The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What is this election missing? Empathy for Trump voters.

Supporters of Donald Trump cheer during a campaign rally Oct. 22 at Regent University in Virginia Beach. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Americans are waiting anxiously for this election to end next week, but sadly the deep divisions exposed in this campaign won’t magically mend on Nov. 9. No matter who wins the presidency, there will be a large segment of the population that will struggle to accept the result. We’ve been fractured politically for years now, but 2016 feels so polarized that we might as well be living in two different Americas.

But as “Saturday Night Live” captured so pitch-perfectly in a recent skit that had actor Tom Hanks as a Donald Trump supporter playing “Black Jeopardy,” the problems that plague white rural conservatives might not be so different from what worries African Americans. Many lament a system that’s unfair, discriminatory and one where the American Dream is out of reach.

As the tea party rose to political prominence at the end of the last decade, a liberal Berkeley sociology professor set out to understand why the white working class, once a strong voting bloc for Democrats, had embraced anti-establishment ideas that put them further to the right of even the mainstream Republican Party. Arlie Russell Hochschild spent time in rural Louisiana over five years getting to know people in a state where only 14 percent of white voters supported Barack Obama in 2008.

A C-SPAN caller asked a black guest how to stop being prejudiced. Here’s how she responded.

“What I wanted to do was take my own political and moral and social alarm system off and permit myself to curiosity and interest in people very different from myself,” she said in an interview. “The main thing I was trying to do was to really see if I could make friends with people, really get close. For certain people I asked, would you show me the school you went to, could we visit the church you went to, the cemetery where your parents were buried. They were wonderful people who I came to know in this way.”

What Hochschild discovered, and then wrote about in her book, “Strangers in Their Own Land” — a National Book Award finalist this year — is that neither side makes an effort to understand the other, but especially progressives, she said. Without understanding, there can’t be empathy. Without empathy, it’s nearly impossible to explore common ground.

[Review of “Strangers in Their Own Land” by Arlie Russell Hochschild]

Worried that this empathy gap will only widen post-election, we spoke to Hochschild this week about her experience embedding with rural conservatives — many who went on to become Trump supporters — whether empathy is possible after this bitter election, and where to even begin the healing process. The interview is edited for clarity and length.

Q: What were your preconceived stereotypes or expectations before you first visited Louisiana for this book in 2011?

Hochschild: What I expected was a self-centered people, but I found people who were nothing like that, quite the opposite. They were openhearted, they were communal. They were very eager to be known. They’d say, ‘Thanks for coming. We’re the flyover state, people don’t care about us, they don’t know who we are. They think we’re racist and homophobic and sexist and fat.’ There was a gratitude toward me, and I would tell them exactly who I was: ‘I think I live in a political bubble, and I’m trying to get out of mine and into yours. Will you talk to me? In some of them you sensed loss and a sense of being invisible and unappreciated and insulted. That liberals just think they’re rednecks. Here were people, some who had worked very hard, half were college-educated, and they just felt put down, and they felt a drifting downward in their economic circumstance, but didn’t hear anyone listening to them about their distress. They felt like a minority group.

Q: Do you think they had preconceived notions about you, too? 

You could see brows knit up. One woman said I was her first Democratic friend. I met another woman who said, ‘I love Rush Limbaugh,’ and I said, ‘I would love to talk to you about that.’ It came out that when she was listening to him she liked that he was defending her against criticisms from liberals. That reversed the picture [of him] to me from accuser to defender. There is tremendous power to open up a cultural space for respectfulness. I was out fishing with a man, and there we were, and he says to me, ‘You know, I think our leaders are trying to divide us. If we just get together, we’ll find much more in common than we think there is.’ I found a bridge in our ways of thinking that I never would have discovered without laying down an emotional carpet that we could tread, of trust that we’re not going to be disparaged.

Q: So you don’t think the two sides are as far apart as it feels right now? What exactly is Donald Trump tapping into then?

There are fundamental differences, but there are yet more fundamental commonalities. He speaks to their underlying feeling of invisibility and being disparaged. He’s a charismatic leader, he’s not just a maker of a narrative; he’s proposing himself as a personal messenger of their desires and their distress. They don’t feel either party has mentioned them, that they are people who feel that they are quintessentially American, that they’ve bought the line that if you work hard and obey the rules, you will have the opportunity to better yourself. They feel like they have worked hard and obeyed the rules, but they don’t feel like they’ve achieved the American Dream. So that puts them in a psychological state of vulnerability, which Trump has moved in on.

Q: But there is a segment of Trump supporters who have expressed racist, sexist and/or xenophobic beliefs, like the man who yelled, “Jew-S-A,” at the press at a rally. If you feel threatened by that, how do you also feel empathetic?

Start with the world’s finest mediators — Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi. Explore the history of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the extraordinary history of victims understanding their victimizers. And then you say, ‘I’ve seen myself and my “side” as a victim, and now let’s see how they might feel that way, too.’  It doesn’t mean you’re ceding ground, it just means you’re seeing more possibilities in that person than if you saw them as a hopeless villain.

Q: So is lack of empathy what is driving us apart?

It’s absolutely one part. It would be far too simple to say it was the only part. But it is a basic part. I think a lot of people can do it. They do it with their spouses, their children, their loved ones. If you believe that getting to know people who are profoundly different from you is dangerous or ill-advised, then you’re not going to want to do it, then you won’t even try to do it. Progressives have to get out of their corner and reach out; we’re stuck in our enclaves, our geographic enclaves, our media enclaves. Extreme blame-pinning rhetoric tends to extinguish empathy toward the ‘other’ and create fellow-feeling among those with whom one already agrees.

Q: So the onus is on progressives? Is there a responsibility for conservatives to reach out too?

It goes both ways but I think liberals bear the bigger responsibility, and the bigger interest, if they want to understand why the democratic party has lost so many blue collar white voters.

Q: To start working toward being more empathetic with one another, do we have to immerse ourselves with ‘the other’ like you did?

It greatly helps. We know that. Of course, we can empathize with a character on the screen or in a book — a person we’ve never met.  But it helps enormously to actually put yourself face-to-face with people you’ve mentally imagined as ‘against you and your values’ and to give yourself the chance to get to know them. You will still be you, and they will still be them, but there will open up a new space in which each can see the other.

Q: So if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency and wants to reach out, do you have ideas for how she could do that effectively?

If Hillary should win,  and follow up on her own  welcome and stated desire to be the healer of the nation, she should do two things:

  • First, consider policies that would restore well-paid jobs to blue collar workers—ie institute policies that address the real distress of downwardly mobile blue collar men, and
  • Second, begin an innovative program – through churches, schools, unions, people-to-people “living room conversations” – to get people out of our enclaves and talking to each other across the political divide.  The purpose is to restore the democratic tradition of civil discourse across differences that has been broken by this election cycle. It could be called The Restoring Civility Project. Or the National Empathy Wall Project.

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