My family and I are having a pretty good week and I should be really happy. But I’m not jumping for joy because I also care about other people besides my family … and that’s a double-edged sword. (More)

Bouncing Back Part II: Empathy’s Double-Edged Sword

This week Morning Feature looks at bouncing back after disappointment. Yesterday we began with the conservative path to happiness: indifference to others’ suffering. Today we consider how the same empathy that empowers progressives can also lead to despair. Tomorrow we’ll conclude with how to take better care of ourselves as we continue to care for others.

There’s been lots of good news …

It started with a difficult meeting, but it’s turned into an amazing week. The media quickly stomped on’s bogus story about Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch, and it looks like that won’t become yet another right wing zombie meme. The nationwide reaction to the Minneapolis police union’s campaign to smear Mayor Betsy Hodges both raised money for Neighborhoods Organizing for Change and sparked a needed debate on the city’s police tactics. Add in President Obama’s statement on net neutrality, his climate change agreement with China, and reporting that he’ll soon issue a strong executive order on immigration reform – plus Dr. Craig Spencer recovering from Ebola – and there’s been lots of good news.

Closer to home, the news has been good too. Herself got paid and we went out to dinner for the first time in 11 months. I had a wonderfully absurd text chat with Springoff the First that gave us both the giggles. Springoff the Second’s husband was delighted after his eye surgery. Springoff the Fourth may soon have a job that he’d like to see turn into a career. Really, it’s all good.


Well, it’s not all good. The Supreme Court decided to jump in on the Affordable Care Act and, with the right wing all a’lather over Jonathan Gruber, experienced Court-watchers think Chief Justice Roberts & Co. will strip the ACA’s subsidies in states that use the federal exchange.

That means Herself and I won’t be able to afford health insurance, but it’s not just us. It’s 4.2 million other Americans too, and that’s a matter of life or death for people like David Tedrow. I don’t know him, but I don’t have to know him to care whether he and others like him live or die.

Oh, and the appellants say those 4.2 million Americans should have to pay back the subsidies they received this year. The Secretary of the Treasury has the legal authority to make IRS rule changes proactive only – so no one would have to pay back this year’s subsidies – and I’m sure Secretary Lew will do that if the Court strikes down the current rule. Well … unless the Court decides to twist the knife and declares that his authority to make rule changes proactive only does not apply in this case, because freedom.

Plus Republicans may shut down the government if President Obama signs an order on immigration reform, and that would hurt a lot of people too. Sure, the GOP took a pounding in public opinion polls after the last shutdown, but it didn’t hurt them in the midterms. And they’re planning to resurrect Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan: cutting taxes for billionaires, privatizing Medicare, cutting and block-granting Medicaid, and forming a commission to cut or privatize Social Security. Worse, Republicans could well control both houses of Congress for years to come … and they now dominate most state governments.

“Political events often push leftists more to the right, but rarely push rightists more to the left”

All of that is dangerous news for progressives, because a new study from Israel found emotions affect our political views more than for conservatives:

Emotions are powerful motivators of human behavior and attitudes. Emotions also play an important role in guiding policy support in conflict and other political contexts. Researchers at Tel Aviv University and the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya have studied the interaction between emotion and political ideology, showing that the motivating power of emotions is not the same for those on different ends of the ideological spectrum. Their research is published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

The researchers began with three case studies, two that primed empathy (for Palestinians and Israeli asylum-seekers) and a third that primed despair (reporting falling support for Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts). As the researchers predicted, the empathy stories made progressives more likely to support humanitarian initiatives, while the despair story made progressives less likely to support those initiatives. That last finding fits an important point from yesterday: belief in just world theory increases when we think a situation is hopeless.

In three more real-world case studies, the researchers found progressives’ were again more subject to emotional priming:

Studies 4 through 6 looked at real-world scenarios, and found that Jewish-Israeli leftists’ policy support was more related to both empathy and anger than rightists’, at times of both peace efforts (study 4) and war (study 5). The final study found the same pattern of results with regard to fear among a different population, demonstrating that the interactive effect of ideology and emotion on policy support is not limited to a given population nor to emotions typically associated with leftist ideology.

And as the researchers predicted, none of the emotion-priming stories had much effect on conservatives’ views. That fits a long-standing finding that conservatives tend to score higher on conscientiousness, and that trait correlates to reliability and self-motivation.

“Obstructionism bordering on sabotage is a winning political strategy”

With that in mind, let’s go back to Republican warnings of a government shutdown over immigration reform. Yes, support for the GOP plummeted to all-time lows after last year’s shutdown, but so did an overall sense of dissatisfaction in government. That probably helped depress voter turnout – which dropped to a 72-year low – and most of the people who stayed home were likely more progressive … because despair affects our behavior more than it does conservatives.

Here’s how Paul Krugman put it last week:

But the biggest secret of the Republican triumph surely lies in the discovery that obstructionism bordering on sabotage is a winning political strategy. From Day 1 of the Obama administration, Mr. McConnell and his colleagues have done everything they could to undermine effective policy, in particular blocking every effort to do the obvious thing – boost infrastructure spending – in a time of low interest rates and high unemployment.

This was, it turned out, bad for America but good for Republicans. Most voters don’t know much about policy details, nor do they understand the legislative process. So all they saw was that the man in the White House wasn’t delivering prosperity – and they punished his party.

Will things change now that the GOP can’t so easily evade responsibility? I guess we’ll find out.

But the research we saw above suggests the perception of responsibility won’t matter much. Conservatives will turn out in 2016 and beyond, because they’re conscientious. And if progressives start to sense the political system is rigged beyond salvaging, more will give into despair and stay home … and some may give into anger and fear and become more conservative.

That’s the double-edged sword of a moral politics grounded in empathy, and tomorrow we’ll talk about how to keep hope – and our progressive values – alive.


Happy Friday!