The Republican Empathy Gap

We live in a skybox nation, where the rich and the poor very rarely meet and therefore understand little about each other. For Fox News anchors, a minimum wage job is a fun thing you do over the summer to get out of the house; for most people, it's their livelihood.
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The "War on Women" debate gives us an interesting insight into the Republican Party. The "War" began when Republicans voted against the Lilly Ledbetter pay act, then they refused to renew the Violence Against Women Act, then tried to prevent women from accessing birth control. Then they said some really stupid things about rape and were generally buttholes about the whole business. But now the Republicans think they have ammunition against the Democrats. "We just pass legislation that make it women harder to get fair wages, get an abortion in the case of rape and report sex abuse," they say, "Democrats hurt real women by harassing them at work." As the AP oddly puts it, "While the controversies surrounding Akin and Murdock focused on words, the spectacles involving Weiner and Filner center on actions."

But the Akin controversy wasn't about "words." It was about legislation. Akin endorsed the dreadful "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," which would have added the qualifier "forcible" before rape, in an attempt to change the definition of the word. "Words," after all, communicate ideas, which serve as the basis for policy. By implying that public policy debates are only so many "words" detached from policy, the Republicans and AP illustrate the profound disconnect in Republican politics.

Republican governors who chose not to accept the Medicaid expansion and therefore leave millions of human beings without healthcare consider these people merely pawns in the political game. Bob Woodward has noted has much in his quintessential book on the debt ceiling debacle. Republicans, he witnessed, simply didn't care about the possibility that the U.S. might default on the debt, some gleefully welcomed it. Some people just want to watch the world burn.

It's tempting to place this observation in the larger picture of Republican ideology. Ezra Klein and other liberals constantly chide this Congress (and the last one) for how little legislation they have passed. But for Boehner, the test will be how much legislation they repeal. Because Republicans believe the government can do no good, allowing it to shutdown or savagely cutting benefits are not bad policies, rather, this is the goal. Republicans want to systematically dismantle Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, slowly starving the beast of government. Like ardent Stalinists, no human cost can stop them.

Of course, this was not always the case. Nixon wanted a guaranteed minimum income, as did Milton Friedman (he proposed the Negative Income Tax). Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System and invested heavily in science and technology (he also appointed William Brennan to the Supreme Court).

Much of this may be a result of an empathy gap -- few politicians actually see the people affected by their programs, especially when they remained ensconced in D.C. That means politicians must rely on either anecdotes from the campaign trail and those with whom they interact. This creates an empathy gap, with Woodward noting that Cantor was concerned about small business owners and Obama poor mothers on Medicaid.

To understand the empathy gap, we can turn to the unadulterated id of the Republican Party: Fox News. In that Daily Show clip, we see a bunch of rich people saying really dumb and awful and disconnected things about poverty and John Oliver does a great job tearing them a new one. But, in the second half of the clip, we get two delightful "pundits," one arguing that, it's not McDonald's job to pay to feed her kids, "no matter how many she has." It's an interesting twist on Reagan's race-baiting welfare queen tactic, although now the woman has a job, and just wants to unionize. The other "pundit" in particular stands out, Mrs. Tracy Byrnes, who excoriates those on the minimum wage, and yet feels intense empathy for those who make $250,000 and can't afford to put their kids through college. $250,000, she explains is, "actually close to poverty." Read that again (and note that $250,000 actually puts you in the richest 5 percent of earners in America).

But this isn't actually entirely surprising to me. I know many people who assume that $100,000 is the median wage ($53,000 is), or that everyone goes to college, or that it's not weird for their parents to still be paying their bills at 26. The reason Tracy Byrnes thinks that $250,000 is close to the poverty line ($23,283 is the poverty line, meaning that $250,000 is about 975 percent more than poverty) is because Tracy Byrnes, like most Fox News anchors, pundits and politicians, have never been, or met poor people (or know how to do basic math). In America, as incomes have diverged, so have social opportunities and social interactions. We live in a skybox nation, where the rich and the poor very rarely meet and therefore understand little about each other. For Fox News anchors, a minimum wage job is a fun thing you do over the summer to get out of the house; for most people, it's their livelihood.

The empathy gap is thus rooted in another social phenomenon -- our society's dramatic increase in inequality. David Madland argues in Democracy, "Studies across U.S. states, of the United States over time, and across countries all find that societies with a strong middle class and low levels of inequality have greater levels of trust of strangers." This trust brings about economic advantages. Madland cites one study which found, "a 10 percentage-point increase in trust increases the growth rate of GDP by 0.5 percentage points" over five years." International studies have confirmed this effect.

This decline in social trust begins a downward spiral. Bo Rothstein and Eric Uslaner note in a fabulous paper for World Politics, "The best policy response to growing inequality is to enact universalistic social welfare programs. However, the social strains stemming from increased inequality make it almost impossible to enact such policies." The lack of social trust caused by inequality makes increasing opportunity harder (as I've noted above) which further erodes social trust and increases inequality. Wealthy citizens see themselves as "makers" and the poor as "takers," while the poor see the rich as selfish. Rothstein and Uslaner continue later, "Unequal societies find themselves trapped in a continuous cycle of inequality, with low trust in others and in government and policies that do little to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor and to create a sense of equal opportunity."

Other research has confirmed this "empathy gap." Last year, Paul Piff caused quite a stir when he published his finding that, upper class individuals were, more likely to break driving laws, take goods from others, lie in a negotiation, cheat and endorse unethical behaviour (this, of course, stands at odd with Charles Murray's rather naive belief that the rich are rich because of their superior moral scruples). Piff summarizes his conclusions, "While having money doesn't necessarily make anybody anything, the rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people. It makes them more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes."

Most social phenomenons can't be pegged to a single event. But the Republican Party's shift from empathy to disgust and from viewing government as a force for good to a necessary evil, although developing for a long time, is aptly summarized in two lines from Ronald Reagan's "A Time for Choosing" speech. The great orator said, "Each year the need grows greater; the program grows greater. We were told four years ago that 17 million people went to bed hungry each night. Well that was probably true. They were all on a diet. But now we're told that 9.3 million families in this country are poverty-stricken on the basis of earning less than 3,000 dollars a year." This was much more radical then than it seems now. Poverty, had for decades been, "not a trait of character," but rather something, "created anew in each generation, but not by heredity but by circumstances." Now it was a choice, not something to war against, but something to mock. As Noam Chomsky noted, some victims are considered "worthy" and others "unworthy." With those simple words, Reagan created a large class of "unworthy" victims that do not deserve our help or empathy. Government, he decided could not help them. Is it any wonder that inequality began its increase under Reagan and has spiraled out of control ever since?

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