Are We Voters or Are We Fans? Away from Factionalism, Toward a Politics of Empathy

Imagine a stadium filled with tens of thousands of people. Everyone is dressed in the same colors and some are even wearing face paint or the same hats or jewelry. Many of them are holding signs. Despite the diversity of the crowd, there is an ineffable force that seems to bind them together. At the exact moment, they all know when to stand in unison or clap or chant. United together, all eyes focused either on the jumbo-trons or the tiny, human figures on the field below them, these people are a force to behold. Together they are strong. No one can defeat them: of this they are certain.

I would guess that many readers would assume I was referring to sports. However, it could just as easily describe a Bernie Sanders rally or Donald Trump campaign event. Politics, with its winners and losers and intense media coverage, seems to have become its own form of entertainment, and many politicians have achieved a kind of celebrity status, whether that’s US Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) taking selfies with fans—ahem, constituents—at a protest or Sarah Palin signing copies of her book. Our current president was the host and star of a reality television show. Former US Senator Al Franken was a comedian before he became a politician, and professional wrestler Jesse Ventura went on to become the governor of Minnesota.

Picking Our Proxies

We as voters seem to be drawn not to political candidates who offer policies we support, but instead to canvases upon whom we can project ourselves. Trump, with his meandering and contradictory rally speeches, seems to have a little something for almost everyone, allowing his supporters to reduce him to a cipher. A similar principle seemed to be at work in both the 2016 and current Democratic primaries. In 2016, I knew a lot of people who told me that they liked and agreed with Bernie Sanders’s platform; they related, however, more to Hillary Clinton, an ambitious and powerful woman who had managed to rise above patriarchal entrenched institutions. That was what won Clinton their votes.

When relatability—or even fandom—become the dominant lens through which we view our leaders, our gaze can easily become clouded, affecting both how we see our candidates and how we see each other.

In the current Democratic primary, a similar rift seems to have emerged between at least some supporters of Bernie Sanders and supporters of Elizabeth Warren. This need to identify with a candidate seems to also explain Pete Buttigieg’s unexpected popularity in Iowa and New Hampshire. According to Salon’s Amanda Marcotte, who interviewed Buttigieg voters in New Hampshire, the young candidate’s appeal seemed to be in his lack of political experience: because he was such a newcomer to the national political scene, people could project the views and experiences they wanted in a politician on to him.

All this emphasis on political candidates who attempt to ingratiate themselves to us makes for excellent entertainment but impoverishes our political sphere. This is not to say that relatability should play no role in elections. None of us are dispassionate, objective, and detached observers of politics, after all, and those who claim to be are usually lacking in self-awareness. But when we rely on politicians to entertain us, we become fans instead of constituents, and we build fandoms around them as cliquish and factionalist as the internet feuds around entertainment like Star Wars or Doctor Who.

When relatability—or even fandom—become the dominant lens through which we view our leaders, our gaze can easily become clouded, affecting both how we see our candidates and how we see each other. When we look to elected officials to humor us rather than prioritize our national, collective good, we often wind up with leaders who don’t really have our best interests in mind so much as their own. We also often end up alienating the very people we need as allies if we ever want to truly achieve our political ends.

Making Enemies Where We Need Friends

Take, for instance, the 2016 Democratic primary. There has been much keyboard clacking over the “Bernie bros” who mercilessly harassed Hillary Clinton supporters online. Much of the outrage at this blatant sexism has been warranted. Less attention has been paid, however, to the Clinton supporters who turned around and harassed Sanders supporters—something I, unfortunately, experienced firsthand on Twitter when I objected to a Clinton supporter making a blanket statement that all women who backed Sanders were suffering from internalized sexism.

While the narrow field of the 2016 Democratic primary served to amplify the differences between Sanders and Clinton, in the much broader 2020 Democratic primary, rifts grew between even supporters of candidates with similar agendas. In vying with Buttigieg for the moderate vote, Amy Klobuchar twisted one of his statements about Donald Trump’s impeachment to present him as too immature to qualify for the presidency, framing him as someone who would rather “change the channel and watch cartoons” than stay up-to-date on the trial. However, according to Slate, Buttigieg had actually stated the opposite: “That’s how we win: To refuse to walk away. How they win, how the cynics win: if they get us to switch it off.”

Since both Buttigieg and Klobuchar have suspended their campaigns, the moderate camp in the Democratic Party seems to have been able to put aside its differences and unite behind former Vice President Joe Biden. Unfortunately, in the progressive wing of the party, some factions still seem to be feuding rather than uniting. Certain Sanders zealots accuse Warren’s backers of splitting the progressive vote and not being progressive enough, while some Warren fans smear both Sanders voters and their candidate as sexist and unrealistic. Now that Warren has suspended her campaign, arguments between these ardent Sanders and Warren supporters seem to have amplified online. Some Sanders supporters attempt to scold Warren backers into switching to Sanders, given that his agenda is closest to Warren’s. Whatever very real passion for progressive change these Sanders supporters may feel, however, they forget that no candidate is owed votes. If the Bernie Sanders campaign hopes to entice Warren’s voters, it must earn that support. However, some Warren supporters, rather than weighing the positions of Biden and Sanders as the two front-runners and then making a decision based who they feel is the best candidate, instead have claimed that they will wait to see who Warren endorses and then vote for that individual. From my observations, this abdication of any individual review of the currently available candidates seems to reinforce our political climate in which identifying with a candidate supersedes critical thinking or strategic action.

At the end of the day, I find myself frustrated with these fights. Whether they happen between pairs of centrists or progressives, they generally end up undermining both candidates and distancing those who should be their easiest converts. Unfortunately, in relating to a particular candidate, we now often wrap our identities in that candidate as well—so much so that even gentle criticisms of that candidate can feel like insults and recognition of the accomplishments of a different candidate can feel like total defection.

When Nuance Alienates Everyone

In relating to a particular candidate, we now often wrap our identities in that candidate as well—so much so that even gentle criticisms of that candidate can feel like insults and recognition of the accomplishments of a different candidate can feel like total defection.

As an illustration, during the 2016 Democratic primary, a passionate essay praising Hillary Clinton went viral. Titled “An All-Caps Explosion of Feelings Regarding the Liberal Backlash Against Hillary Clinton,” the essay articulated the double standards that women face when attempting to enter a realm previously guarded by men. The article was (I think correctly) criticized for collapsing Clinton’s and Sanders’s positions without parsing the significant differences between the two. But I still found that it rang true in its disgust at the impossibly thin line women must walk in order to appear competent without coming off as aggressive. As a woman who has had to walk that line myself and is often exhausted by doing so, I can only imagine how emotionally and mentally draining the campaign must have been for Hillary Clinton, and I could understand how other women also walking that line would look to, identify with and support Clinton. I sympathized with the author’s rage, not so much at Sanders or his voters, but at a society that makes unrealistic demands of women and then still shames us even when we somehow manage to meet them. At the same time, I failed to see how Clinton’s breaking that particular glass ceiling would do much to help the 10.8 million women who go without healthcare each year, while Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All would provide these women with affordable healthcare, including reproductive healthcare.

Voicing my perspectives on the article, however, seemed to insinuate me to almost no one. Clinton supporters called me anti-feminist, a particularly stinging insult given my years of explicitly feminist activism, and Sanders supporters accused me of being too centrist, as though even considering the perspective of a Clinton supporter made me a traitor to progressive causes. Strikingly, the friends who allowed for my nuance were those who, like me, weren’t just slinging mud online but tromping through their neighborhoods every weekend to knock on doors, pass out flyers, and discuss their preferred candidate with friends, family, and even total strangers. Rather than dismissing the other side as hopelessly deluded and irredeemably immoral, they were doing the difficult work of building bridges between people of different backgrounds and views in the hopes of creating a large enough and motivated enough coalition that would be able foster real political, economic and social progress.

Creating a Space for Minds to Change

These activists knew that no one changes their minds when their deepest beliefs are met with insults and slurs and misrepresentations. When I think back to the moments in my life when I was able to question and ultimately discard what had once been my core worldviews, I realize that these shifts in thinking were often gradually accepted over time rather than occurring to me in instantaneous revelations.

What ultimately allowed me to change my mind weren’t the die-hards on either side who insisted I agree with them but rather the gentle folk who listened nonjudgmentally to my ideas and reassured me that no matter what I eventually decided, they unconditionally believed in me as a fellow good and decent person.

My decision to abandon the Christian faith I was raised with, for instance, had more to do with the kindness shown to me by Wiccan and atheist friends I made during my first year of college than it did with supposedly rational arguments or scorn heaped on me for believing in God. These non-Christian friends didn’t try to lure me away from my beliefs; rather, they expressed curiosity in why I thought the way I did, shared their own views without any judgement toward mine, and mostly tried to live decently toward others and themselves. Through getting to know them, I learned that their values really weren’t that different from mine, which led me to rethink my belief than a supposedly all-benevolent deity would condemn these good and kind people to an eternity of misery just because they happened to believe differently than I did. I couldn’t make sense of this aspect of Christian doctrine, which led me to questioning other tenants of Christianity, which eventually culminated in my disregarding religion altogether. But that process of questioning took a lot of time and was deeply personal. What ultimately allowed me to change my mind weren’t the die-hards on either side who insisted I agree with them but rather the gentle folk who listened nonjudgmentally to my ideas and reassured me that no matter what I eventually decided about religion, they unconditionally believed in me as a fellow good and decent person.

It’s difficult to put aside our own perspectives in this caring way long enough to let others do the messy work of figuring out what they actually think. It requires that we feel a sense of security in our own opinions and perspectives—we can’t feel threatened when others voice views that contradict our own. It’s a skill I have yet to master, though one that I try to foster within myself because, ultimately, I do want people to get behind my particular political views and agenda, and often that means trying to convince other people to back my preferred political candidate. My call for kindness in our political discourse isn’t coming from a centrist desire for greater civility at the expense of genuine, grassroots change. Rather, I’m asking that we all try to be gentler with each other, when we can, because I honestly don’t know any other way of bringing new people into a movement with enough critical mass to demand the progressive reforms I want to see implemented. We can speak hard truths with empathy for those we are criticizing, and we can acknowledge the good, even if it’s rare, in our opponents without abandoning our own principles.

In our current media climate, outrage garners the most social media reactions and anger keeps people glued to the television; in our patriarchal, capitalist society, cruelty and bullying is all too often equated with strength. Under these conditions, empathy is almost always disregarded as weakness. It is not. Fostering empathy is probably the hardest work I have ever done, and it requires a strength that I can’t always muster. There are days when I don’t have the energy to explain to men, even the well meaning ones that I know personally, why the #MeToo movement has not gone too far but in fact hasn’t gone far enough. There are days when I don’t bother to correct my Sanders-supporting friends for dumping on Elizabeth Warren or correct my Warren-supporting friends for dumping on Bernie Sanders because I have too much going on to manage the stress of stepping into those frays. But part of encouraging this kind of empathy is also allowing empathy for ourselves and acknowledging to others when we are feeling angry or hurt or when the latest current events and trending hashtags have opened old wounds we long thought had healed. There are times when I can’t engage with the other side because I’m not in the sort of mental or emotional state where I’m capable of empathy, and in those moments, I try to allow myself to step back. Other, stronger folks can fight those fights in those moments.

Empathy is almost always disregarded as weakness. It is not. Fostering empathy is probably the hardest work I have ever done.

There are some fights I may never be quite strong enough for. I can understand, for instance, why some people of color I know have completely sworn off engaging with blatant white supremacists or some people with disabilities have refused to enter online debates with promoters of eugenics. Sometimes these discussions can be guided toward policy and shared values and other times having one’s inherent humanity called into question can feel insurmountable.

Knowing when to step back, when to advance, and when to abandon, however, is a constant learning process, and it’s more of an ideal to which I aspire than an art I have mastered.

During the times when I do have the strength, however, I have a responsibility to at least try to see those with different views than I do as fellow human beings, not as caricatures. And my goal, when engaging with them, should not so much be to win them over in the short-term, but to try to offer at least one plank of what could become a larger bridge that they might someday cross. Part of empathy is also knowing when that plank has been rejected, and in those moments, leaving the conversation is probably the kindest thing I can do, both for the other person and for myself. Knowing when to step back, when to advance, and when to abandon, however, is a constant learning process, and it’s more of an ideal to which I aspire than an art I have mastered.

This kind of politics, based on empathy rather than entertainment and factionalism, is, to me, ultimately about power, though it’s not an exercise of power in the way that we typically envision it. Instead of being an arena in which we are amused and find affiliation, politics can be a means of struggle through which oppressed and exploited groups of people come together and collectively demand their inherent human rights and dignity be recognized. This kind of politics does not make for neat news stories that can be covered in an hour in between cuts to commercials. It also does not lend itself to pithy tweets or shareable Facebook posts.  It’s messy. It’s imperfect. It’s exhausting. It involves knowing when to compromise and when to stand firm, as well as the humility to admit mistakes so that the movement can continue forward without repeating them. Rather than relating to and electing one candidate to make us all feel good, this kind of politics requires continual grassroots engagement that transcends election cycles. It is, however, the only politics I know of that can foster real change that will, hopefully, lift us all up beyond the myriad of problems that currently plague our country and transform our nation to one of justice and equity.

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Merrill C. Miller is a critical thinker, progressive, and feminist living in the Washington, D.C., metro area. Her writing has been published in various outlets, including Gaga Stigmata, the Washington Socialist, the Humanist magazine and its online counterpart, TheHumanist.com, where she was also previously an associate editor. She currently works as a web content specialist for a nonprofit association. Opinions are solely her own and do not express the views of her employers, either past or present.