As primary election day, March 17, approaches in Illinois, I have been doing some canvassing for a candidate running to keep her seat as a state representative, Lindsey LaPointe. I have known Lindsey for a few years as someone who is active in our neighborhoods (before she took over as state rep), always present around local issues and trying to make life better in our little corner of the world in Chicago. Last fall I attended an event at a local park called “Peace in the Preserves,” and of course Lindsey was there. We fell into conversation, and as a professor at a small state university in the city, I drifted into my usual and somewhat long-winded talking points about higher education funding, pension issues, and so forth.
She listened with a placid yet eager thoughtfulness and care. I could see the look of careful listening, of absorption, on her face. She was taking it all in, really wanting and trying to understand. You could tell she wanted to represent people, not just her own views and ideas.
When I canvass, it is this experience and these qualities of Lindsey I talk about. Although I have some sense of her political platform, I can’t say I have a complete or in any way thorough knowledge of all her platforms and views, or even how she has voted.
That doesn’t matter so much.
What matters more is that she listens and wants to represent people’s interests and advocate for their needs to make our world better for all.
Listening to people carefully with the objective of knowing—and feeling—how they experience the world is the basis of empathy. Seeking to understand their needs and do good by them without harming others, that is decency.
As I watch the Democratic primary narrow down to a tussle between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, I have been thinking about these terms, wondering in particular why I have seemed to gravitate toward favoring Biden over Sanders, even though I define myself as a socialist and believe in a single-payer healthcare system.
It is beyond question, in my view, that our healthcare system is incredibly inefficient, with one-third of costs going to fund the bureaucracies of private insurance companies reaping billions in profits. We could reform, meaning socialize, this system and certainly find a way to fund quality healthcare for all.
But that’s not the point. Or, it hasn’t come to be the point for me.
As much as I might get a little weary of Biden talking about the death of his son as a way of connecting with people’s pain and grief, wishing he would talk more about issues and his platforms, I at least see him listening to people, empathizing with them, trying to understand them. This quality may in fact guide the development of his platforms and policies. These qualities have, in fact, become the hallmark of his campaign, even intentionally so.
This quality not only differentiates him from the uncaring and often downright meanness of Trump, but it also distinguishes him from Sanders, who often comes off more as someone who wants to be right than someone who wants to figure out how actually to improve people’s lives working within the inevitable constraints of our current political arrangement.
For example, at a previous Democratic primary debate, both Sanders and Warren were under fire, being asked how they would proceed on healthcare policy given that many Democrats, not to mention basically all Republicans, did not support Medicare for all. Warren gave examples of measures she could pursue immediately to expand healthcare coverage for many more Americans. Sanders simply said that he will make sure Congress passes his Medicare for all plan.
His response did not seem like a serious one, by which I mean he did not come across as one who was really taking Americans’ suffering seriously. He was not confronting the reality of the composition of the Senate and the House of Representatives.
It wasn’t just a naivete. He’s been a senator for a long time, maybe too long. Rather than naivete, his response indicated a refusal to engage the political process as it is and make what progress he can to actually improve people’s lives using the power one has.
Like too many on the left (and I consider myself a leftist), Sanders is more content to settle in, pleasure in, his righteousness and moral superiority, than to figure out how to work with others who don’t share his views in order to address people’s dire needs.
I published a piece earlier this week railing against the media and political pundits for basically rallying for a “stop Sanders” campaign. I argued it flat-out flew in the face of democracy.
After Super Tuesday, Sanders supporters have blamed the electoral outcomes on the machinations of Democratic establishment.
Seriously? What about the voters? Especially those African American voters in South Carolina that may have had more than a little to do with Biden’s surge?
Again, there is a refusal to listen.
And the tenor of his campaign, in which I include the tenor of his supporters’ behaviors, reflects a lack of decency and an unwillingness to engage and listen to others respectfully.
In a painful “exit” interview with Rachel Maddow, Elizabeth Warren clearly struggled in discussing the attacks of Sanders’ supporters on her supporters and campaign, and even the actual harassment of others who expressed different views, including members of the Nevada Culinary Union.
So much for solidarity.
Empathy means listening to people to figure out what they think their interests, concerns, and needs are, not simply telling them what is best for them. The latter is not good democratic governance or process.
Policies and platforms aside, we can see why decency and empathy have become such key issues this political season.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.