Credit: iStock

A lot of liberals on my Twitter feed are reacting very negatively to an interview Colby Itkowitz had with author and Berkeley sociology professor Arlie Russell Hochschild. Her report on that interview is titled, “What is this election missing? Empathy for Trump voters.”

By way of background, Hochschild travelled to rural Louisiana in an attempt to understand white working class voters who had been drawn to the Tea Party. Due to political, cultural, geographic and class differences, I actually agree with Hochschild that empathy is what is required if we are ever to bridge the divide. That is essentially the message that I found so powerful in how a budding alt right leader like Derek Black broke away from that movement. His fellow college classmates didn’t start off by condemning him…they got to know him and allowed him to get to know them. It turns out that his prejudices couldn’t stand up to that test.

Where I take issue with what Hochschild says (at least as it is reported by Itkowitz) is in assuming that empathizing with people is enough. Take a look at how she describes the people she met in Louisiana.

In some of them you sensed loss and a sense of being invisible and unappreciated and insulted. That liberals just think they’re rednecks. Here were people, some who had worked very hard, half were college-educated, and they just felt put down, and they felt a drifting downward in their economic circumstance, but didn’t hear anyone listening to them about their distress. They felt like a minority group.

Perhaps that surprises someone who is a Berkeley sociology professor. But it shouldn’t. It is something that most of us understand and can empathize with. The more important question is what comes next. Is it simply a matter of validating their sense of victimhood and then excusing their response to that?

As an analogy, think about how we should react to a victim of domestic violence. Certainly it is important to empathize with her plight. But do we just leave it at that? Is it enough to simply join in shaking our fists at the perpetrator and affirm the fact that she is the victim in this situation? Does that reduce her risk of being abused again? Or do we say to her, “you have some important choices to make about whether to stay in this relationship or to leave and find a place where you can be safe?” Ultimately, we can’t make that decision for her. But we can talk to her about her own power to take the steps necessary to protect herself. In other words, we must recognize that if empathizing with her victimhood is our only response, we encourage it as a perpetual state.

This is something that community organizers tend to understand better than social service providers. For example,  back in 2007 Ryan Lizza wrote a fascinating article about Barack Obama’s time in Chicago as a community organizer. He tells a story about how his mentor, Mike Kruglik, became convinced that this young man had a gift for that kind of work. Early on they were having coffee together when this happened:

On this particular evening, Kruglik was debriefing Obama about his work when a panhandler approached. Instead of ignoring the man, Obama confronted him. “Now, young man, is that really what you want be about?” Obama demanded. “I mean, come on, don’t you want to be better than that? Let’s get yourself together.”

It was no surprise to me that Obama didn’t ignore the panhandler. This is a man who learned very early in life to empathize with other people’s situations. What was far more interesting was that he called him out…”Let’s get yourself together.”

Lizza goes on in that article to describe the kinds of lessons Obama learned from the originator of the whole concept of community organizing, Saul Alinsky.

Galluzzo shared with me the manual he uses to train new organizers, which is little different from the version he used to train Obama in the ’80s. It is filled with workshops and chapter headings on understanding power: “power analysis,” “elements of a power organization,” “the path to power.” Galluzzo told me that many new trainees have an aversion to Alinsky’s gritty approach because they come to organizing as idealists rather than realists. But Galluzzo’s manual instructs them to get over these hang-ups. “We are not virtuous by not wanting power,” it says. “We are really cowards for not wanting power,” because “power is good” and “powerlessness is evil.”

The other fundamental lesson Obama was taught is Alinsky’s maxim that self-interest is the only principle around which to organize people. (Galluzzo’s manual goes so far as to advise trainees in block letters: “get rid of do-gooders in your church and your organization.”) Obama was a fan of Alinsky’s realistic streak. “The key to creating successful organizations was making sure people’s self-interest was met,” he told me, “and not just basing it on pie-in-the-sky idealism. So there were some basic principles that remained powerful then, and in fact I still believe in.”

Too often liberal “do-gooders” assume that their role is to empathize with victims and attempt to rescue them rather than empower them. Take a look at how Hochschild responds when asked whether the onus is on progressives:

It goes both ways but I think liberals bear the bigger responsibility, and the bigger interest, if they want to understand why the democratic party has lost so many blue collar white voters.

In the end, she is asked what Hillary Clinton can do to reach out to these voters if she is elected. Hochschild says that Clinton can implement policies that “would restore well-paid jobs to blue collar workers.” Check. Those are the kinds of policies Democrats have been championing for a while now. When is it finally time to say to these folks, “Let’s get yourself together?”

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!