Tuesday, September 14, 2021

The Antidote for Projection: Empathy

One of my favorite columns from Steve Benen is the one he wrote back in the spring of 2011 about Karl Rove's "affection for projection."

Karl Rove has a special, some might call it “pathological,” quality as a political pundit. More than anyone I’ve ever seen or heard of, Rove identifies some of his own ugliest, most malicious, most pernicious qualities, and then projects them onto those he hates most...

A lesser hack might find it difficult to launch political attacks that are ironic, wrong, hypocritical, and examples of projection, all at the same time, but Rove is a rare talent.

At this point, Rove's talent isn't so rare. As Martin Longman suggests, the entire Republican Party is projecting their nefarious motives onto Democrats. For example, the party whose president incited an insurrection on January 6th is accusing their opponents of tyranny. As we learn more about how intelligence about what was coming on January 6th was stymied or ignored, they are the party that is accusing their opponents of manipulating intelligence on the Taliban. Similarly, the party whose governors are doing everything they can to block efforts to prevent the spread of COVID are now blaming their opponents for the continuation of its spread. I could go on, but perhaps you get the point.

The recovering therapist in me wants to diagnose what is happening here. It is possible that, in the case of someone like Karl Rove, this is a calculated strategy. It is meant to disarm criticism of your side by jumping the gun and accusing your opponent of the same nefarious motives and deeds. In that case, mainstream media's addiction to "bothsiderism" is part of the package. That is precisely why right wingers hatched the whole idea of a threat from antifa as cover for their connection to extremist white supremacy groups.

But projection is also an interesting psychological phenomenon. As Longman writes:

We have to guess about what other people are thinking and what motives lie behind their actions. Our best reference point is what we’d likely feel or do in similar circumstances. If our feelings or actions would be unacceptable, then we’re likely to think other people would have a similarly problematic reaction. 

Another way of looking at the Republican attachment to projection is that using oneself as a reference point to explain the motivations behind someone else's behavior is pretty common. Since Republicans were willing to let the global economy tank during the Great Recession in order to rob their opponent of any accomplishments, they are prone to believe that their opponent would use a pandemic for political gain. Longman's point is that this is why Republicans don't understand Democrats. 

Democrats are capable of some cynical political ploys but they would never try to gain power by helping a deadly virus proliferate. The record is clear, too, that the Democrats will act to shore up the economy in an emergency even if it will help their political opponents. Remember, when the big banks needed to be bailed out in lead-up to the 2008 election, it was the Democrats who stepped up and took the heat.

With that said, it is important to note that human beings have the ability to understand the motivations of people who are different from them. It requires two things: (1) listening, and (2) empathy. I am reminded of something Barack Obama wrote in "The Audacity of Hope."

I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush’s eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him. That’s what empathy does—it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal … We are all shaken out of our complacency.
Empathy was a major theme for Obama. You might remember that, prior to nominating Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, he said that he wanted someone with “empathy” for “people’s hopes and struggles.” One of the former president's most important speeches was the one he gave on Martin Luther King Day in January 2008 at Ebenezer Baptist Church. It was all about our empathy deficit.
I’m not talking about the budget deficit. I’m not talking about the trade deficit. Talking about the moral deficit in this country. I’m talking about an empathy deficit, the inability to recognize ourselves in one another.

Of course, empathy is one of those soft, squishy things we write off because it's a woman's thing that doesn't have any place in a man's world of hardball politics. But I am convinced that if we are ever going to understand why our country seems to be riding off the rails these days, we're going to have to come to grips with how and why we wound up with such an empathy deficit, especially (but not exclusively) on the right. 

I suspect that it has something to do with this country's excessive focus on individual liberties over community responsibilities. That is precisely the ugliness we're seeing play out with anti-vaxers and anti-maskers. Everything is about their own "freedoms" with no thought whatsoever for how their actions affect others. 

On a final note, this empathy deficit is also one of the main contributors to the persistence of white privilege. We tend to project our own experiences onto people of color and find their actions confusing at best and problematic at worst. The work of anti-racism begins when we listen with empathy.

In the end, I don't have any grand solutions for how we overcome this addiction to projection rather than empathy when it comes to dealing with opponents. But what I DO know is that it is critically important that we understand the circumstances we're dealing with. This is just one more example of how the job of liberals is harder and why it is important to reject the messaging strategies embraced by Republicans. 


  1. Nancy keeps returning to empathy many many a time as her prescription for curing our politics of lies and divisions. While I empathize, I still say the only rule is that we should do right, by ourselves and others. After that, it's fine for philosophers to debate what best underlies ethics, but that's all theory, and we could use some practice. The fact is that we're not going to win over Republicans to loving kindness. In fact, we're not going to win them over to ordinary demands for justice and mercy, so let's not complicate the picture unduly.

    1. Just to be clear, I never mentioned "winning over Republicans" and certainly not to "loving kindness." To equate that to what I wrote is a complete misunderstanding of empathy. It is merely the capacity to see the world through someone else's eyes. So I would remind you of what the warrior tactician Sun Tzu said, "If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle."

    2. My apologies. I surely just had too much of Kevin Drum's latest outreach to reasonableness on my mind.

      Still, I'll stick to the point that we need good old-fashioned virtues like justice, equity, and mercy, and how you get there is up to you. If you're a Kantian seeing the golden rule as a universal, an existentialist seeing recognition of the other as constitutive of yourself, a Marxist seeing a class struggle, a pragmatist just trying to hold onto a tiny remnant of what we know for sure, whatever. All great. Let's just focus on skewering the immorality that has gained respect in the mainstream media and has damaged our country beyond belief.

  2. As so happens, you're right on the money. All functioning societies depend upon people caring about the other person's good at least a little, and I too am at a loss as to what went wrong in America. My best guess (subject to retraction at a moment's notice) is that we've gotten too comfortable: so many of us are so used to being free from hunger, disease, and the elements that a person can forget that suffering is a real thing. It's a buzz-kill to think about, though, so people have gotten really good at blaming the victim: if I'm doing well it's because I've earned it, and your suffering is not my problem or anyone else's but your own.

    I don't think there was ever a golden age when people looked out for each other as a rule, but I do suspect there was a time when being a raving sociopath wasn't seen as normal or admirable.

  3. Totally. Of course, the same journalists no calling the massive victory for Newsome in the California recall election a foregone conclusion had article after article in past weeks about how dire his situation is. (Presumably that sells a whole lot better.) And today Kevin Drum says not to draw any sweeping conclusions.

    But if I may venture to offer one, it's that today's GOP will stop at nothing. OK, they lost, big, but they will stop at nothing again, and the press will abet them.


Conservative white men are allowed to call America sinful. Black preachers...not so much.

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