Em·pa·thy: the action of understanding, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings and thoughts of another.
In other words, empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, but not literally. You don’t have to be gay or have a gay child to support gay marriage. You certainly don’t have to have cancer, or even know someone with cancer (though who doesn’t?) before agreeing to participate in a Relay for Life, or a Race for the Cure.
Then why is it that Republicans in Congress only seem to support or oppose major legislation when it personally affects them? Dick Cheney, whose daughter Mary is a lesbian, would not publicly endorse the Defense of Marriage Act even as the second Bush administration made it their signature wedge issue. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, formerly of the anti-gay movement, eventually supported gay marriage only after his son came out. The only Democratic hold-outs who still backed DOMA in 2013 all conspicuously represented a conservative constituency. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that some of them were more concerned with keeping their jobs than expressing their true beliefs.
On the flip side, when, during the first GOP presidential debate, Marco Rubio proudly repeated his opposition to abortion even in circumstances involving rape or incest, it’s fair to wonder how he’d feel if the pregnant rape victim was his own daughter. While most Americans are at the very least uncomfortable about abortion, a majority support it under certain circumstances. Yet only Republican members of Congress continue to express—even fight for—this seemingly punitive legislation that most of the country is uninterested in pursuing.
In the movie Jaws, Mayor Vaughn of the fictional island Amity, recently terrorized by a great white shark, insists on keeping the beaches open despite one brutal death, then two (not counting the dog). The sheriff argues that the Fourth of July crowds will be in mortal danger, but the mayor refuses to relinquish the money brought in by tourism. Only after Vaughn’s own son is forced to flee the ocean when the shark reappears and takes a third victim does he fully understand what’s at stake. It is no less than a person’s life. Were Vaughn to seek higher office, assume he’d be part of the current GOP down ballot.
There are several Republican members of Congress who won’t endorse him, or who remain silent about him. Their reasons are the same as the average American with a pulse.
Only after Vaughn’s own son is forced to flee the ocean when the shark reappears and takes a third victim does he fully understand what’s at stake.
Sensible gun control laws are perhaps the clearest example of the right’s inability to demonstrate empathy. Currently, no member of Congress has come forth with the story of a loved one lost to gun violence. There were no U.S. senators grieving their children after Newtown. No U.S. congressional representative had a family member in Orlando, at Virginia Tech, Columbine, the Charleston church, or the San Bernardino office Christmas party—nor Aurora, Santee, Chattanooga, Roseburg, Fort Hood, Isla Vista, D.C., Santa Monica, Brookfield, Minneapolis, Oak Creek … the list goes on. And yet, if Democrats ruled both houses, the assault weapons ban would be reinstated. Background checks would be universal. Gun-show loopholes would be closed.
Is it unfair to blame all Republicans for the nation’s continued gun violence? Perhaps. Democrats, again in conservative or hunting-ground districts, haven’t had the courage to do what the great majority of Americans want, which is gun legislation that will make us all safer. But we have mostly the GOP to indict; they control both houses of Congress—and Mitch McConnell’s three children have never been shot.
Which brings us to Donald Trump. There are several Republican members of Congress who won’t endorse him, or who remain silent about him. Their reasons are the same as the average American with a pulse. Trump has insulted Latinos, women, veterans, the disabled, Muslims, and just about anyone who disagrees with him or looks at him funny. And yet Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy, Bob Corker, and Jeff Sessions, among too many, not only support him but encourage their colleagues to do the same.
However the Trump phenomenon is explained,
the word “empathy” is never mentioned.
Would that be true if Ryan were married to a Mexican, like Jeb Bush, who refuses to back Trump? Or if Corker’s son were Serge Kovaleski, the New York Times reporter whom Trump mocked for his disability? Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps it’s a case of self-loathing within the ranks of the GOP leadership. How else to explain John McCain’s Trump endorsement? Job preservation isn’t reason enough to legitimize a candidate who ridiculed your time as a prisoner-of-war, as Trump did of McCain early on in the primary season. However the Trump phenomenon is explained, the word “empathy” is never mentioned.
While it may sound ridiculous to think one party or another has cornered the market on empathy, empirical evidence suggests the Democrats at least have the greater share. Ten to one, it’s easier for a Democratic congresswoman to explain to her son why she believes in gun control than for a GOP senator to explain to his daughter why he doesn’t. Even more difficult? Explaining a vote for Trump. Good luck with that.