Friday, September 28, 2012

Mitt Romney's Empathy Deficit

When I saw a recent blog post by Charles Pierce, "The Problem with Romney Is the Problem with Empathy", my first thought was "he noticed that too?" Then, upon reading Pierce's analysis I saw that I misinterpreted the headline. Pierce believes that Romney has too much empathy, as compared to his party:
It turns out the problem Republicans have with the program is not the ideological big-government aspect of it. The problem they have with it is the good it turned out to do for people. The problem with it is that it made people's lives a little easier. The problem is that cruelty has become an ideology in itself, and it is an implacable one....

The problem with the Romney campaign is not the alleged ideological incoherence of his political resume. The problem is that he's trying to appeal to a party full of moral monsters.
Elided from the middle of that quote from Pierce is his own quote of a Tea Party activist, and I have to say that it does support Pierce's thesis that a powerful faction of the Republican Party not only lacks empathy, it eschews the concept:
"The thing Romney needs to do to beat Obama is show up in this debate and not have another empathy comment. Those comments are really hurting him far more than any 47% comments," said Ryan Rhodes, a tea party activist from Iowa. "The government's not here for empathy, it's here for the law. If we use empathy for everything we want to do, that's how countries go bankrupt and bad policy is created."
Let's be blunt: the Southern strategy, and the subsequent evolution of the Southern strategy (welfare queens, "young bucks" buying "T-bone steaks" with "food stamps", John McCain's "black" daughter, the "food stamp President (who hates capitalism, wants to undermine capitalism and implement socialism, and is a secret Muslim who won't show us his birth certificate)", "voter fraud", "I don't want to help 'bleah' people"....) relies upon an us vs. them philosophy, with "them" being greedy and undeserving poor people - or perhaps greedy and undeserving people that have more than you - with the subtext that they probably also have dark skin and vote for Democrats.

That Tea Party activist's comments also highlight the cognitive dissonance you see among a lot of the Republican "base" - the "Keep your government hands of my Medicare" philosophy. One of the ways in which the Republicans ginned up opposition to the ACA was to tell seniors, "Obama's cutting your Medicare to help [undeserving poor people] get health insurance." It was inconsistent with the Romney team's then-stated economic plans (now they're promising only to slash and burn Medicare for future seniors - again relying upon a lack of empathy among their supporters - "As long as it doesn't affect me..."), but a great number of the beneficiaries of the ACA do have jobs but are nonetheless uninsured or underinsured. If you talk to enough Republicans at the low end of the wage pool, you'll find people who receive or have received housing subsidies, food assistance, unemployment insurance, the earned income tax credit, WIC, Medicaid, Medicare... but they'll insist that their receipt of public assistance is somehow different from the "takers", or that "I paid for it through my taxes" (never mind the actual math).

I'm also reminded of a Ted Nugent quote shared at Beat the Press,
As I’ve written before, for at least the past 50 years the Democratic Party has intentionally engineered a class of political “victims” who have been bamboozled into being dependent on the federal government for their subsistence, including food, housing and now health care. They get this without paying any federal income taxes, and that’s wrong.
I've mentioned many times the fact that it used to be Republican policy to get people off of the federal tax rolls - and by that I mean average, working people, not only the wealthiest among us - but now something Ronald Reagan used as a bragging point is used by people like The Nuge to bash almost half of all Americans. But... does Nugent actually know what the word "subsistence" means?

By now you're probably thinking, "I thought you disagreed with Pierce." I'm getting to that. First, let me say, a lack of empathy is not something that is unique to the Republican Party. It may be more manifest in Republican politics, and may be more likely to be vocalized by supporters of that party, but our society as a whole is not very empathetic. About the best way to get our society, at large, to turn on a group is to paint it as a greedy, undeserving, exploitative "other" that is getting rich off of our dime. As others have pointed out, that's why the Republican distortion of "You didn't build this" resonated with some businesspersons, even those who had built their businesses based upon SBA loans, government contracts and the like - they were uncomfortable with seeing themselves as takers, even if they could respond that on the balance they have given back far more than they received.

But the fact is, Mitt Romney does have an empathy problem. I found it grating when I heard George W. Bush speak of "compassionate conservatism" and "a hand up, not a handout", because I didn't believe he meant what he was saying. Like Romney he comes across as the proverbial guy who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. But he made the effort. His public persona was carefully constructed around trying to make people see him as "one of them". And for all of his bashing of welfare recipients, Ronald Reagan projected empathy. George H.W. Bush, who in retrospect may have had more actual empathy than his predecessor and his son put together, came across as more distant, more patrician. That didn't help him in either the election he won or the one that he lost.

In the current election cycle, one of the themes the Republicans are pushing about President Obama is that he's cold and prickly, doesn't like to glad hand, eats dinner with his family on most nights instead of going to parties, doesn't have close friends among other world leaders and the like. Nobody is going to mistake Obama for Clinton, but here's the thing: pointy headed, introverted family man or no, most people like Obama. In contrast, Romney comes across as a phony, and when you hear the "behind the scenes" stuff about Romney, which of course you have to take with a grain of salt, it's not a case of "to know him is to love him". Clearly the Republican operatives pushing that line about Obama are hoping that people don't do a "compare and contrast" with their own candidate.

If you look at Romney's personal history, it's difficult to find examples of empathy. He'll point to acts of charity, but an act of charity through financial contributions to your church, providing assistance to members of your church and the like does not prove empathy. When you see Romney actually try to connect on a one-to-one (or one-to-many) level with members of the public you see a consistent pattern, from this:

To this:


From "who let the dogs out", to a bucket full of "hardware stuff", to oversized bets with Rick Perry, Romney's pro forma efforts at humanization and humor tend not to resonate with voters - instead they reinforce the perspective that he's not just out-of-touch, but not even interested in them (save for wanting their vote). If you want to succeed in politics, you don't necessarily need to be sincere but at some level there will be times when you have to at least be able to fake sincerity. Romney's lack of connection with those outside of his stratospheric wealth and social class seems to be a product of an empathy vacuum.

Romney is capable of feeling and reacting to the crowd's energy directed at him, but he does not appear capable of giving anything back. He does not strike me as a narcissist, except at the level that anybody who gets to this point in a presidential campaign is apt to think very highly of himself, but he does strike me as somebody who, unless you can do something for him, simply doesn't care about anybody who is neither part of his inner circle. He can go from being a huge proponent of providing health insurance to the uninsured to sneering at them as takers because the former position was fakery. The 47% comment resonates because for once Romney seemed sincere.

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