Why you should care

Because empathy may go a long way in cleaning up our messed-up political systems.

Despite their political differences, the Donald, Barry, Dubya, Bubba, the Gipper and other Oval Office victors all have at least one thing in common: a penchant for being photographed while cuddling or kissing (sometimes wailing) babies. But with America seemingly divided deeper than ever, it’s time politicians do more than merely pose with adorable infants for photo ops: Just as many nurses, teachers and financial planners must meet continuing education requirements throughout their career, politicians should be required to undergo empathy training — complete with a baby-inspired boot camp.

Many have called for greater empathy when it comes to both policy and politics in the United States. Before he became president, Sen. Barack Obama argued, “The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit.” More recently, Stanford sociologist Robb Willer, whose research focuses on the bases of social order, has argued that empathy is critical for easing political polarization. Alex Torpey, a former mayor of South Orange, New Jersey, who teaches about open and collaborative governance at Seton Hall University, tells OZY there’s a need in politics for a trusted leader “who can bridge between demographic or cultural groups, and facilitate some sort of empathy and understanding and remembrance of broader common goals among public decision-makers.”

Children … participate in small-group exercises where the point is to build consensus around a particular problem.

So how do babies fit into the picture? A program called Roots of Empathy sends infants and parents to elementary classrooms every three weeks during the school year to help foster empathy in students. Children observe an infant’s development and label his or her feelings, and they also participate in small-group exercises where the point is to build consensus around a particular problem. Unlike the situation Senators Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins and John McCain recently found themselves in during the health care debate, the kids are allowed to take an unpopular position or change their stance without ridicule. Started in Canada in 1996, Roots of Empathy has since expanded to the U.S., England, Costa Rica, Germany and New Zealand, and it’s been credited with helping kids become more caring and inclusive and less aggressive.

Adapting a program like this for politicians might seem ludicrous, yet it already has some support from within such circles. Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, whose husband, Justin Trudeau, is often lauded for his empathic (if not overly sunny) ways while governing Canada, recently endorsed Roots of Empathy’s approach. And the organization’s founder and president, Mary Gordon, says a political party from western Canada asked her a few years ago to work with young, aspiring politicians “because they really believed empathy was important.” While Gordon passed (to focus on children instead), she seemed open to OZY’s idea of training sessions for politicians who would spend mandatory time with opponents while discussing public policy issues. Who knows? Maybe certain debates around health care, education or parental benefits could even include the presence of the very people whose livelihood are often at stake: babies and their parents.

What’s crucial, though, Gordon says, is incorporating lessons about how other politicians beyond the U.S. have bridged ideological chasms. For example, Trudeau’s government recently included a former opposition leader on an advisory council for the renegotiation of NAFTA. “We know we develop empathy through role modeling,” says Gordon. “We experience it.”

But is it too late for America? Some have decried the death of empathy in U.S. politics, while others have called for compassion over empathy. Yale professor and psychologist Paul Bloom, whose new book is Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, has argued that feeling the pain of others is a bad idea when it comes to being in politics and creating policy. “Empathy makes us biased, tribal and often cruel,” he recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

Torpey isn’t sure what the right fix is, though, he notes, “younger political leaders, with less aggressive partisan identity, and broader national and results-based motivations are probably a big part of the solution.” Gordon also sees much more promise in nurturing the next generation of politicos. In a highly polarized nation, it’s no longer enough for aspiring politicians to kiss babies and glad-hand constituents. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, you need to feel their pain.

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