As the 2018 midterm elections draw closer, the list of bestselling books that make the case for ending the control that President Trump and his Republican allies have over Congress grows longer.
From former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s Fascism: A Warning to presidential historian Jon Meacham’s The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, these democracy-under-threat books amount to a literary genre united around the belief that the Trump administration has put America in acute political danger.
The president’s recent attacks on allies and deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin at their Helsinki summit will only add to the interest in these democracy-under-threat books, but in many ways, the most moving and accessible anti-Trump book available these days isn’t overtly political or a reaction to the Trump presidency.
That book is essayist Leslie Jamison’s 2014 The Empathy Exams. What makes Jamison’s book so appealing and worth a second look is how the case she makes for the importance of empathy challenges the I-alone-know-best ethic on which the Trump presidency rests.
The Empathy Exams has its roots in the work Jamison once did as a paid medical actor ($13.50 an hour). Following scripts she was given, Jamison pretended to have illnesses that the medical students examining her were expected to diagnose. Jamison became fascinated with the way in which the illnesses people suffer from are brought to light by physicians, and from this experience, she moved on to the idea that “Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to.”
At the center of The Empathy Exams is Jamison’s belief that empathy is more than being nice or telling someone, I feel your pain. “Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us,” Jamison writes, “it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves.”
The special relevance of The Empathy Exams to the 2018 midterm elections lies in Jamison’s contention that when we embrace empathy, “we’ve committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations.”
When we look at America’s past, we see that empathy, whether expressed in actions or in speeches, has been integral to our political life. It is not only our idealists who have seen empathy as important. So have our pragmatists.
Empathy is fundamental to General Ulysses Grant’s decision at Appomattox to allow Robert E. Lee’s surrendering Confederate troops to keep their horses so the horses might be used by the troops in planting their next crop.
Empathy is at the heart of Secretary of State George Marshall’s 1947 plea for Americans to walk in the shoes of post-World War II Europeans and help them rebuild their nations. “It is virtually impossible at this distance,” Marshall warns Americans who may doubt how bad off Europe is, “merely by reading or listening or even seeing photographs and motion pictures to grasp all the real significance of the situation.”
Empathy is central to President John Kennedy’s nationally televised address calling for the legislation that became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Not content to offer only a legal argument, Kennedy made his address deeply personal. “If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him,” Kennedy asked, “then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?”
America today is not more divided than it was at the end of the Civil War or in the middle of the civil rights movement, and as we head toward the 2018 midterms, the kind of empathy that Jamison argues is a moral imperative is uniquely suited to cut through the rhetoric the Trump administration has relied on to obscure its cruelty.
The country recently passed a momentous national empathy exam with flying colors when it voiced its disapproval over the separation of migrant children from their parents that the Trump administration put into action. Will voters not do as well this November if asked: Do we really want to see people with pre-existing medical conditions deprived of affordable health care? Do we really want mothers who have just given birth denied paid family leave? Do we really want minimum wage earners not guaranteed at least $15 an hour pay?