Empathy Bridges and Empathy Walls


February 24, 2017 by Jean

Strangers In Their Own LandWhen I was formulating a way to move forward after the November election (see Moving Forward), one of the tasks I set myself was to develop more empathy for white working-class Americans who voted for President Trump. I began by trying to find out what had happened in recent years to the two working-class Milwaukee families that Bill Moyers had followed through the ‘90s in his film Surviving the Good Times (a film I had often used in classes during my teaching years). I discovered that Moyers had done several follow-up films with these families, including one in 2012 called Two American Families, which I borrowed from the public library and watched. It was particularly eye-opening because it showed not only that the parents in these families had fallen out of middle-class lifestyles but that most of their children (who had grown up during the twenty-two years that Moyers followed the families) were struggling economically.

In the process of learning what had happened to Moyers’s Milwaukee families, I came upon a video of an interview Moyers had done with two women who had written books about the downward mobility of working class families, especially in the aftermath of the Great Recession. I read one of those books, Barbara Garson’s Down the Up Escalator: How the 99 Percent Live in the Great Recession. I also started working my way through a list of books recommended by the New York Times shortly after the election ( “Six Books to Help Understand Trump’s Win”).

Recently, I have been reading one of the books on the New York Times list, Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land (The New Press, 2016), which was this month’s selection for my retirees’ lunch group. I was eager to read and discuss this book. Hochschild is, like me, a sociologist, and I have long admired her work. Even better, her explicit project in this book is to build “empathy bridges” across the growing political chasm in our country. Hochschild spent five years studying and trying to get a deep understanding of the lives and worldviews of people whose politics are very different from her own, Tea Party conservatives in Louisiana. Her entry point into this project of developing empathy was an issue that I care passionately about, the environment. She wanted to understand why people who lived in one of the most polluted areas of the country, many of whom had been personally harmed by local environmental disasters, were opposed to environmental regulation.

I found Hochshild’s analysis very enlightening. She is one of the founders of the field of Sociology of Emotions, and her focus is on the emotional responses and the emotional logic of the people she is studying. She is particularly interested in uncovering what she calls the “deep story,” a not-necessarily-conscious worldview and set of assumptions that makes sense of those emotions. The deep story of her research subjects is that they are hard-working people who believe in the American Dream and who have been “in line” working toward that dream their whole lives. But other people have been unfairly cutting the line without doing all that patient hard work, with the result that the hard-working strivers find themselves pushed further and further away from achieving their dreams.

When I read Hochschild’s account of the “deep story,” I had an ah-ha! reaction; this fit what I had been seeing on social media from several of my conservative high school classmates. I also found Hochschild’s analysis of how those on the left and right define social problems and appropriate solutions for those problems very powerful. For those on the left (like me), the essential divide in our society is between the rich and the poor (think the 1% and the 99%), this problem is caused by the greed of fat cats in the private sector, and the solution is government regulation and redistribution. For those on the right, the essential divide is between the makers (hard-working producers and job creators) and the takers (those who think they’re entitled to a hand-out), this problem is caused by government regulations and programs that encourage a sense of entitlement (and that help people to “cut in line” – e.g., affirmative action), and the solution is less government and an empowered and unfettered private sector.

Although this book helped me to understand the point of view of those across the political chasm, I was left with the question of whether mutual understanding will provide a bridge on which we can come together and find common ground. Throughout the book, Hochschild noted the barriers to such commonality, what she called “empathy walls.” She expressed surprise about how high these walls are and how difficult to climb over. I think the problem here is that “deep stories” are culture-like. We don’t experience our culture as “this is the way we do things here” or “this is the way we see the world here.” We experience culture as the natural and right way to do things and to see the world. So even as we may understand the “deep story” that motivates others’ political views and political choices, we may also remain convinced that deep story is fundamentally wrong, that our own very different deep story is the right one.

Does this mean that the project of empathy is doomed to failure? I don’t think so. Even if we can’t reach agreement on problems and their solutions, we can reach a point of respect and some degree of mutual trust that would reduce demonization and name-calling and restore some civility to our political discussions. And that would be a step in the right direction.


13 thoughts on “Empathy Bridges and Empathy Walls

  1. Karen Donaldson says:


    Thank you for this post. In fact, I appreciate all of your writing but this one especially speaks to my struggle to understand the current political climate and those, including family members, who voted for Trump. I thought I would like to share this with my Facebook friends, many of whom are classmates from boarding school 45 years ago. We are like-minded and share the same concerns while seeking to understand what feels entirely alien. I noticed there are no share icons and would like to get your permission before sharing. I joined your list from the Elder Orphans FB page.

    Thanks again, Karen Donaldson

    • Jean says:

      Karen, Please feel free to share any of my posts. There should be icons at the bottom of the post to share on WordPress, Twitter or Facebook. I’m editing your comment to remove your email address to protect your privacy.

  2. Jean R says:

    I sure hope you are right about your conclusions in the last paragraph. I don’t see any signs of that actually happening, though, on the political websites where I debate Right vs Left issues. The divisions are deep, the name-calling is disgraceful.

    • Jean says:

      Jean, I’m an eternal optimist, but I don’t think the hope I expressed in the last paragraph will be realized without a lot of work. Empathy doesn’t happen unless people are willing to step outside their assumptions and move away from a position of smug superiority. Like you, I don’t see much of that happening right now (although I am encouraged by the fact that Hochschild’s book is a bestseller and that there were 40 people waiting in line for it when I returned it to the library).

  3. Donna Donabella says:

    Fascinating Jean…and helpful…I have a similar wish and hope!

  4. Sue Tibs says:


    I love your post. Kind, measured, balanced, and honest. I offer the following additions in the same spirit. Just a few extra thoughts from my own experience.

    I identify more with the blue-collar voters and “law and order” principles. I am the first woman in my family to graduate from high school. I have two Master’s Degrees. I socialize with people of significant means. But that’s not my culture.

    And so, it might make sense that I would add…

    For empathetic dialogue to begin, there are some preconditions. We know that, of course. We know that when one “side” (left or right) opens-up despite their fear, the other “side” (right or left) must not attack. In our country right now, there is hurt all over. What many people do not recognize, however, is there was significant hurt in 2012, too.

    In my opinion, that explains why — years ago — many Trump voters silently withdrew from political conversation for fear of being labeled with terribly hurtful language. Not just on TV, no it was everywhere, even our places of work. These silent people voted in 2016. And most remain silent.

    My reply is offered in a spirit of empathetic dialogue. It’s one woman’s modest perspective on the topic of your post.


    • Jean says:

      Sue, Thanks for sharing your valuable insights — and for that basic principle in building empathy bridges: “When one ‘side’ … opens up despite their fear, the other ‘side’ …must not attack.”

  5. Donna says:

    Jean, I read your blog but have not replied before. This post spoke to me at just the right time and I appreciate your analysis and that you are doing the hard work of studying and working to understand the great divide between us. I was most enlightened by the discussion of deep story and how we on the Left see the divide along the 1% – 99% lines and other see it between the “in line” and “cutting in line” frustrations. For the first time I have something I can truly understand and have empathy. Thanks!

    • Jean says:

      Donna, Thanks for leaving this comment. Arlie Hochschild deserves the credit for this insightful analysis; all I’ve done is repeat what she said. But I had the same reaction as you when I read about the “deep story”: “Oh, now I get it!”

  6. Diana Studer says:

    and for me – how could they vote for that awful man?!
    A little understanding dawns.

    • Jean says:

      Diana, I’ve been working at trying to separate my evaluation of our president from my attempts to understand those who support him.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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