The missing empathy in our politics

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Something remarkable happened the night Vice President Joe Biden appeared on Stephen Colbert’s new Late Show during its first week on the air. A national political figure, one often mentioned as a presidential candidate, spoke like someone you knew. He opened his heart and let us see inside.

Biden did so not as part of a campaign, or as an attempt to “seem more real,” or even with a discernible motive. In fact, the vice president may not run for president at all. But in that moment, Biden fulfilled two of America’s most dire needs: honesty and empathy.

Vice President Biden spoke openly of his family’s grief over the death of his son Beau, an active-duty Army reservist and former attorney general of Delaware. Many had seen the younger Biden as a future candidate for higher office in Delaware. But that wasn’t part of the conversation at all. Joe Biden simply told Colbert what
Beau meant to him in darkest times.

Most of the talk included these two men conferring, almost privately, on the meaning of loss. Biden, who lost his wife and daughter in a car accident early in his career, of course most recently lost his adult son to cancer. Colbert lost his father and brothers in a plane crash as a young boy. These are not bright, cheery memories, to be sure, but to hear their response to these traumas was inspirational — not bitter, not hopeless.

Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Hibbing Community College on Oct. 23, 2014. (Aaron J. Brown)

Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Hibbing Community College on Oct. 23, 2014. (Aaron J. Brown)

“I marvel at the ability of people to absorb hurt and just get back up, and most of them do it with an incredible sense of empathy to other people,” said Biden. “I mean, it’s interesting, the people I find who I’m most drawn to are people who have been hurt.”
Biden’s response to the question of whether he’ll run was less significant for its answer (it seems, right now, he is leaning against it) but for its logic:

He said, “I don’t think any man or woman should run for president, unless number one they know exactly why they would want to be president and two they can look at the folks out there and say, ‘I promise you you have my whole heart, my whole soul, my energy and my passion to do this.”’ And I’d be lying if I said I knew I was there.”

I have no idea whom I plan to support for president next year. These endless campaigns are maddening and unhealthy. It seems reasonably that we should select a candidate who reflects a solid future for all Americans, whose policies are, to the voter in question, wise. Most of all, we look for the candidate who is running for the benefit of others, not himself or herself.

Honest people will disagree about who that should be. After all, “honest” does not mean “says only things with which I agree.” Nevertheless, people of any party, of any belief, of any age, should beware voting for fear-mongers, or out of fear for the future. And I fail to see what spiritual benefit comes from scorn for those with which we disagree or for whom we do not understand.

Democracy is messy, and a republic is hard to keep. Both require work, love, hope and patience, both in developing policies and with each other. Lacking these qualities we fall to tyrants — neither in war, nor in a rebellion, but because we surrender ourselves to fear and contempt. As a famous Hibbing High School graduate once said, “And the first one now will later be last, for the times they are a-changin.’”

Times have always changed. Time is change. The only thing we really control is our reaction to change.

As to these earthy concerns, our politics are not reflections of what we want, but what we are willing to tolerate. If you don’t like what you see in the presidential race or any other political contest, look elsewhere. Better yet, do something good yourself. The opportunities for that are limitless. At minimum, love thy neighbor. Presidents come and go, but such truth does not.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. Well said.
    Dennis Anderson would sign off his broadcasts saying, “Goodnight everybody and be kind”.

  2. Rachel Brandt says

    “Democracy is messy. Republic is hard to keep.” If only we could meet half-way…we would see the ability to re-build our nation. This was touching and anyone who has lost can relate, regardless of political affiliation. Thank you, Aaron, for your thoughts. I am the surviving sibling of four. By age thirty three, I had lost my brother, sister, and a twin. I coin it as “left to pursue” versus “left behind” and the understanding of sensitivity to loss…I am not sure if we have grasped the ability to empathize, yet understand, as a nation. Wait…we have not. Vice President Biden voices for those who have lost. It is a deep hole that has channels. The channels do not always come up to the surface, but they circle around. A few allow for air.

  3. Biden being a consummate politician, he inherently cannot display sincere honesty and empathy…but only what he thinks you want to see him as.

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