Disparate star power defined the national party conventions over the past two weeks. The Democrats presented Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Warren; the Republicans offered Joni Ernst and Tom Cotton. Hillary Clinton was supported by stirring testimonials from Bill Clinton and Barack Obama; Trump received only vague affirmations from his children. Joe Biden rallied Democrats with the stirring exclamation “we are America! Second to none.” Republicans were led by Michael Flynn in chants of “lock her up.” While it’s too early to tell what benefit Clinton will get out of her professionally run convention, the contrast between the accomplished politicians and decorated generals taking center stage at the DNC with the RNC’s exhibition of the General Manager of the Trump Winery and a Vice President at the Eric Trump Foundation could not have been starker.
Yet there was one common feature between the four nights of fear in Cleveland and the festivities in Philadelphia. Each party put on a parade of grieving mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, sons, and daughters of those lost to one form of violence or another afflicting the country. Whether the issue was the killings of police, soldiers, or unarmed black men, there was a family member present to give face to the grief and sorrow of losing a loved one. While the tone and purpose of presenting these speakers during the two events was night and day, a similar air of mourning nonetheless hung over each. That Republicans and Democrats alike thought that their message this year could best be delivered through the pain of others should give us pause. In a bid to arouse our sympathy, America’s two primary political parties actually acknowledged the current limits of our society’s empathy for the struggle of others.
To be clear, the level of exploitation involved in the use of grieving family members was at a much higher level at the Republican convention than at its Democratic counterpart. The RNC’s featured speakers included the siblings of a murdered border patrol agent and a navy SEAL killed in action. Also among the speakers were three family members of persons killed by illegal immigrants—one shot, one killed by a drunk driver, and another killed by an unlicensed driver in a car crash. How the tragic deaths of these people, and the grief of their loved ones, relates to Donald Trump’s immigration policy is unclear. Presumably Trump will soon call for the deportation of all drunk and unlicensed drivers—immigrant or otherwise—in his effort to “make America great again.”
That was not all. Patricia Smith, the mother of an IT worker killed in the terrorist attack on the American consulate and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya in September 2012, was used essentially as a prop to hurl misguided invective at the former Secretary of State. She seemed utterly unaware of basics of the Benghazi attack—repeating empty conservative talking points about the administration’s initial confusion in communicating the source of the raid. She stated that “to this day I don’t even know why a computer guy like Sean was sent to Benghazi,” attributing something that has never been at issue as a damning fact of Clinton’s callousness. “I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son,” she said, melting down in front of an audience of millions. “How could she do this to me?” Smith cried, in a spasm of grief best screamed into a pillow rather than out to a national TV audience. Here was a woman who tragically lost her only son, who clearly had not yet come to terms with her heart-wrenching loss, who had desperately latched on to the distortions of political opportunists, and who was now coping with her open emotional wounds by clinging to the comfort of a scapegoat. And the Republican National Committee was only too happy to display her naked grief as a political ploy. It was a disgusting spectacle.
For their part, the Democrats used their parade of grief-stricken speakers to offer policy solutions to pressing national problems. There was the mother of a victim of opioid abuse as advocate for Clinton’s drug abuse prevention program. There were the Mothers of the Movement—mothers of unarmed black men and women like Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Sandra Bland made famous by the inequity in the circumstances and social response to their children’s deaths—as representations of the need for Clinton’s criminal justice reforms. There were the victims of 9/11, testifying to Clinton’s caring and character. There were the survivors and victims of gun violence—including the daughter of the murdered principal at Sandy Hook elementary and the mother of a victim of the shooting at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston—as exemplars of the need to tighten the country’s gun laws. And there was the powerful story of Khizr Khan, whose son was killed serving in Iraq as a member of the U.S. Army, offered as a rebuke of Trump’s hateful Muslim ban.
Though these testimonials were used for uplift, support, and constructive lessons for future policy, there was still the disquieting effect of dozens of orators whose only qualification was grief. In a space usually reserved for showcasing the party’s political stars and policy goals, the Democrats presented hours of gut-wrenching recollections of the worst moments in people’s lives.
These lineups are not normal. A quick scan of the last few conventions shows what a significant break with the past the parties’ parades of grieving parents has been. In 2008, the Democratic speaker list was a who’s who of the party’s congressional leadership. John McCain’s convention that year showcased prominent politicians of past, present, and future. 2012 was more of the same. Mitt Romney spent the vast majority of his convention highlighting the diversity of Republican elected officials, sprinkling in testimonials to his character from people from his past. Meanwhile, Obama gave the majority of his speaking slots to local politicians, interspersing a few spokespeople of prominent advocacy groups for good measure.
So this approach is distinctly new. For all the talk of the widening divisions in America that this campaign has highlighted, perhaps this troubling convention phenomenon is the perfect embodiment of those sentiments. Empathy is no longer felt in the abstract. It is now experienced only in the visceral immediacy of individual trauma. But our imaginations should be large enough to picture the pain of others without having to so personally experience it.
It was President Obama who said in 2009 about filling a Supreme Court vacancy: “I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes.” He was derided for that belief by Republicans who considered it contrary to the immutable rule of law. Yet as the New York Times wrote in summarizing the rejection of that criticism by liberal Supreme Court lawyer and Stanford law professor Pam Karlan, our society has increasingly lost the actual meaning of empathy: “Many people do not understand the difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy means being able to imagine oneself in the condition or predicament of another, while sympathy means sharing the feelings of another to the point of compassion or pity.”
That very confusion seemed to be at work the last two weeks. Understanding the challenges of our fellow citizens gave way to raw emotion. We should be able to have empathy for the plight of penniless immigrants striving for a better life, for African-Americans hoping to be a part of the larger American fabric but confronted by the unhappy realization that their skin color gives rise to implicit suspicion, and for the ultimate sacrifices made by military personnel and their families without resort to gratuitous, personalized heartache. But apparently we cannot. It’s a further explication of the Trump phenomenon, where the broadsides aimed at “the other” are not troubling, but the private anguish of identifiable individuals is exalted to the high status of determining national policy. As this election has gone on, the limits of sympathy and the country’s growing lack of empathy are increasingly apparent. A healthy society should act against not only the injustice immediately before us, but also against the injustice all around us.