George Lakoff: Why is empathy central to democracy?

A key difference between Democrats and Republicans

George Lakoff: Why is empathy central to democracy?
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

by George Lakoff | FrameLab

When I was seven years old, I asked my father what the word “democracy” meant.

He replied: ‘You’re not better than anyone else, and no one else is better than you.”

"Better than" meant "more deserving than."

Even a seven-year-old could get it.

If you don’t care what happens to other people — if you only care about yourself — why would you care to live in a democracy?

President Barack Obama repeatedly emphasized the importance of empathy, which he identified as one of the most important things his mother had taught him. He defined it as “the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes.”

“The world doesn't just revolve around you” he said. “There's a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit.”

Empathy is the central component of a healthy and functioning democracy. That’s because democracy is based on the principle of equal representation. Empathy is necessary to understand and respect the perspectives and experiences of diverse individuals and communities.

In a democracy, empathy can help foster social cohesion and build bridges between groups with different interests and beliefs. It can also encourage citizens to engage in civic activities and to work together towards common goals.

Empathy is also crucial in ensuring that the needs and interests of all members of society are taken into account when making policy decisions. By understanding and empathizing with the experiences of marginalized or disadvantaged groups, policymakers can create policies that are more equitable and just.

However, empathy alone is not enough to sustain a democracy. Other factors, such as a robust legal system, freedom of speech and assembly, and an engaged and informed citizenry, are also necessary to ensure a thriving democratic society.

Republicans tend to promote self-interest over empathy — if they promote empathy at all. This is one of the central differences between Republicans and Democrats.

Discussions in the media about the differences between Democrats and Republicans tend to center on policy differences. But those policy differences tend to depend crucially on differences over empathy. It’s crucial to understand this.

Empathy is the heart of democracy. Citizens care about other citizens. Freedom means freedom for everybody. That's government of, by, and for the People.

“For empathy is the fuel of democracy.  Let me say that again: Empathy — empathy is the fuel of democracy, a willingness to see each other — not as enemies, neighbors.” — President Joe Biden.

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