The current buzz phrase seems to be that Americans, both individually and as groups, “live in a bubble.” To his credit, even President Talk To Your Neighbors has confessed to not being immune.
With few other notable exceptions (Bill Clinton), most people on each side of the political divide believe it is the other side who lives in a bubble. But whether you’re some guy in New York City who thinks Middle America lives in a bubble of football and MMA, or a football fan in Calhoun County, Arkansas who believes Meryl Streep lives in her own out of touch Hollywood bubble, you’re right. It’s the belief that it matters that’s wrong.
When most people use it, the term “lives in a bubble” means mainly that someone doesn’t venture outside of their comfort zone, usually meaning philosophically, culturally, and socially. The idea is that to truly understand and empathize with our fellow citizens it is necessary to be at least passingly familiar with the way that they live their lives. Once we have the requisite empathy, we can better understand why they vote the way that they do, and perhaps attempt to reach out to them with policy ideas to solve common problems. At the very least we can lessen the level of vitriol in our public discourse.
The bubble idea is correct in that we do all see the world through lenses consisting of our innate intelligence combined with the sum total of our learning and experiences. We do, for the most part, tend to support policies and politicians aligned with our values and our interests, or at least what we believe to be our interests. Where the bubble analogy fails is the belief that we can truly empathize with people who see through different lenses and, more importantly, whether for the purposes of answering political questions in a Constitutional Republic we should even try.
The word empathy is thrown around a lot, usually incorrectly, in connection with politics. It is defined as the ability to feel the feelings of another person. This is admirable, but not actually possible outside of very specific instances. If you have lived through the sudden death of a parent, you can empathize with someone who suddenly loses a parent. What most people mean when they say “empathy” is actually sympathy, a much more noble emotion in that it requires you to step outside yourself and care about the feelings or plight of another person even though you yourself have no direct experience with them. But to the modern ear, sympathy seems to carry a connotation of snobbishness or pity, as opposed to empathizing with someone. The reticence of politicians and the media to use the actual proper term for what they are suggesting is necessary to cross the political bubble divide is evidence of their knowledge that the divide isn’t actually about lacking understanding for one another.
Most of the time the desire to “get out of your bubble” is actually driven not by a desire to understand fellow citizens, but by a desire to figure out a way to convince them to vote differently. This desire makes sense, given the extent to which we have allowed Executive power to expand, and is exacerbated by Congressional and SCOTUS overreach. In our political system, as designed, the New Yorker and the guy in Calhoun County, Arkansas should have next to no say in how the other lives. As it stands, New York urbanites wonder why they should have their lives influenced by a President elected by rubes in the sticks, and Arkansans bristle at New Yorkers' social values being foisted on them by SCOTUS Justices appointed by a guy from Chicago. This isn’t a “lack of empathy” or an inability to understand each other: it is a fundamental difference in the way people see the proper role of the federal government and in the way they wish to live their lives.
Luckily, there is a solution. It isn’t in understanding each other. It isn’t going to be found in empathy (or sympathy). The solution exists in the text of the Constitution of the United States of America, which clearly lays out what the federal government can do. If it isn’t mentioned, it’s a state problem. Our differences cannot be “solved,” but they can be attenuated by properly removing many of them entirely from the federal purview. Yes, differences exist even at the state level, but in the U.S. we are all free to live where we choose. The genius of our Republic as originally designed is that the states are free to be different outside of the limited national Constitution. The solution to our differences is to simply mind our own business. If we continue to try and rule each other through Washington, the bubbles are all going to burst.
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.