Aspen Ideas Festival: Is empathy the fuel of democracy? And, politics without politicians?

NBC's Joshua Johnson, the former host of NPR's 1A, spoke with Sherry Turkle, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, at the 2021 Aspen Ideas Festival.
The Aspen Institute

In a speech on Memorial Day, President Joe Biden called on Americans to take action to defend our democracy.

But he urged a different kind of action than writing our representatives, marching or voting. Instead, he asked us to do something far more personal: empathize with one another.

“Democracy begins and grows in the open heart and the impetus to come together for a common cause,” Biden said. “For empathy is the fuel of democracy.”

What exactly does that mean? And do we have enough empathy left to protect liberty and move toward equity in America?

At the Aspen Ideas Festival in July, NBC's Joshua Johnson discussed that with Sherry Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT and founding director of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self.

Turkle said empathy goes beyond feeling what someone else is feeling: “It’s not just putting yourself in the place of another. It’s putting yourself in the problem of another … then making a commitment to be there for that other person.”

“Not liking what you hear, but being able to listen to other points of view and just trying to imagine how people got to that point of view, is a discipline that is worth developing,” Turkle said.

“You have to practice being a citizen by practicing this personal quality,” Turkle explained, because “in a democracy, it really is the beginning of respect.”

And without that baseline of respect, people can’t live freely and equally. We need empathy in order to respect each others’ votes, “respect people as human beings, understand where different people are coming from and allow people to live according to the rules of this country,” Turkle said.

Turkle emphasized that this is an especially important moment in history for all of us to cultivate empathy.

“We are at war with those who would not respect the most basic things about other people,” Turkle said.


Another session at the 2021 Aspen Ideas Festival also explored the challenges facing U.S. democracy today — and came with a radical proposal for a solution.

Hélène Landemore is a professor of political science at Yale University. She told Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, that something is clearly broken in modern Western democracies, including the American system.

Lawmakers have struggled to respond to major crises like the 2008 financial crash, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. Populist movements like the tea party and Black Lives Matter have raged against the status quo. And public approval of Congress has remained stubbornly low, averaging around 21 percent since 2005, according to Gallup.

In this moment, “Our self-doubt is enormous, and we are finally willing to face up to the fact that our system is flawed, fundamentally flawed,” Landemore said.

The root problem, as Landemore sees it, is a “crisis of representation.”

Elections put into power “a group of highly unrepresentative people from very homogenous socioeconomic classes” with “cognitive blind spots” when it comes to the problems of ordinary people, Landemore explained.

“People don’t feel that their governments stand for them, act for them, represent them in any meaningful sense,” Landemore said. “The solution is then to rethink democracy and the way we select our representatives.”

What exactly is Landemore’s proposed solution? It almost sounds like an offhand joke at first: Get rid of the politicians entirely.

And who would Landemore install in their place? Everyday people. You and I.

“In order to have a smart assembly, you’re better off with a diverse group of ordinary people,” Landemore said.

“We should respect the common sense of ordinary citizens,” she argued. Not only is the quality of that common sense borne out by theoretical and empirical evidence, but respecting the opinion of your fellow citizens is “a fundamental principle of equality.”

In the purest form of Landemore’s model, elected legislative bodies would be replaced by “a parliament made up of about 500 randomly selected citizens … rotated every two or three years.”

“It’s not revolutionary at all. It’s common sense, it’s very practicable, it’s not that costly,” Landemore said.

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