Matt Waldman
Associate Fellow, International Security
The success of Donald Trump and the Brexit campaign exposed divisions within British and American society that empathy could help to mitigate. But empathy also helps explain why these successes happened in the first place.
A Donald Trump supporter wears a colourful shirt showing his support. Photo by JASON CONNOLLY/AFP/Getty Images.A Donald Trump supporter wears a colourful shirt showing his support. Photo by JASON CONNOLLY/AFP/Getty Images.

Empathy is sometimes used to mean the sharing of others’ feelings. But it has another important meaning: the skill of grasping what others think, feel and perceive. Empathy is not only active listening, but the practice of imagining or inferring other people’s mindsets, emotions and perspectives.

This is what Donald Trump and Brexit campaigners did so brilliantly. They empathized with a large block of voters, gauged how they were thinking and feeling, and then exploited this for their political ends.

In both the US and UK a range of social and economic grievances has left voters feeling unjustly treated and neglected by what they see as self-serving political elites. The US has recently experienced increasing inequality, lack of job security, social tensions and rising fears of terrorism. Britain has seen increasing immigration, regional divisions and an economic malaise in some parts of society. These factors have generated grievances and anxieties, and contributed to an uneasy, fractious climate in which many appeared prone to make decisions on the basis of instincts, impressions and emotions.

Voters looked for leaders who reflected their sentiments

The question is not whether one side had stronger rational arguments or indeed whether people’s anger, resentment or fears were justified. These sentiments were real, and voters looked for leaders who understood and reflected them.

Understanding this, Trump and Brexit campaigners echoed people’s views and sentiments in a way that resonated with the popular mood, often through simplified, colloquial and compelling rhetoric. This was then reinforced by condemning those seen to be at fault, whipping up fears, and assuming a tone of defiance. And both campaigns tapped into voters’ distrust of “insiders”, and their inclination to look for “outsiders” who could repudiate political elites they saw as having created the problems and done nothing to solve them.

It is easy to disparage this approach as ruthless exploitation, but it required an ability to empathize – to gauge what was going on inside people’s hearts and minds – and then to adapt accordingly. Of course, it was partial empathy, applied broadly to one segment of the population – but that segment was sufficiently large to secure electoral victory.

This does not mean empathy is a sinister force. Like virtually any social or mental skill, empathy can be practiced selectively and for a range of political goals. Rather, we must recognize that it is an immensely powerful political tool.

Empathy’s unique quality is that it requires an imaginative shift and change of perspective. Crucially, this yields a better sense of what really matters to others and enables us to see how we ourselves are seen. Equipped with this knowledge, political leaders can develop policies that better respond to people’s deepest hopes and fears – and adapt so as to re-connect with voters. 

This is not to say that core values should be abandoned, but simply that values need to be embedded in policies and in a language that resonates with voters. If voters do not feel heard and understood, it will be impossible to gain their trust. And without trust it is difficult to win votes.  

Empathy is no silver bullet. It is just one of many tools, and empathizing in itself does not solve problems. Political leaders still face the difficult task of interpreting what insights gained through empathizing mean for policy and for political campaigning.

It is also not easy to empathize with others, especially those who have very different lives, values and perspectives. It usually requires social and cultural knowledge of others, direct engagement with them, and deliberate efforts to grasp what they are feeling and how the world looks through their eyes.

In contemporary democracies, politics and policy-making must take into account how people think and feel. The proliferation of social media, self-selected news feeds, and weakening of hierarchies and old loyalties means it is now easier for like-minded groups to emerge, on all sides of the political spectrum, in which prevailing emotions and biases are reinforced.

This means grievances can more easily be translated into political power. Those who fail to empathize and adapt will be left behind and, as American and British politicians now know, the consequences of failing to empathize are colossal.

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