Politics & Policy

The Politics of Empathy

Many people vote in ways that express empathy toward their favored groups.

Few things complicate political life as much as ideology does. On the one hand, ideologies are sets of beliefs that are too complex for many people to bother to develop. On the other hand, in order to turn political ideas into reality, one needs to form a large coalition of people who perceive themselves to be like-minded. Inevitably, successful political coalitions often include many individuals who are fairly clueless about ideology.

From the perspective of ideological sophisticates, the maintenance of political power depends on preserving a sense of unity among members who are not necessarily well-versed in policy, or might not have strong ideological positions on all issues, but are nevertheless attracted to one coalition as opposed to the other. Some time-tested techniques to do that include emphasis on shared geography, ethnicity, lifestyle, or self-interest.

The data we have collected over the past two years suggest another dimension by which broad ideological coherence can be maintained, which we dubbed shared empathic profiles (“sympathetic” profiles would be more accurate but sounds misleading). First, take a look at the following graph, which presents answers that respondents gave to the following question during our Aug. 9, 2010, survey of 2,067 likely voters:On a scale of one to ten, where one is ‘not at all sympathetic’ and ten is ‘extremely sympathetic,’ how sympathetic do you feel toward members of each of the following categories?”

We see that liberals and progressives are more sympathetic toward animals and foreigners than are conservatives and libertarians. Conversely, though not to the same extent, conservatives are more sympathetic toward soldiers and babies than are progressives and liberals. Criminals, drug addicts, and the homeless are again more “popular” among progressives and liberals than among conservatives and libertarians.

Sympathy here is a relative term. Absolutely speaking, progressives and liberals are very sympathetic towards babies and American soldiers, for example. It is only when sympathy is compared between different groups that significant differences emerge. For very conservative voters, American soldiers are on the top. For progressives, soldiers share fourth place with foreigners.

We believe that some of these core underlying tendencies could serve as the basic foundation on which more sophisticated ideological positions are later built. One might make a philosophical or policy-based argument about the virtues of being tough on crime or the costs of housing and feeding inmates. But many people might not have time or patience to delve into these arguments. Instead, they might gravitate to the side with a similar empathic profile because similarity of profiles takes considerably less effort to establish. And, given the prominence of motivated reasoning in human psychology, if they later choose to develop more specific policy views, many of them might end up in the same group of people that they started with anyway. Among such voters, it is essentially an outlook and worldview based on core values that predominantly drives behavior and decision-making.

One of the clearest differences is the difference in sympathy towards foreigners vs. American soldiers. Several surveys have shown that Democrats believe themselves to be less patriotic than Republicans. According to a recent Pew survey, 43 percent of Republicans think they are more patriotic than the average American, while 26 percent of Democrats think the same. When Dinesh D’Souza suggested that American Left’s lifestyle is partly to blame for Islamic terrorism, Jonah Goldberg defended his fellow but liberal Americans: “I can criticize and complain about my brother all I like, but if my brother bothers somebody outside the family, well, that’s just too bad.”

But this sense of brotherhood with one’s compatriots is precisely what bothers progressives such as Glenn Greenwald, who often chastises all who value foreign lives less than American ones. The empathic profiles we have obtained are consistent with these differences. One whose sympathies toward American soldiers and foreigners are significantly different is probably more likely to tolerate different tradeoffs in collateral civilian vs. military casualties and to support different rules of engagement in a war effort.

The subject of animals likewise appears to elicit some differentials in sympathy. Vegetarianism, environmentalism, and the animal-rights movement are mostly creatures of the Left. In her book Godless, Ann Coulter argued that “the whole panoply of . . . things liberals believe flows from their belief that man is just another animal.” While such causality is hard to establish, our data are certainly consistent with this view. Not only are progressives and liberals more sympathetic to animals, but in our October 2009 study of 3,766 adults, we found a correlation between one’s belief that “humans are animals” and his ideology measured on a nine-point scale to be about 0.40. This is a very high correlation in political psychology, and especially so given the fact that the statement does not advocate for any particular policy.

A popular idea among progressive intellectuals for many years has been that of the “expanding moral circle,” most famously articulated by Peter Singer. According to this view, the conventional morality of any given era is predicated on arbitrary distinctions that serve to justify our differential treatment of different groups (such as foreigners or animals). On this view, our civilization’s moral progress essentially consists in obliterating these artificial boundaries and expanding the circle of inclusion. Since we were once wrong to draw a morally significant distinction between black and white Americans, the argument goes, “speciesism” must eventually give too. The same holds for patriotism — an inclination to value one’s compatriots’ lives more than those of foreigners based on the concept of citizenship.

Consistent with this observation, our empathic profiles show a greater range of sympathy among conservatives than among liberals, at least when it comes to groups to which the expanding moral circle is usually meant to apply. At the most elementary level, it seems that sometimes where liberals see universals, conservatives see particulars. In fact, one of our surveys showed that conservatives are more likely than liberals to agree that “different people can be very different.”

That all men are created equal has been the bedrock principle of the Western conception of justice for several centuries. Our system of laws has been designed to treat — and is for the most part extraordinarily effective in treating — every individual equally, regardless of his class, gender, or relationship to the judge. This emphasis on equal rights is, at the same time, the cornerstone of formal ethical approaches: The same rules must apply to all.

Yet there is scarcely a single person on earth who treats everyone equally. Adam Smith long ago observed that even a decent man would suffer more if he knew he was to lose his little finger tomorrow than if he knew that a hundred million Chinese he never knew perished in an earthquake. Unlike abstract moral norms based on equal rights, conventional moral norms put great weight on the principle of not treating everyone equally. We expect a mother to care more, in most cases much more, about her own child than about a random child on the street. We expect the American president to care about the good of Americans more than that of the Chinese.

This latter approach is typical of what evolved to be called “virtue ethics” — a view that proper behaviors in any given situation depend largely on social context. They are learned through authority and tradition and cannot be logically derived from universal principles because they are in many cases intrinsically tied to a particular role or perspective, of which there are plenty. In content, they are often somewhere in the mushy middle (more charitably called the golden mean), and one who is pressed to justify them usually resorts to either authority, or, if that fails, some form of ad-hoc utilitarianism or deontology.

Social life in our liberal democracy is obviously guided by a mix of these two approaches. We insist that the same rules apply to everyone while at the same time understanding that vast areas of behavior are judged by norms not derived from any such principles. Though not always philosophically pleasing, this mix serves us well on a day-to-day basis. Our data suggest that some part of the differences in political philosophy might result from the fact that different people prefer different mixes of the two perspectives. If this is the case, competing political groups can use these differences to enhance in-group loyalties.

Our differences are real and important, and back-and-forth between political parties is necessary for a healthy democracy. But the daily rough-and-tumble of politics sometimes makes us lose sight of many things that we all agree about, and that the data we have collected also reveal. In many cases, one needs a statistical microscope to find differences, because so many of our values and beliefs are shared.

John Zogby is chairman and chief insights officer of Zogby International, a global polling and market-research company. He is the author of The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream (Random House, 2008). Zeljka Buturovic is a research associate at Zogby International and co-author of the book Trišno Rešenje (Market Solution).


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