Empathy is a Keyword in This Year’s Election, But What Does It Mean Exactly?

Dr. Jill Biden speaking at the DNC, Photo courtesy of chicagotribune.com Belatina, latinx
Dr. Jill Biden speaking at the DNC, Photo courtesy of chicagotribune.com

As with any election year, you’ll hear many different buzz words and key phrases relating to voting issues throughout the campaign trail during debates, conventions, political ads, and on the news. 

That said, in most election years, those buzz words are more related to policies, candidate stances on various issues, and current events that will undoubtedly be impacted by the election outcome and elected administration. 

In 2016 specifically, the Pew Research Center reported that voters’ top issues when deciding who to vote for included the economy, terrorism, foreign policy, health care, and gun violence. 

While many of those issues were important then and are still important now, a lot has changed. This year one of the most important words you’ll hear about as you prepare to cast your ballot is empathy. But what exactly does that mean?


It’s no secret that 2020 has been a year of suffering for so many across the nation and around the world. This year hurts. And the person we vote for in November is the person we’re putting in charge of easing that pain and fixing those problems. No pressure. 

Because of the gravity of this election and the country’s current state, one of the most common keywords we hear on the road to the White House is empathy. Most notably, the claims that President Trump lacks empathy and Democratic nominee Joe Biden is the empathetic leader we need to restore decency in America. 

It seems that this year, on top of the many crucial issues we’ll be voting on from immigration to the global pandemic to national security, the economy, and racial injustice we’ll also be asked to vote based on a person’s ability to understand the feelings of another. 

Sure, it might seem like empathy would be a noticeable character trait for anyone running for office or running for any leadership position, for that matter. But as many of us have learned in the past four years, empathy is not a guarantee from our president, and compassion might just be what this country needs to repair all that is broken in our nation.

What Exactly is Empathy?

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

However, it seems this skill goes beyond just understanding other people. 

“Empathy is the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another person, animal, or fictional character,” according to Psychology Today. And that ability to relate to others and respect others’ perspectives is essential. 

“Developing empathy is crucial for establishing relationships and behaving compassionately. It involves experiencing another person’s point of view, rather than just one’s own, and enables prosocial, or helping behaviors that come from within, rather than being forced.”

It’s important to note that empathy is not the same thing as sympathy. Although many people use those terms interchangeably or falsely assume they are the same. 

Sympathy is feeling concerned for someone else and hoping that they become happier. Empathy is more than just concern; it involves sharing another person’s emotions and having compassion for how they feel and what they are going through, which often leads to a desire to act on their behalf.

Simply put, empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, see their perspective, feel their pain, and consider their feelings. And while it may seem as if empathy is strictly a social-emotional skill one many of us learned during our formative years growing up and in school it’s so much more than that, especially for a world leader.

It became increasingly evident at the Democratic National Convention that empathy and politics are not separate concepts or unrelated terms. They are not only deeply intertwined but also must coexist for all elected officials, from the president to local leaders, to effectively lead.

Empathy is the Most Important Leadership Skill

Several personality traits are essential for an individual to be an effective, inspirational, and successful leader. Organization, confidence, commitment, accountability, empowerment, and integrity are all important, of course. But according to experts, empathy is as important as those other qualities, if not the most essential leadership skill. And this applies to both the workplace and the political realm.

In his column for Entrepreneur, Leadership Keynote Speaker and CEO Coach Krister Ungerboeck argues that empathy has never been needed more by influential and powerful leaders. If the hardships and frightening reality of 2020 have taught us anything, it’s that we need leaders with empathy. 

“Teams led by people who possess high emotional intelligence tend to work hard and persevere through rough patches. They also develop deeper bonds of trust, which are essential when employment statuses seem all too fragile,” he explains. 

Although Ungerboeck refers to the working world, where empathetic leaders are essential in helping guide others through these difficult times, the assessment also works for our argument. 

In more broad terms, ranging from business to politics and everything in between, empathy is an essential tool to ensure leaders are actually as impactful and effective as they want to be. 

Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Prudy Gourguechon explains, “empathy enables you to know if the people you’re trying to reach are actually reached.” 

She adds empathy is as much about building a leadership strategy as it is about building connections. Empathy “allows you to predict the effect your decisions and actions will have on core audiences and strategize accordingly. Without empathy, you can’t build a team or nurture a new generation of leaders. You will not inspire followers or elicit loyalty,” she tells Forbes.com

Once upon a time, empathy may have been seen as a sign of weakness, a personality trait that shows vulnerability or an indication you are soft or a quality that would hinder your ability to lead. But the exact opposite is true, experts argue.

Just consider what a difference empathy can make in our country’s leadership. An empathetic leader would not look at the growing number of COVID-19-related deaths and say with a stone-cold stare, “it is what it is.” A compassionate leader would not spout racist remarks, calling COVID-19 “the China virus,” despite being told how harmful that misnomer may be. 

A person with empathy would not mock others because of their disability and would not tear families apart at the border or send children to detention centers. A leader with empathy would not spend most of the time during a coronavirus task force briefing focusing on self-praise and blaming others while dedicating very little time to expressing condolences for victims of the virus. (Trump spent 45 minutes praising his administration and himself, and two hours attacking others, while he only spent 4 and 1/2 minutes out of the total 13 hours expressing condolences, according to a Washington Post review.)

The Focus Is On Empathy as We Gear Up for Election Day 2020

One of Joe Biden’s key strategies on the campaign trail is to play up the empathy card, clearly showcasing his ability to relate to others and understand their struggles as the result of his own experiences, both personal and professional. 

From the loss of his wife and daughter to the more recent loss of his son and even his own father’s struggles to find work several decades ago Biden has made one thing very clear: he understands where Americans are coming from, and he plans to represent all Americans if elected.

“While I’ll be a Democratic candidate, I’ll be an American president,” he said. “I’ll work hard for those who didn’t support me, as hard for them as I did for those who did vote for me. That’s the job of a president — to represent all of us, not just our base or our party. This is not a partisan moment; this must be an American moment.”

And Vice-Presidential nominee Kamala Harris echoed those sentiments in her acceptance speech:

“[My mother] pushed us to see a world beyond ourselves. She taught us to be conscious and compassionate about the struggles of all people. To believe public service is a noble cause and the fight for justice is a shared responsibility.” 

She continued to say that she accepts the nomination for Vice President of the United States of America with a commitment to serve “a country where we may not agree on every detail, but we are united by the fundamental belief that every human being is of infinite worth, deserving of compassion, dignity, and respect.”

They are both clearly focusing heavily on their ability to not only possess and practice empathy as world leaders but also the dire need for a President who will be able to practice empathy and unite the nation during a year of unthinkable loss of lives and livelihoods. 

Only time will tell just how much Americans will actually vote with empathy in mind and how important empathy will be in selecting the next leader of our country. But one thing is for sure: decency, compassion, and caring about others is most definitely on the ballot this year.