How Empathy Won the Election

Congratulations to President Barack Obama on winning his second term. I am deeply proud to have helped re-elect him to be our leader. I do not agree with all of his policies. I have been disappointed with some of his decisions. But I am able to see past that, because when I look into his eyes, I recognize that we both value a single quality above all others: empathy.

And I believe it is his empathy that has won him this election.

When the Romney video was leaked secretly capturing him say that 47% of Americans consider themselves victims who suck at the teat of the federal government while he was at a $50,000-per-plate fundraising dinner, that pretty much summed up the compassion and understanding he has for the average American, his potential future constituency. The video showed that he is apathetic to the needs of the people he would be employed to serve.

Once that was out, his camp was on the defensive to prove just how empathetic he truly is. In an interview with NBC News, he cited his Massachusetts health care reform law — which he established when he was their Governor — as a prime example of his empathy. “I got everybody in my state insured,” Romney said. “100 percent of the kids in our state have health insurance. I don’t think there’s anything that shows more empathy and care about the people of this country than that kind of record.”

But minutes later, he was promising to repeal President Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act a.k.a. “Obamacare” as soon as he entered office. Ironically, Obama patterned that statute off of Romney’s own state health care plan.

Then there was that whole debacle with the LGBT community in Massachusetts when Romney was Governor there. Boston Spirit Magazine reported that as Governor, Romney had fired two state employees because they wanted to marry someone of the same sex. And to top it off, he closed the Governor’s Commission of Gay and Lesbian Youth in the state.

“Reports about [Romney’s] time as governor of Massachusetts sound more and more like he lacks the basic level of compassion for everyday people that attracts American voters,” said Zerlina Maxwell of the New York Daily News in September. She must be a mindreader because the notorious video was leaked less than a week later.

In her piece titled, Where is Romney’s Empathy? she goes on…

“While the Republican platform generally is hostile to gay rights, America as a whole is becoming more and more tolerant of marriage equality and families regardless of their make-up. Though Romney is usually assumed to have been a progressive on gay rights, the new revelations about his record would seem to run afoul of that growing tendency for tolerance.

“Consider this vignette: Julie Goodridge and David Wilson, two of the plaintiffs in the legal case that eventually led to marriage equality in Massachusetts, visited Romney while he was governor to put a human face on their experiences. After Goodridge relate to Romney a personal story about being blocked from hospital visitations for her eight year old daughter, the governor reportedly said, ‘I didn’t know you had families.’

“This response shocked Goodridge, who tearfully said to Romney on the way out of the meeting, ‘Gov. Romney, tell me — what would you suggest I say to my 8 year-old daughter about why her mommy and her ma can’t get married because you, the governor of her state, are going to block our marriage?’

“Romney reportedly responded, ‘I don’t really care what you tell your adopted daughter. Why don’t you just tell her the same thing you’ve been telling her the last eight years.’

“Romney’s lack of emotion, those jokes about him being a robot, didn’t come out of thin air. There appears to be something missing in his interactions with ordinary people. Gay families are families. For the first time in years, a majority of Americans support equality for these families and their children.

“The man who wants to be President may be missing the required sensitivity chip.”

President Barack Obama came with the sensitivity chip pre-installed. It doesn’t feel retrofitted or like marketing smoke-and-mirrors.

The very next day after the full video was posted by Mother Jones, the Romney campaign released a one-minute ad where he speaks directly into the camera, somber and serious.

“Too many of those who are working are living paycheck to paycheck, trying to make falling incomes meet rising prices for food and gas,” he states. However he goes on to say, “We shouldn’t measure compassion by how many people are on welfare. We should measure compassion by how many people are able to get off welfare and get a good paying job.” I think his suggestions for how to measure compassion demonstrate just how little compassion he has.

That same night at a stump speech in Toledo, Ohio, Romney dug himself into a hole even further.

“Most people that you see have some real challenges in their life of one kind of another. I understand that….We have people that are hurting, we have people who are disabled and people who are poor, they need our help and they receive our help. We’re a charitable people.”

His focus was on those who are worst off, though he didn’t express it with much emotion. Not the same emphatic tone that Obama uses. Furthermore he failed to acknowledge the needs for the majority middle class — not disabled, not poor, but yet still facing immense challenges to their livelihood and a much-less-than-acceptable quality of life. The average Joe, so to speak. The kind of person that is supposed to thrive in this country, supposed to be able to elevate him or herself to a better place. The kind of people President Obama looks in the eye and talks to directly every day.

See, in the same breath as expressing his concern, Romney undermines his own act; he simply cannot stop himself from kicking people while they’re down. He’s the high-schooler who gives you a hug so she can stab you in the back. At that same Toledo rally he went on to say:

“We’re going to insist that these people have the opportunity for work if they can carry out work, if they’re able-bodied. Because we are not going to create a society of dependence on government.”

Those words represent his true beliefs: that those who are able-bodied are choosing not to work, are choosing not to take opportunities that are presented to them, would prefer to depend on government assistance. Because that’s what he really believes — and President Obama most clearly does not.

Here’s the thing. It’s really no surprise that Romney isn’t capable of expressing a deep and honest understanding for the American people the way Obama does. Obama clawed his way to the top, and he sacrificed financial gain for achieving his greater purpose. He isn’t sitting on $250 million in assets like former Governor Romney is. And that in and of itself is what gives him the advantage.

In a September CNN article titled How inequality hurts Romney’s happiness, Jason Marsh explains:

“In a series of studies, researchers have found that attaining high social status impairs key social and emotional skills.

“For instance, a 2010 study published in Psychological Science found that people of higher socioeconomic status were worse at reading other people’s emotions, a skill known as ’empathic accuracy,’ a basic part of empathy. In a follow-up experiment, the researchers — including Dacher Keltner, my colleague at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center — made people feel higher or lower on the social ladder. Regardless of their actual socioeconomic status, people temporarily made to feel upper class had a harder time reading other people’s emotions; people made to feel lower class showed better empathy.

“This suggests that there’s something about the experience of high status that hurts our ability to connect with others emotionally. Other studies have suggested that high status makes people less compassionate, less generous and less interested in connecting with others in general.”

“‘Being compassionate, having empathic accuracy, being trusting and cooperative — these are keys to social connection and, in turn, happiness,’ says UC Berkeley post-doctoral researcher Paul Piff, the lead author of a study that found that people of higher socioeconomic status were less willing to share money with a stranger or make charitable donations. (However, when they were made to feel lower status, they became more generous; the opposite was true for people made to feel high status — they became stingier.)”

“The research linking wealth and empathy certainly suggests one reason why Romney has seemed to demonstrate callousness and trouble connecting with voters on the campaign trail, with his comments about the 47% being just the latest example. In light of this research, the video of Romney carries another troubling implication: that inequality may be self-perpetuating, making the rich less likely to feel compassion for the poor, thereby increasing the economic gap between them.

“But we probably don’t need to read too much research to appreciate how this empathy gap is bad for Romney’s happiness. Just look at a new Pew Research Center poll, which shows that he trails President Obama by 8 percentage points, and 43 points in the area of ‘connects well with ordinary Americans.’

It is President Obama’s “empathic accuracy” that has distinguished him as the most-qualified leader of our country since his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention. His empathy cup overfloweth. So despite the lagging economy, the divisive social issues, his “socialist” healthcare law, people’s visceral response to his character outweighs it all.

And he has owned that empathy. He has written about it in his autobiographies and referred to it in many-an interview. He even told Oprah in 2006 that his mom was to credit.

When he were a guest on Charlie Rose four months after his 2004 DNC speech, President Obama explained, “When I see unfairness and injustice, when I see misunderstanding or the enormous, what I call ‘the empathy deficit’ that I think damages so much of our politics –”

Mr. Rose interrupted him. “What is ‘the empathy deficit?'”

He replied, with such conviction:

“The inability for people to stand in other folks’ shoes, which cuts both ways. When those of us who are in comfort can’t look at a child in Harlem or the South Side, who is in poverty and is not getting a good education, and not say to ourseves, ‘That’s just like our kid, they’re just as special as mine, so I’ve gotta do something about that,’ we’re not projecting, we’re not using our imaginations to see the other person. So I’ve got a stake in making that happen, in some way. I’ve tried community organizing and I’ve tried civil rights law, and now I’m trying politics. I’ve tried writing books. So sooner or later I’m gonna get it right.”

Oh has he. That “stake” as he called it has just won him his second presidential election.

He went on to say,

“Our common humanity can be obtained if we work for it. It’s not easy…It’s hard work to understand people who are not like you. It’s hard work to be able to empathize with those who have different experiences and different values than you. But the work is worth it because if you engage in that hard work then in fact it turns out under the surface that people care about the same things, they have the same hopes, they have the same dreams, and ultimately that’s going to be our salvation. That’s going to be how we’re able to live in this increasingly complex, fast paced and diverse world.”

I think that is beautiful.

Edwin Rutsch of the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy has tirelessly edited dozens of clips of President Obama discussing the importance of empathy in his life. He has a whole 90 minutes of them.

But the most striking of all, I believe, were the remarks he made to Planned Parenthood in July 2007, in a Q&A following his speech, in which he expanded on his intent for nominating justices to the Supreme Court.

He said, “The issues that come before the court are not sport. They’re life and death. And we need somebody who’s got the heart to recogni — the empathy to recognize what it’s like to be a young, teenaged mom; the empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old. And that’s the criteria by which I’m going to be selecting my judges.” And he said a whole lot more.

So I’ve painted two very different pictures here. One is of former Governor Romney’s inherent incapacity to empathize with the common American’s needs; the other is of President Obama’s ownership of his empathy for the common American. This is what has been called The Empathy Gap throughout this election.

“Given the state of the economy, by any historical standard, Barack Obama should be 15 points behind Mitt Romney,” writes Charles Krauthammer of the National Review. “Why is he tied? The empathy gap. On ‘caring about average people,’ Obama wins by 22 points. Maintaining that gap was a principal goal of the Democratic convention. It’s the party’s only hope of winning in November.”

After the second presidential debate, The New York Times noted that while President Obama and former Governor Romney were running neck-and-neck in the polls, which we all saw they were until the very end, “…there is one gap [Romney] hasn’t closed: The empathy gap.”

It was a gap he was never able to close.

Exit polls conducted by Edison Media Research for The Washington Post and by Langer Research Associates for ABC News, demonstrate the empathy gap even further. Voters overwhelmingly reported that the most important quality in a candidate is, “Cares about people like me,” and a whopping 81% of those voters voted for President Obama. Trailing by a mile, the second-place most important quality was, “Is a strong leader,” and 61% of those voters voted for former Governor Romney. So chew on that.

Empathy wins, every time.

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  1. says

    Great post! It’s comforting, being from another country and seeing the elections from the outside, that this country is not as ‘redneck’ as it is shown in the media.

  2. Sofia says

    While you’ve outlined some good points in this entry, you’ve also alienated me as a fan.

    I discovered your name on the internet today and have been impressed by your work. Delving deeper into your work, I stumbled onto this blog; I was excited to read more about your professional knowledge on User Experience. I was very disappointed to read a blog about politics (full disclosure: I voted for Romney. I don’t agree with everything Romney stands for either, but I’m not here to discuss my political views).

    As a possible fan, you’ve inflamed a sore subject that is important to me (and everyone who voted for Romney). Most of us are not hardcore republicans nor hardcore democrats. But to make a person [me] feel like they’re [I’m] an idiot for voting for Romney (which is what you did by writing your article) is in poor taste.

    It’s one thing to tell the world that you support Obama, it’s another to bash the competition. It’s bad form.

    I kindly suggest you learn some etiquette.

    • sarah says

      I think you’ve completely missed the point of this post. UX doesn’t just mean interacting with an interface on a website. You have a user experience no matter what you’re interacting with. In this case we are all users of the government. Empathy is one of the themes of Whitney’s work and she’s just pointing out here that Obama was the more empathetic of the two candidates and that will lead to a better user experience for all of us as we interact with the Government.

    • says

      Sofia –

      You have a right to your opinion. As does Whitney. In this case, you are a guest and this is Whitney’s blog. You don;t have the right to tell her what to write nor do you have the right, after just meeting her online, to lecture her on etiquette.

      You are welcome to read other things.

  3. Patricia says

    Sofia, I’m glad someone at least hinted at it here.
    While adding the word “etiquette” to a post on the page will likely spike a nerve or two, you raise a valid point from the other side of the fence. As a Democrat that isn’t all passionately one-sided into the deep-blue yonder, it hurts to see fellow Dem’s be like this – but this is the reality we live in.
    Your party has them, our party has them.
    And the “independents” that tweet only Democrat-flavored or things have them too.
    Take it with a grain of salt, and stay level-headed… some of us are willing to work together and will keep doing so while those that are deeply blue or red will gloat and blow-up their twitter feeds and ignore those of us tired of it and working to change it one day at a time.
    (Not one president, one bumper sticker with a killer design team behind it, or republican PAC or whatever other crusty out of touch machinations at a time… one day at a time.)

  4. Ray Gallon says

    Hi Whitney, I am one of those who thinks you should be who you are, on line as in the rest of life. Sometimes it wins you kudos, sometimes it wins you bangs on the head, but I seriously believe that overall you come out better, and a better human being, by being honest and sincere.

    In the era of social media, we need to acknowledge ourselves as fully rounded, social animals.

  5. Dan says

    Sofia – sounds more like you are being overly sensitive to the fact that Romney lost and reading articles like this might make you question your vote on a small level.

    People already knew that Romney lacked empathy when they voted for him. He was very clear about his anti-gay and anti-women’s rights stance, none of this should come as a surprise. You had reasons to vote for Romney and I understand that. This article shouldn’t offend anyone.

  6. says

    Whitney made comparisons between the two candidates. She did not “make” anyone feel like an idiot. She drew no conclusions about voters, only candidates. I don’t see any bashing here, either, though it’s not as though that word has a clinical definition.

    Also, this is a blog. There are no rules. It’s not a scholarly journal, a newspaper or anything other than whatever Whitney happens to want it to be on a given day. It’s a platform for personal expression and sharing.

  7. Vicky says

    When I was growing up, one of my friends had very unconventional parents. They were about as polarised as you could get when it came to voting: one was the Christian Heritage Party, the other Legalise Marijuana party! It was a good reminder to always be aware of the other side of the fence.
    As a foreigner, I haven’t been that in touch with all of the election details since it’s not relevant to me. However, the post-election commentary is starting to bring out another line of argument: Obama has a far more aligned party, while Romney was dealing with two sets of stakeholders—his own Central right base (apparently he was a good governor!) and the extreme right Tea Party (see an article on it in the Guardian ). Heck, Slate says “Cheer Up, Republicans. You’re going to have a moderate Republican president for the next four years”.
    Anyway, as a friend who moved from politics to design used to remind me, politics is hard. I’d suggest that writeups like this are similar to all those unsolicited site redesigns, interesting, but perhaps missing important insider information.

  8. Sandra says

    Excellent post, and totally agreed. I was listening the other day to a review of Chrystia Freeman’s book, “Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else” on NPR, and it goes into detail about exactly how the extremely wealthy lose touch with empathy for those less wealthy.

    This is a big reason why I breathed a sigh of relief when President Obama was re-elected. Not because I think he’s perfect or that he always manages to be empathetic. But that he has the capacity and does try.

    I truly believe that, had Mitt Romney been elected, we would see the middle class dwindle in this country and end up with a shamefully skewed wealth distribution.

  9. Smash says

    You know, I always liked Obama. Now I’ve read this I like him even more. He just always seems to talk sense. Which bizarrely is quite rare with some politicians. I’m from the UK and I only wish we had politicians like him over here. Our current government is so lacking in empathy it’s really quite scary.

    Regarding the comment above from Sofia. I don’t really see where she is coming from. I don’t see any mention of anything other than pointing out Romney’s lack of empathy and clearly showing that Obama has it in bucket-loads. If she chose to be offended by that then I guess that’s her problem.


  10. says

    steve jobs was pretty well known for not having strong empathy abilities.

    now, just a short time after steve is gone, how is apple doing? how stable is MacOS today compared to before? how many breakthrough products has apple released?

    empathy is a double edged sword, because the minds with lower “empathic accuracy” are more logical and able to see the path forward more effectively.

    could this relentless focus on empathy be destroying the economy by sidelining the people most capable to lead it?

    we’ll see in 4 years.

  11. Sarah says

    Whitney, I just found this piece via your comment on the similar article on Huffington Post. You do a great job spelling out what makes people believe in Obama and, conversely, not in Romney.

    All through the campaign I saw the lack of empathy in Romney’s attempts to interact with normal people. The disdain over the cookies that “looked like they came from 7-11.” The ridiculous advice to “go borrow money from your parents” if you can’t pay for college. Did he EVER say “I feel your pain–I understand how hard it must be to not know whether you will be able to have enough to eat/give your kids a good education/get the medical care you need” or anything like that? No. He’d just say “I met a woman in Dayton…” and then tell a story that was supposed to do the work for him. He NEVER came clean on outsourcing jobs and refused to talk to the people of Freeport, Illinois, who were being hurt by Sensata, a Bain company, sending their jobs to China even though the plant was profitable. He and Ann treated Americans as the “little people” who should be grateful he was willing to run their lives. We were not entitled to know his plans or see his tax returns. We were supposed to accept unquestioningly his flip-flopping on every issue. Because he, and only he, knew what was good for us. No thanks.

    Sadly, I have a number of un-empathetic “friends” on Facebook who have the exact same attitude he does. Many are evangelical “Christians” whose bitter, hateful words are as far from empathetic (or Christian) as can be. I think we have reached a really sad point in our society and I despair of things ever changing.

  12. Alejandra says

    I love that you are truly a UX person at heart. I got to see you speak at PACE just a little while back and really appreciate your full embrace of UX. Not just in interface design, or organizational design, but life. UX knows has no end points! Your dedication to applying those practices throughout life really inspires me. Thank you!!

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