my Facebook friends are very civic-minded. In nearly every pro-Sanders/anti-Clinton comment, you can discern a policy focus. In nearly every pro-Clinton/anti-Sanders comment, you can discern a person focus.
Most of the exceptions come when they are heavy into debate mode, grabbing any argument that might stick, when we’re all most likely to make arguments that we ourselves don’t really think are very strong. (And yes, of course, Sanders supporters express sincere concerns about Clinton’s personal attributes, and Clinton supporters express sincere concerns about Sanders’ policy proposals. My point is that those weren’t the reasons they chose to support their candidate in the first place–that is, Sanders voters didn’t choose him primarily because they disliked Clinton’s personal attributes, and Clinton voters didn’t choose her because they disliked Sanders’ policies.)
And reminder: Whatever your own focus, set aside judgment of the other focus. Of course your way of looking at the world seems better to you. But both perspectives actually exist among our fellow citizens and are a part of a real world that we really have to deal with. None of us can force or even persuade our fellow citizens to change their instinctive way of thinking.
What breaks my heart is when I see attempts at reaching across the divide that fail because the participants neither perceive nor address the perspective of the other.
For example, one exchange I’ve encountered several times is when a Sanders supporter asks something like “Please, Clinton supporter, tell me how she’d make a good president. If you can do that, I’ll be willing to do this ‘unity’ thing. Make your case.”
Nine times out of ten, the Clinton supporter responds with a string of ‘person’ arguments, perhaps along the lines of: “Clinton has endured horrible attacks, and she has not been indicted. That makes her more likely to win in November, despite what the polls now say. As the nominee, Sanders would crumble under the Republican attacks because he doesn’t have that experience. The Republicans would call him a “Socialist,” and voters don’t like socialists…” and so forth. If you haven’t seen an example of this exchange, you can guess what happens next.
The Sanders supporter then claims he or she hasn’t heard a single argument in favor of Clinton, which makes the Clinton supporter perceive the Sanders supporter as pig-headed. But the Sanders supporter truly didn’t hear any relevant arguments—because those ‘person’ arguments are not important or persuasive to a voter who focuses primarily on policy.
I haven’t got a solution—just a suggestion that we all try to be as non-judgmentally alert as we possibly can to each other’s values and perspectives. That won’t be wasted effort. As I’ve written in this blog before, I don’t think any of us ever changes another’s mind anyway—at least not directly and immediately, and particularly not in a single conversation .
Changes of minds happen in the shower, or when chopping vegetables, when we are alone with our own thoughts, reviewing the conversations we’ve had or the new information that has come our way.
In any single conversation, if we do no more than successfully connect with each other—that is, if we come to understand the other’s point of view and succeed in expressing our own in a way that can be understood by the other–we will have given each other the raw materials that enable us to reach consensus over time.