This Election Is About Empathy

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Graphic: W+G Creative
The year 2020 hurts. We've lost the lives of more than 178,000 Americans to the COVID-19 pandemic. We've watched Black men like George Floyd and Rayshard Brookes get killed by police officers. Millions in the U.S. are without a job. We're all clinging to the idea that "normal" life is on the horizon when it could very well be buried deep under obstacles we've yet to discover.

And we're in the midst of an election that will decide the person whose job it will be to fix it. Or, at least, the person who will try to fix it (and not make things worse). What America needs right now is someone who can step outside of themselves and understand the plight of the nation's people. In order to effectively support and lead, this person will have to rely heavily on empathy, an emotion placed front and center during the Democratic National Convention.

Experts In This Article

While accepting the Democratic presidential nomination, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. shared his intent to represent all Americans.

"While I'll be a Democratic candidate, I'll be an American president," he said. "I'll work hard for those who didn't support me, as hard for them as I did for those who did vote for me. That's the job of a president—to represent all of us, not just our base or our party. This is not a partisan moment, this must be an American moment."

Sen. Kamala Harris, who accepted the Democratic vice-presidential nomination, shared similar sentiments.

"[My mother] pushed us to see a world beyond ourselves," she said. "She taught us to be conscious and compassionate about the struggles of all people. She taught us to believe public service is a noble cause and the fight for justice is a shared responsibility. That lead me to become a lawyer, a district attorney, attorney general, and a United States senator. And at every step of the way, I've been guided by the words I spoke the first time I stood in a courtroom: Kamala Harris for the people."

Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC, a licensed therapist and co-founder of Viva Wellness, says that empathy is, simply put, the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes.

"Empathy is really an emotional experience and not just an intellectual one," says Caraballo. "It's really important for the people who represent jurisdictions, state, country, county, cities, whatever, to be able to have empathy as a skill because it makes them a better leader and someone who can adequately represent the vast array of people who exist in those spaces."

Empathy and politics should always coexist. And last week's speeches were steeped in emotion and personal experience. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) shared what Biden's stance on childcare means to her in light of her own need for childcare. As a young teacher in Texas, her Aunt Bee stepped in and provided childcare when Warren was ready to quit after realizing how difficult it was to juggle kids and work. And we can't forget about Brayden Harrington, a 13-year-old with a stutter who says Biden helped him become a more confident speaker. For many viewers, Harrington's gripping speech not only showcased Biden's empathy and perseverance, it highlighted a stark contrast to his political opponent, who once mocked a journalist with a disability on national television.

"Without Joe Biden, I wouldn't be speaking with you today. A few months ago I met him in New Hampshire and he told me we were a part of the same club. We stutter," said Harrison. "He showed me how he marks his addresses to make them easier to say out loud. So I did the same thing today."

Actress and convention moderator Julia Louis-Dreyfus shared how Biden's empathy has impacted her personally. The two met when Louis-Dreyfus played Vice President Selina Meyer on HBO's "Veep."

"A couple of years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer and I was absolutely terrified. One of the first people who called me was Joe. His real warmth and kindness on that call, man, I gotta say—it made me cry," she said. "Joe Biden's empathy is genuine. You can feel it. That's why President Obama asked Joe to head up The Cancer Moonshot. President Obama knows what we all know: Joe Biden understands suffering, and loss, and sacrifice."

President Obama himself noted Biden's capacity for compassion in remarks delivered at the convention. "Twelve years ago, when I began my search for a vice president, I didn't know I'd end up finding a brother. Joe and I came from different places and different generations," he said. "But what I quickly came to admire about him is his resilience, born of too much struggle; his empathy, born of too much grief. Joe's a man who learned—early on—to treat every person he meets with respect and dignity, living by the words his parents taught him: 'No one's better than you, Joe, but you're better than nobody.'"

The Democratic party's message is clear: This election hinges on empathy. But such levels of emotionality and vulnerability are often discounted. It's seen as a hindrance, not a strength. Caraballo says the opposite is true.

"In our country, specifically, part of the stigma that comes with mental health is just seeing emotions as liabilities," he says. "If someone is characterized as an emotional person, that's often seen as something that would cloud their judgment and makes them a liability in the workplace. It creates all these sorts of problems. In reality, there's actually a skill that I often talk to clients about, it's this idea of developing what's called 'The Wise Mind,' which is really about not living in a place of hyper rationality." The Wise Mind is a mindfulness skill that's often taught in Dialectical Behavior Therapy but isn't exclusive to that.

"We have these three brains: One of them being hyper-rational thought, the other being hyper-emotional experience, and then the wise mind, which is actually the combination of the two," says Caraballo. "We can make decisions based on really rational objective data, but wise choices also necessitate emotional subjectivity. Emotion is actually just a data point."

Emotion should be a necessary data point used by our leaders. A president with the emotional intelligence to empathize with others won't respond to the nation's staggering losses of life with "it is what it is." That person won't call the pandemic "the China virus" after numerous people have shared why such a misnomer is harmful and racist. That person won't mock people with disabilities. And perhaps most importantly, that person won't put themselves before others.

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