The Role of Sympathy and Trust in American Politics

Commentary Magazine | Published on

By Peter Wehner

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Barack Obama ran for office promising to heal the breach that divides Americans. It was at the core of his candidacy. What we have gotten instead is, according to polling data, the most polarizing president in our lifetime. Unable to defend his record or offer a compelling vision for the future, he and his allies have premised his re-election campaign on creating division among Americans based on class. His hope is to stoke the embers of resentment and envy, most especially among the middle class toward the wealthy. And he’s having some success at it.

According to a new Pew Research Center survey, about two-thirds of Americans now believe there are “strong conflicts” between rich and poor in the United States—an increase of about 50 percent from a 2009 survey. Not only have perceptions of class conflict grown more prevalent; so, too, has the belief that these disputes are intense. (An important caveat in the survey is that while we’ve seen a significant shift in public perceptions of class conflict in American life, they do not necessarily signal an increase in grievances toward the wealthy. Key attitudes toward the wealthy have remained largely unchanged.)

I mention all of this in the context of the importance of the bonds of affection that ultimately need to exist among citizens in a free country. In doing so, let’s stipulate that in an election year in particular, differences will be emphasized and rhetoric will get hot. And let’s grant, too, that everyone, on all sides, has contributed to our divisions. The issue is less that we have differences; what matters is the manner in which we express them and whether, at some point, we find our way back together again.

This topic is on my mind in part because of the publication of an excellent recent book, Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life, by Nicholas Phillipson. The book devotes a chapter to the influence Francis Hutcheson, a professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow University, played in Smith’s intellectual development. Among Hutcheson’s main philosophical opponents in the 18th century was Bernard Mandeville, a brilliant and witty satirist whose aim was to demolish the belief that sociable affections were based on benevolence. Mandeville believed the natural depravity of human beings led to an endless capacity for self-delusion and hypocrisy.

What bothered Hutcheson wasn’t simply what he viewed as the boundless cynicism of Mandeville; it was that, according to Phillipson, Mandeville’s words “posed a mortal threat to true moral philosophy by encouraging citizens to distrust their own and others’ motives, thus undermining those natural feelings of friendship and sociability on which trust, order and liberty depended.” Professor Hutcheson was determined to show that benevolently inclined societies were capable of a high degree of self-regulation and were therefore not in need of absolute monarchs. He wanted to develop a theory of sociability and virtue that would act as a counterweight to Mandevillian cynicism. And Smith himself would later emphasize the importance of government in fostering “the sociable dispositions of its subjects.” It’s not at all surprising, then, that Adam Smith’s first great work was not The Wealth of Nations but The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which made the case for sympathy as a foundation for human relationships. Politics plays a role in all this, which brings us to the here and now.

Set aside my own critique of Obama, which his supporters will undoubtedly consider to be unfair and selective. Most people would still agree, I think, that the president has a unique role in the life of our nation. He has a role, different than any other, when it comes to deepening rather than attenuating the bonds of trust among Americans. And the role government can play in fostering the sociable dispositions of its subjects is quite an interesting and important topic, to which far too little attention is paid.

This is admittedly a complicated area, as some of our greatest presidents pursued policies that caused deep divisions. President Lincoln is a particularly fascinating case study. He presided over a Civil War that led to the death of around 620,000 people in a nation of roughly 30 million. And yet, as the Lincoln biographer Ronald C. White, Jr. has said, his second inaugural address called the whole nation to account and offered a moral framework for peace and reconciliation. When passions were at their highest and the North was at its strongest, Lincoln held out a path for reunification instead of revenge.

I would simply suggest that Hutcheson and Smith were on to something important in what they sought to achieve. Even, and maybe especially, in the midst of an intense election, we need to keep in mind that liberty depends on some degree of sympathy and trust, sociability and attachment to those with whom we disagree. That charity is better than malice. That repeatedly accusing the opposition of putting party ahead of country isn’t helpful. And that our presidents must be especially careful to employ rhetoric that doesn’t cut too deeply or leave wounds that will be difficult to heal. Because when all is said and done, we are one people.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.