Sympathy and Empathy in the Time of Coronavirus

A sign thanking health care workers near an emergency triage tent at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, Wash., March 29, 2020. (Jason Redmond/Reuters)
If we hope to get through this crisis, we must start by bridging the political divides to which we are all far too attached.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A merican civil society long ago lost any illusion of being “civil.” Hostile, unproductive, tribal partisanship infects every debate in this country — and it has only been compounded by the devastating arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I wrote several years ago about how the nasty tenor of our political debates was undermining our ability to relate to others, especially those who think and vote differently than we do. It’s not surprising that this problem has been exacerbated by the present pandemic. But where in normal times, tribal animosity and distrust coarsen our culture, in the coronavirus crisis they could literally kill you.

Of course, like most things these days, this conversation starts with President Donald Trump. Liberals feel that Trump has completely bungled the federal government’s response to the coronavirus threat, taking far too long to react and thus severely diminishing our ability to fight the disease once it arrived here. Republicans, on the other hand, think that Trump largely did the right things, including taking early and widely criticized actions to limit commercial travel from China and then reacting as much as possible while the Communist Chinese regime lied to the world about the true extent of the danger posed by the virus.

One couldn’t ask for a much better demonstration of our widespread inability to show sympathy and empathy for our political enemies.

Sympathy, the acknowledgment that we understand what another person is going through, is relatively commonplace in our society even in these troubled times — just think of all the public thoughts and prayers sent from across the political spectrum to those afflicted by the coronavirus. Such sympathetic displays, which if anything increase during a public-health crisis such as this, are one significant way in which we celebrate the ties that bind us, and they allow for a more profound personal engagement than we would generally have with people unlike ourselves in normal circumstances.

Empathy, the ability to put oneself into the shoes of another and truly comprehend their point of view, is another story altogether: Our country suffers from severely a diminished capacity for it, especially as it would be applied to our political leaders. And this is because of the hyper-partisan, tribal nature of our politics: We have truly become two nations, with two distinct world views, and few if any of us are truly willing to try to see things from the opposite side of the divide.

Empathy requires us to understand how others came to arrive at their worldview, without allowing our own biases to cloud our judgment. And if you don’t believe me when I say that Americans are terrible at this, answer me this: How many liberals can put themselves in Donald Trump’s shoes without bias or partisan rancor? How many conservatives can apply the same exercise to Nancy Pelosi?

The uniqueness of empathy is that, unlike sympathy, it allows for people to join together and at least attempt to have a truly shared intellectual experience. It involves first, seeing another individual’s situation from their unique perspective, and second, sharing their emotions, including their personal fears and distress. While sympathy shows our emotional respect for others, empathy requires intellectual respect, and that simply isn’t on offer across the battleground on which our warring political tribes face off.

In normal times, our inability to empathize with our political opponents would be a mere cultural weakness, a serious but not incredibly dangerous problem; in a pandemic, such thinking and mistrust can be life threatening.

From Trump to Congress to our governors and mayors, the evidence is clear that our leaders all blundered to one degree or another in the lead-up to this crisis. At the moment, it shouldn’t much matter who failed to do what when, because we face the reality we face: America and the rest of the international community were not really ready for COVID-19, and we must now deal with the tragic consequences of our unpreparedness together.

Many of our leaders have tried their best. Governors from California’s Gavin Newsom to Washington’s Jay Inslee to Ohio’s Mike DeWine have led their states to take courageous and proactive response that likely saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. Congress, being Congress, squabbled about the particulars of the massive federal relief package that everyone agreed was needed. But even then a package was produced President Trump signed it.

Ah, yes, the president, the man to whom all political debates in the U.S. seem to ultimately lead these days. Trump has been Trump throughout this crisis, often talking too much and too loosely, being spiteful when he feels slighted, and playing politics when it is completely unnecessary to do so. But when he has stopped talking and instead acted upon the recommendations of his most knowledgeable advisers — including Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx — he has been quite effective. Maybe the best move of his presidency was elevating Fauci and Birx to very public lead positions on his Coronavirus Task Force. Both have worked for numerous Republican and Democratic administrations over many decades, building long and respected careers. If anyone should be trusted by Americans of every political persuasion, they should.

Yet our politics has undermined them as well. Many partisans have attacked Fauci and Birx for various reasons. The former has been accused of being part of the “deep state” by some on the far right, while liberals have complained that the latter is too fawning in her praise of Trump. The vitriol has become so heated as to include threats of violence, such that Fauci now requires round-the-clock government security to keep him safe. The level of distrust is so high among partisans, even those doctors whom Trump has given his public imprimatur are regarded warily by many of his supporters.

It should be stressed, again, that all of our political leaders and medical experts appear to be trying their best to respond to this crisis with the tools and information accessible to them. They have all failed at different times and to different degrees, but they have tried. The public’s inability to empathize with the difficult decisions they face as an invisible, still-unknowable enemy bears down on us all is damaging to an already-weakened civil society and undermines the effectiveness of the government’s response. The distrust on both sides makes it virtually impossible for any single leader to bring his or her state, or in Trump’s case the nation, together around a common purpose.

The leaders, for their part, have worked about as well together as anyone could’ve hoped for. Trump has managed to maintain decent relationships with a handful of high-profile Democratic governors, from Newsom to New York’s Andrew Cuomo, both of whom have had their disagreements with Trump but also complimented him at times. The president has praised both of them turn. Clearly, all involved understand that they are feeling their way through a difficult problem, and they must work together for the common good despite their differences.

Polling again and again shows Americans of all races, religions, and political affiliations want their leaders to come together toward the common goal of winning our fight with this virus. But it is only with an ounce of sympathy and empathy that this will happen. If we hope to get through this, we must start by bridging the divides to which we are all far too attached.

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

The Suicide of the Cities

I noted on Twitter last night that rioting, coming right after the virus, is a catastrophe for the cities. Regardless of whether Trump or Biden is elected in November, it's easy to envision the following happening: Americans will flee the cities as they did in the post-1968 era. Thirty years of great progress for ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The Suicide of the Cities

I noted on Twitter last night that rioting, coming right after the virus, is a catastrophe for the cities. Regardless of whether Trump or Biden is elected in November, it's easy to envision the following happening: Americans will flee the cities as they did in the post-1968 era. Thirty years of great progress for ... Read More
U.S.

Philadelphia Gun Shop Owner Shoots and Kills Looter

A Philadelphia gun shop owner shot and killed a man who broke into his store early Tuesday morning as rioting and looting continued in the city in the wake of the death of George Floyd. Greg Isabella, the 67-year-old owner of Firing Line Inc. in South Philadelphia, was staying in his shop overnight on Monday ... Read More
U.S.

Philadelphia Gun Shop Owner Shoots and Kills Looter

A Philadelphia gun shop owner shot and killed a man who broke into his store early Tuesday morning as rioting and looting continued in the city in the wake of the death of George Floyd. Greg Isabella, the 67-year-old owner of Firing Line Inc. in South Philadelphia, was staying in his shop overnight on Monday ... Read More
Law & the Courts

‘Dominating’ the Streets

Since the revolution in policing that began in the early 1990s, we have had a generation of peace and prosperity. Without the rule of law -- i.e., without order, without the presumption that the laws will be enforced -- that kind of societal flourishing is not possible. We are seeing now what happens when the ... Read More
Law & the Courts

‘Dominating’ the Streets

Since the revolution in policing that began in the early 1990s, we have had a generation of peace and prosperity. Without the rule of law -- i.e., without order, without the presumption that the laws will be enforced -- that kind of societal flourishing is not possible. We are seeing now what happens when the ... Read More