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By Keri Day
The Republican Party is in desperate need of a “democratic” makeover. Growing up in Springfield, Illinois, I was socialized to embrace the ideological viewpoints of social conservatism. In fact, by the time I was in high school, I could easily debate liberal proponents of “big government,” citing reasons why a list of “entitlement” programs were deleterious to the health of a nation and to the free-market values of personal responsibility, hard work and individual merit. However, I was introduced to different experiences and places.
I traveled to inner cities and became more informed about how exploitative, morally suspect systems perpetuate cycles of poverty and social pathology for deprived communities. I picked up the first book that would change my life, Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, in which he uncovers how the educational system continues to fail minority children who often are left behind due to the failures of academic leaders, policies and practices. I went to college and experienced different worlds from the one I grew up in, which pushed me beyond my myopic, parochial perspectives on issues we all most deeply care about such as the ability to make a living and the capability to thrive and flourish economically and socially. This was a decade ago. I learned the importance of opening myself up to the cultural diversity that is present within our nation so that I can more effectively lead the communities I have been sent to serve. This journey was essential to my own “coming of age” as a feminist who takes seriously the democratic vitalities that are needed to make fulfillment and flourishing a possibility for all people within our country.
I am amazed that during this time of great economic crisis and upheaval, the Republican Party has yet to grasp the importance of seriously engaging cultural and social diversity as they debate political and policy strategies. As I watched the first Republican debate, I could not help but notice the absence of ideological viewpoints that take seriously issues that deeply affect and impact vulnerable communities. Instead, these candidates articulated policy strategies that adversely affect the vulnerable, especially women and children. For instance, Tea Party candidate Michelle Bachmann ironically argued that the lowering of corporate taxes should be a central policy goal in order to reinvigorate the economy and promote job creation. However, Bachmann fails to mention that 49 percent of corporations are guilty of tax evasion. This year alone, USA Today provided a look at secret dealings that cost the United States $100 billion in annual tax revenue. Bachmann and other conservative leaders tacitly refuse to address corporate tax evasion, which could help bring in the revenue needed to effectively deal with our astronomical debt. Instead, they choose to attack public policies (such as Medicare, Medicaid and education) that make or break the lives of disadvantaged communities. Whose interests are really being served when such detrimental policies are promoted and celebrated? Bachmann’s logic not only points to a lack of priorities in ensuring a fair chance for less advantaged populations. Such political viewpoints prove that the Republican Party itself needs a “democratic” makeover in order to integrate the real needs of the dispossessed and most vulnerable populations of our society, being women, children, and the elderly.
These anti-democratic sensibilities also hold true for a range of other issues. I was taken aback by Newt Gingrich’s rash statement when he overtly equated Muslims to Nazis. He embarrassingly (to me at least) talked about the dangers of Islamic leadership in presidential administrations by turning to the ways in which Nazism infiltrated German government during the twentieth century. I couldn’t help but ache for our fellow Muslim brothers and sisters who love and serve this country just like other citizens of different religious persuasions such as Christians. I was equally disappointed when Herman Cain also disclosed his discomfort with the notion of Muslims serving in his administration should he be elected President, stating that he was not interested in allowing “those people” to serve with us when “they want to kill us.” Although Cain is an African-American candidate, he certainly remains a marginal voice as many minority voices continue to castigate such xenophobic logic.
However, a more specific concern sat with me as I watched this debate. I was taken aback by the complete lack of empathy these candidates exuded. As a feminist/womanist ideal, social empathy is not just an optional sentiment a society may possess. Social empathy is a virtue that must be cultivated by society if its members are to exercise authentic concern in ways that speak to who we are as a human community whose sense of flourishing is inextricably bound by mutual understanding and care. Social empathy is the ability to hear each other but not on our own terms. Rather, it is being willing, open, and courageous enough to hear “the other” on their terms, even if those terms sound foreign and strange to us. Social empathy is about hearing and also being willing to “step into the shoes” of another that is different from who you are. And this feminist/womanist practice is not possible without listening to the yearnings and longings of countless women, children and elderly who often receive the short end of the proverbial stick. I long for a national community that will truly embrace the practice of empathy. As a religious thinker, I also believe that social empathy touches the deepest parts of what makes us human. What makes us human is our ability to touch and understand our neighbor in ways that shed light on who we are as human beings. This practice of empathy is desperately needed today and this debate unfortunately did not reinforce the deep discernment we need in cultivating this practice as a nation in crisis.
For me, social empathy is a prerequisite to nation building and does facilitate the “feminization” of public policy, policy that not only takes seriously the many issues that continue to affect women and their children but also takes seriously a way of thinking and leading that is open to the real experiences of the “other” who might be different from us. Indeed, social empathy opens up possibilities for a true “democratic” makeover. And this is precisely what the Republican Party needs. This is what we all need.
Keri Day is an Assistant Professor of Social Ethics at Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University. She received her B.S. in Political Science with a minor in Economics. She earned an M.A. in Religion and Ethics from Yale University Divinity School and received her Ph.D. in Religion from Vanderbilt University (with a graduate certificate in Women’s Studies). Her works sits at the intersections of religion, feminist studies, critical social theory, and poverty.