Politics Magazine

The “Empathy Deficit” and the Growth of American Authoritarianism

Posted on the 24 June 2011 by Andy96

The following is a letter I sent to President Obama via their contact page at the White House.

In 2006, you spoke about the “empathy deficit.” You 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.”

In that speech, you also said, “What America needs right now, more than ever, is a sense of purpose to guide us through the challenges that lie ahead; a maturity that we seem to have lost somewhere along the way; a willingness to engage in a sober, adult conversation about our future.”

You concluded with, “And that if we’re willing to shoulder each other’s burdens, to take great risks, and to persevere through trial, America will continue on its magnificent journey towards that distant horizon, and a better day.”

As I see it, there has been little talk of the empathy deficit, and it has grown. It’s even harder now to have an “adult conversation.” And that “better day” is even more distant.

This growth in our empathy deficit is coincident with the growth in American authoritarianism.

in 2006, John Dean wrote Conservatives Without Conscience and described how the two political parties have changed. Dean introduced Professor Robert Altemeyer and the professor’s research on the authoritarian personality and how that personality is well represented by Republicans. In a recent article, Altemeyer discusses how the members of The Tea Party exemplify the authoritarian personality. Authoritarianism is also well represented by the Republicans in our Senate.

We are ruled by an authoritarian minority with a huge empathy deficit – they even mock empathy.

George Lakoff has several publications on how these authoritarians were raised in a strict father family model, which beat their innate empathy into a mostly unused part of their brain.

Now we have Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism by Dr. Henry Giroux. Here’s an excerpt from his introduction:


“This book is an attempt to understand critically both the political and pedagogical conditions that have produced this culture of sadism and death, attempting to mark and chart its visible registers, including the emergence of right-wing teaching machines, a growing politics of disposability, the emergence of a culture of cruelty, the ongoing war being waged on young people, and especially on youth of color. The book begins and ends with an analysis of authoritarianism and the ways it reworks itself, mutates, and attacks parasitically the desiccated shell of democracy, sucking out its life-blood. The focus on authoritarianism serves as both a warning as well as a call to critical engagement in the interest of hope—not as a political rhetoric emptied of context and commitment but one that seeks to resuscitate a democratic imaginary and energized social movements that is the one antidote to the zombification of politics.”


At the end of the introduction, Dr. Giroux states, “My hope is that this book will break through a diseased common sense that often masks zombie politicians, anti-public intellectuals, politics, institutions, and social relations and bring into focus the need for a new language, pedagogy, and politics in which the living dead will be moved decisively to the margins rather than occupying the very center of politics and everyday life.”

In 2006, you also said, “So don’t let people talk you into doing the safe thing. Listen to what’s inside of you and decide what it is that you care about so much that you’re willing to risk it all.”

Mr. President, are you willing to risk it all and expose the growth of the empathy deficit in our governments under the control of right-wing authoritarians and move them “decisively to the margins”?

I don’t expect a reply, but if I get one, I will add it as a comment.

The “Empathy Deficit” and the Growth of American Authoritarianism

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