I gave a talk about OtherWise to a business group. The very first question after my presentation set me back on my heels: "You make a good case for developing more empathy," my questioner asked. "But what institutional changes would you recommend to accomplish that?"
I tap-danced around the question and said something like, "Sadly, there is no institutional solution. We have to work at the individual level to change our institutions." Out of politeness, my questioner let it go at that.
But I've been thinking about his question ever since. Then I realized the answer was on the front page of every newspaper, led the evening news, and dominated the blogosphere.
The Great Government Shutdown is the product of an empathy gap that in turn results from gerrymandering.
Let me explain.
Political scientists have long noted that gerrymandering has created politically "safe" districts where elected officials don't have to worry about voters of the other party.
Of course, both parties try to design congressional districts to favor the election of their candidates. Unfortunately, that has resulted in the kind of polarization that led to the political gridlock we're now experiencing.
In North Carolina, for example, when the 1990 census gave the state an additional congressional representative, the Democratic-controlled state legislature drew up a new district that was primarily African-American. It was an ungainly, skinny thing hugging a major highway that sprawled across the state, but it has reliably voted Democrat ever since.
When the Republicans regained control of the North Carolina legislature, they used the 2010 census as an excuse to redraw congressional districts. They shifted the boundaries of the reliably Democratic 13th congressional district to decrease its black population by 39%. A Republican took over the seat in 2013.
"So what?" you say. That's the way the game has always been played. That's true. But these days the result is not only to make districts "safe" for one party or another. It also makes the districts themselves more homogenous.
For example, it wasn't only the 13th district's racial composition that changed when it was redistricted. Median incomes also increased by 42%, making it the richest congressional district in the state.
That means whoever is running for Congress in the 13th district can safely ignore its poorest voters. Worse, by concentrating on the richest voters, they risk losing their sense of empathy for the poorest.
Researchers have shown that wealth and status reduce empathy. People of higher socioeconomic status are more likely to feel they’ve earned their high place in society, and can't understand why everyone else can't.
This situation repeats itself in nearly every "safe" district. With one important difference: "safe" Republican districts tend to be economically better off than other districts in the same state.
That may explain why some Republicans want to cut the food stamp program and defund the Affordable Care Act. For example, voters in the 12th district are only about half as likely to have health insurance as those in the 13th. And they're almost twice as likely to receive food stamps.
See for yourself. You can find economic and demographic data on every Congressional district here.
So on second thought, I should have answered the question about institutional change differently. There is something we can do: elect state legislators who will ensure that Congressional Districts are truly heterogenous, with different incomes, educational levels, and political leanings. It's the only way to close the empathy gap and to put Congress to work for all voters.