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(c) Mary Griggs

The lack of empathy and down right mean-spirtedness of right-wing politicians and their major funders has never been more stark.

It is almost as if the plight of other people has no bearing on conservative decision-making and rhetoric. This is illustrated the chart to the left – the more interested in politics a conservative is, the lower their level of empathy. Liberals move in the opposite direction and the more interested in politics they are, the more empathetic they are.

Empathy is the capacity to put oneself in the shoes of others — not just other individuals, but whole categories of people, especially those who are in some way oppressed, threatened, or harmed. Empathy is the capacity to care, to feel what others feel, to understand what others are facing and what their lives are like.

Empathy colors the way people view the role of government. Progressives view government as having a moral obligation to protect (including worker, consumer, and environmental regulations as well as safety nets and health care) and empower (including education, communication, energy, the availability of credit from banks people, etc).

Conservatives focus on individual, not social, responsibility and keep their empathy for people like themselves. Government should be limited and restrained. Further, they believe in strict authority and punitive justice that means (to them) that people get what they deserve–the poor and needy are blamed for their plight (the unemployed are lazy, the uninsured are leeches and immigrants are lawbreakers), whereas millionaires and corporations should get ever increasing tax exemptions and cuts because they are successful.

The 2011 budget proposed by Representative Paul Ryan and touted by his running mate Mitt Romney is a primary example of this mindset. The budget included deep cuts to social services while also cutting taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Sister Simone Campbell, the Executive Director of NETWORK and leader of the “Nuns on the Bus” tour had this to say about it: “Rep. Paul Ryan claims his budget reflects the principles of our shared Catholic faith but the Ryan budget fails a basic moral test by harming families living in poverty. In our nation, we value greatly that we all invest in our society, that we meet Jesus’ command to take care of the least, and that we also believe strongly in fairness that those who have benefitted the most from our society should contribute the most in reinvesting back into our society. Paul Ryan doesn’t understand that all decisions need to be made with the common good in mind.”

Mitt Romney tried to show his empathy in his recent interview with 60 Minutes. When asked about health care reform, he said, “Well we do provide care for people who don’t have insurance. If someone has a heart attack, they don’t sit in their apartment and die. We pick them up in an ambulance, and take them to the hospital, and give them care. And different states have different ways of providing for that care.”

It is unbelievable that someone whose wife has a chronic illness, as Ann Romney does, could make such a statement. The notion that the only medical care people really need is the kind you get in emergency rooms is preposterous. Believe me, there is no “emergency” chemotherapy for cancer nor is it any kind of solution to allow diabetics to get care only once they go into a diabetic coma.

In Louisiana it is glaringly obvious the repercussions that this conservative thinking has had on the economic health of the state and her most vulnerable citizens.

Louisiana Progress and other progressive groups have been holding a Medicaid Misery Bus Tour to put a human face on the damage the budget cuts are doing to Louisiana citizens. One stop was at the Lallie Kemp Regional Medical Center in Independence which is slated to lose 405 employees (including a 40 percent elimination of non-patient care staff) and reducing the inpatient bed capacity to 10 beds. Surgery will be eliminated, as well as cardiology, infectious disease prevention (including HIV treatment), oncology, ICU, and their contracts with Southern Medical Center and Women’s Health Services.

Other vital statistics from Louisiana:

  • Since Bobby Jindal took office in 2008, the median income of Louisiana households has declined every year — from more than $45,400 in 2008 to less than $41,800 in 2011. In contrast, the national average household income rose by more than 1.5 percent in 2011.
  • Since 2008, Louisiana’s unemployment rate has doubled from 3.8 percent to 7.6 percent. Although that’s still lower than the national unemployment rate, the national rate has been going down since January 2011 — from 9.1 percent to 8.1 percent.
  • Since 2010, the percentage of Louisianans living in poverty has risen from 18.7 percent to 20.4 percent, and the percentage of children in poverty increased to 28.8 percent from 27.3 percent.
  • Also since 2010, the number of working-age adults who lack health insurance remains high at 25.7 percent. That figure will continue to grow because Jindal refuses to accept hundreds of millions of federal Medicaid dollars available under the Affordable Care Act.

I agree with George Lakoff that empathy is the basis of our democracy. He has written that being empathetic leads one to notice real social and systemic causes of our troubles and to notice when and how judicial decisions and legislation can harm the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens.

The choice this election is what we want for our future. Do we want a surplus of mean and deficit of empathy? Or do we want to work to understand the complexities and nuances of our situation and develop solutions together?

As Barak Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, “another tradition to politics, a tradition that stretched from the days of the country’s founding to the glory of the civil rights movement, a tradition based on the simple idea that we have a stake in one another, and that what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart, and that if enough people believe in the truth of that proposition and act on it, then we might not solve every problem, but we can get something meaningful done.”

It is time to get things done.