We Need More Sympathy in Politics

A pervious post mentioned a theory that the "end of political correctness" is a signal that discussion has broken down. Groups are no longer interested in using language to persuade others to join them, but rather to mark their position. It is, in other words, a signal that battle lines have been drawn. 

Groups in this environment are also no longer interested in being persuaded, which takes the ability to sympathize with the positions of other groups. This is because you have to be able to see something from the perspective of another in order to understand why your current perspective may not be exactly right. 

There has been a lot of analysis in the last year on the current status of politics. Many wonder why compromise seems nonexistent in politics today. But compromise is an outcome predicated on the ability of people to have healthy discussions. If they cannot have healthy discussions, they will not reach compromise. 

About a year ago, Jeff Guo wrote in the Washington Post about three models that may explain the rise of to the current political environment and the Trump presidency. They are:

  1. Lack of agency that was caused by the breakdown of social institutions;
  2. The decline in the American dream; and 
  3. Bitterness and betrayal by elites.

Models (1) and (2) are really about being able to control your own destiny. The other side of this is repression by either the government or some external economic factor (e.g., trade or immigration). 

Model (3) is more of an outcome derived from policies based on expert models where the experts ignore the preferences of the non-experts for the model itself. For example, a number of influential expert models in policymaking are based on behavioral economics, such as the idea of "nudging" people to making more rational decisions.

Sustainable nudging, however, requires not only the openness of the non-expert to be nudged but an acknowledgment that the nudge's outcome (whatever it may be) is better than a policy environment without the nudge. The concept of what defines a better policy environment is, in part, based on the sometimes subjective preferences of the non-experts. The only way in which the experts can learn about this information is through discussion with the non-experts, where the experts are open themselves to the idea that perhaps nudging isn't a great idea even if everyone would be better off in a number of objective ways (e.g., having a higher income). 

Therefore it is persuasion and the openness to being persuaded that is absolutely critical. We can't begin by assuming we have all the answers and that we simply need additional resources to convince other groups as such. Otherwise, it's not a genuine discussion. Policymaking without sympathy towards the perspective of the non-expert coupled with a bit of humbleness by the experts is bound to fail. 

A problem with the current political environment is not that the expert models are right or wrong. Rather it's that the policymakers advancing many of these models seem to be more inclined to expend energy defending their positions based on the model than learning what the non-experts think. They have, in essence, lost sympathy for the other side. This breeds a culture where persuasion is impossible and compromise is difficult. Bitterness erupts for the experts and the policymakers. 

We would be better off by opening discussions with every group that feels disconnected. This process will take time, patience, humbleness, sympathy, and an incredible amount of energy.