During a town hall meeting in the 1992 presidential election, a woman in the audience asked whether the candidates could truly claim to be able to solve America’s problems if they had no experience of the economic woes facing ordinary people.

The incumbent, George HW Bush, a wealthy Washington insider, struggled to respond. He could not connect with the question or the woman asking it, nor understand how his lack of experience with poverty might make him unable to comprehend the reality of the lives of millions of Americans.

His challenger, Bill Clinton, spoke instead from personal experience. He knew people by name who had lost their jobs, knew the businesses that were going bankrupt, and was familiar with those who had lost everything. He went beyond demonstrating understanding, he offered a critique of the causes of suffering. It was not just the rising national debt that was the problem, he said, it was a failing economic theory that had left too many Americans behind and had failed to invest in people, healthcare, jobs or education.

The contrast was striking. Bush’s lack of empathy and Clinton’s apparent connection to ordinary people played a crucial role in shifting the electoral fortunes. Clinton ultimately won that election.

Heart of the campaign

As Americans prepare to head to the polls on November 3, empathy is once again at the heart of the campaign. Joe Biden and Donald Trump are not just campaigning for who should be president, but for what kind of country America wants to be. It is a critical moment.

The pandemic, that has claimed almost 200,000 American lives, has contributed to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. With variable access to healthcare, rising unemployment, and a growing gap between the rich and poor, COVID-19 has further exposed the fault lines in American society. In addition, the death of George Floyd in May, and other deaths since, has led to protests and calls across the country to rectify the pervasive and systemic problems of police brutality and racism in society.

Given the intensity of emotions on all sides, whoever wins will have to reconcile competing and possibly incompatible visions and realities. In this context, it is no surprise that empathy is seen as the necessary antidote. The challenge is: will it prove a winning formula for Biden? Empathy was a central theme at the Democratic National Convention in August. Speakers from Michelle Obama to Kamala Harris, the Democratic nominee for vice president, extolled its value in building a better future and uniting society. In his acceptance speech for the nomination, Biden echoed the theme, speaking of the power of hope, and light and love: ‘Character is on the ballot. Compassion is on the ballot. Decency, science, democracy. They are all on the ballot.’

Positioning himself as the ‘Healer in Chief’, empathy is seen as integral to Biden’s character. Having lost his wife and daughter in a car accident in 1972, and then his son Beau to cancer in 2015, Biden knows loss, and the pain that accompanies it. He has an innate ability to connect with others. Campaign videos depict him helping a 13-year-old boy overcome his stutter, and emphasize how he knows by name the train conductors on his regular commute, and calls on them when they are sick. Far from being a part of the Washington elite that Trump decries, Biden is portrayed as an everyman, an Average Joe.

Yet the Republicans are also conscious of the power of empathy. At the Republican National Convention in late August, President Trump’s empathy was a recurrent theme. He met frontline medical workers to convey his support for their efforts during the pandemic, and spoke with Americans who had been detained overseas and since released, simultaneously highlighting his foreign policy credentials.

Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, was one of several colleagues who spoke of how Trump had supported her personally, calling her after a difficult preventative mastectomy. They spoke of his care for all Americans. It was an incongruous image for a leader who has shown little remorse or compassion for the lives lost during the pandemic.

It is hard to argue that Trump is empathetic. He lacks the genuine warmth and sincerity of Biden. He has openly boasted about taking advantage of women, pushed back against efforts to address racism, mocked people with disabilities, separated immigrant children from their parents and mobilized the National Guard against protesters, among other things. For a country that reveres its service personnel, it is possible that new revelations of Trump’s contempt for the military, decrying the war dead as ‘losers’ and ‘suckers’, may finally expose the myth that he cares. However, for his diehard supporters, this will not matter. Trump knows his audience, and he seems to use empathy like a showman, giving a nod to the virtue it conveys.

Yet it is too easy to dismiss Trump as entirely lacking empathy. Trump’s power and the resonance of his politics come from the fact that his words and vision connect to the worldviews and experiences of his supporters. They find truth in what he says and how it is packaged. 

When he speaks to them of the problems of unemployment, rising crime, threats to law and order, the need to disengage from constant wars overseas and the dangers of culture wars, they feel that they themselves are no longer invisible and that their fears and grievances are heard. Rather than pointing out America’s problems, they see him as extolling its virtues and offering a vision of renewed greatness.

You know where he stands

Trump understands the deep mistrust that many Americans have of the political elite. He connects with the shame people feel when politicians call them ‘deplorable’ – as Hillary Clinton did in her failed presidential campaign – or when they feel left behind by the distant political capital, and he vies to be their man. On the final night of the convention, Ivanka Trump acknowledged his communication style may not be to everyone’s taste, but she remarked that you always know where he stands. He is not a politician, or a party man, but a man of the people, and he will not back away from a challenge.

This is an uncomfortable reality for Democrats and Republicans who oppose him. The challenge is not to be distracted by Trump’s manner or vulgarity, but to understand the source of his power. Biden’s personal empathy might be an antidote to Trump’s divisive leadership style, but it alone cannot win the election. For empathy to be effective, it is necessary to see and understand the people who felt marginalized in 2016. Biden must speak to those in counties in Michigan and Iowa who voted for Obama in 2012 but Trump in 2016, and connect with those who remain unconvinced by either party.

Even within the Democrats, Biden is not a perfect candidate. He can be gaffe-prone and brings his own problems. For many who support Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, Biden’s vision does not go far enough to redress the structural and systemic inequalities that beset society.  He is still too wedded to reverting to the status quo, and to a vision of the world that has marginalized too many Americans. That is what needs to change.

Given the different faces of empathy that the two candidates display, what does it mean in political terms to be empathetic? Empathy is such a potent force in politics because it shows people that you see them, you hear them, and that they matter to you. It involves an attempt to see things from another person’s point of view, and to seek to understand their experiences of the world. Central to how empathy is defined is a process of self-reflection.

This means recognition of the scale and source of the problems in which both Republicans and Democrats have been complicit. Along with light, hope and love, there has to be a clear agenda for how to fix a broken social contract that rewards billionaires, but leaves millions without healthcare, housing or adequate education. It is about rebuilding trust, not only in the political establishment, but within communities and across society.

Empathy involves accepting there are alternative and equally valid experiences of the world, even if we do not like what that reveals. It means engaging with the challenge that there are multiple competing experiences of America, and the political argument cannot be won by facts alone if they do not resonate with what people feel. For Biden, this comes down to demonstrating that he means what he says, and that he would be committed to build unity, and be able to hold space for those who do not feel that he sees them. Rhetoric has to become reality.

There is a danger in thinking of empathy as a formula, as something you switch on and perform. It is a conscious, collective, and deliberate practice that requires time and patience. And it is needed now more than ever. Returning to that town hall meeting in 1992. Clinton did not stop at showing empathy with the left behind – he offered a view of how he would address the problems they faced. Biden faces a similar challenge. It is not enough to feel the pain of the nation, he has to offer a credible vision for how he would help to alleviate it.