Credit: Dennis Redfield/Flickr

Perhaps my sense of humor has been thrown off lately because I didn’t necessarily find this video to be particularly funny.

But after thinking about it for a few days, I decided that it raised a question that was worth talking about. The premise of the joke is that old people don’t need to worry about climate change because it won’t affect them…they’ll be dead. By extension, it calls into question the whole idea of empathy for things that don’t affect you personally.

Of course this is meant to be humorous because people like Cloris Leachman and Ed Asner obviously have empathy and care about what happens to the environment, even if they’ll be gone when the worst of it happens. It’s also true that I care about what happens to Obamacare, even though by the time the changes Republicans are proposing actually happen, I’ll be on Medicare.

That is why I recently wrote that empathy is a foundational value for liberals. It is critical that we answer these kinds of questions with an emphatic “yes!”

  • Are men prepared to fight for a woman’s right to chose?
  • Are white people prepared to fight against racism?
  • Are citizens prepared to fight for those who are undocumented?
  • Are white collar workers prepared to fight for unions?
  • Are the wealthy prepared to fight for the middle class?
  • Are those who have good health insurance through their employer prepared to fight for those who don’t?
  • Are members of the upper and middle class prepared to fight for those in poverty?
  • Are the middle-aged prepared to fight for seniors?
  • Are seniors prepared to fight for young people?

Whenever the answer to one of those questions is “no,” or when the message is sent either directly or indirectly that “my issue is more important than yours,” the divide widens. That is what makes the challenge more difficult for Democrats than Republicans. We can’t afford to play a zero-sum game. We have to care about people who aren’t like us because that is the definition of what “liberal” means.

Following the 2016 election a lot of people wrote about how Democrats needed to show more empathy for white working class voters. I didn’t disagree with that back then and I still don’t. But it was sometimes said and often implied that the reverse isn’t true. Because Democrats have been accused of being “the elite,” it is assumed that they should show empathy for white working class voters, but not necessarily expect it in return.

That argument falls apart when we question the whole idea of whether or not Democrats are the elite. If the ranks of Democrats are made up of women and people of color, is it not also important to show empathy for their challenges, just as they are being asked to do the same?

I’ve been thinking about this ever since I read Martin’s excellent piece titled, “The Democrats Lost the ‘Poorly Educated’ and They Need Them Back.” It helped me empathize with how a message about affordable college from Democrats was heard by people who don’t prioritize getting a 4-year degree.

Setting aside the merits, these appeals are least likely to have political success among people who don’t have a higher education and resent the hell out of the fact that their kids will need one.

What they’d wish for if they thought their wish would be granted is that their kids could practice the trades and professions they practiced and have the same standard of living. They don’t want their kids to leave home for a college education if that means they’ll come to question their values and never come back.

That makes a lot of sense. But I also notice how quickly we went from proposals to make college more accessible to resenting the hell out of the fact that their kids will need one.

I would suggest that the reason the Democrats highlighted the issue of college affordability is because it consistently ranked as one of the top concerns for young voters. Is it out of the question to expect white working class voters to empathize with that concern? Any suggestion they are not capable of showing empathy is offensive in the extreme. Even more broadly, is it possible for a political party to champion the cause of college affordability while also promoting policies that allow young people to succeed without one?

If the answer to either of those questions is “no,” then we’ve bought into a zero sum game. To the extent that we can make the answer to questions like that a “yes,” Democrats will have found a way to build a party for the future.

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