What is most important to me? Simply, it is people. Of course, my family and friends are very important to me. I know them and appreciate them for who they are and their important role in my life. But I value people beyond those I know personally. It is my job to love every person. That is not an easy job. But it is an important job.
What does it mean to love every person? First, it means understanding that every person, really means every person. It includes people who have personally hurt me. It includes people who have committed heinous acts. Second, it means understanding what love is. Love has so many meanings. It certainly means appreciating and enjoying good things. We love our favorite foods. We love some people because they bring us joy. It is easy to demonstrate our love for them because we can show them our appreciation and care for them joyfully. It is not easy to love people whose actions hurt us. It is not easy to love people whose behaviors are abhorrent. But that is still my job.
What does any of this have to do with politics? The political realm – the conversations and decisions that impact public life – touches every part of us. The famous expression is that the personal is political. I would argue that the goal of government is to come together as a group of people to take care of each other. Governments are practical and so is love. There are governments that have a very narrow view of care. The king cares for his subjects but there are many costs to that care. In a representative democracy, government of, by, and for the people can provide care in a practical and nurturing way as well as empower people with opportunities.
Governing and loving are not usually considered similar acts. Yet governance is a form of service. One of the ways of loving is to serve others. Love is also about behaviors and not solely about emotions. We need to recover that definition and use it more.
How can we act in ways that are loving in the political realm? There are two ways.
- We need to apply our empathy to every person. We need to see each person as deserving of care no matter what they have done. This is incredibly hard. I want to provide examples that showcase that this is not easy for any political orientation. If you are a liberal-minded person who adopts the label of pro-choice, it is not easy to be gentle with people who are against abortion. Many of those opposed to abortion confine themselves to advocating for policy changes. They can be easier love. Some of them burn down clinics and shoot doctors who perform abortions. Those people are not easy to love. What does loving those people even look like? For conservative-minded people who adopt the label of pro-life, it is not easy to be gentle with people who are for abortion. Many of those for abortion confine themselves to advocating for policy changes. They can be easier to love. Many of them, however, are talking about how they have had abortions. Those people are not easy to love. What does loving those people even look like? For both groups the harder to love people are considered murderers. How do you love a murderer? There is no easy answer. Empathy is about understanding that we want to treat people kindly even when their behaviors are abhorrent to us because that kindness can prevent more atrocities. Empathy prevents us from becoming something we detest. Loving people, when it is especially hard to do so, means ensuring that we listen to them and their reasons. For example, we provide due process, ensure prisoners have safe conditions and prioritize rehabilitation over punishment. We love people because resentment and hate do not make us safer or healthier. Resentment and hatred are destructive, and do not make it easier to have a better tomorrow.
- We look for ways to change the systems that make it difficult for people to love each other. If loving each other means that we have deep empathy for individual behavior, then we must have systems that encourage people to make loving decisions. Changing a system which makes it difficult to love others to one that makes it easier to be gentle with each other helps us govern better. We have done this so many times, and we are never done. When President Roosevelt created Social Security, we made a system that made it easier to be gentle with part of our labor force. When President Nixon signed the Clean Air Act Extension of 1970 that made it easier for us to care for each other by taking care of our air quality. We create systems that reduce the burden on us individually. We share responsibility. That shared responsibility is a sign of love for each other. When organizations and individuals abdicate that responsibility, we need to remind them – gently and urgently – of their responsibility to themselves and to us. When we fix the system and make it easier for us to love each other, we all benefit.
Finally, when politicians use their platforms to advocate hating other people, when they call for systems designed to reduce our shared responsibilities, let’s gently and bravely remind them to govern with love. If they do not wish to do so, it is our job to respond with love. We can encourage them by working with them empathetically to identify what we can change together. We can also do this by choosing leaders who better reflect these goals. Even with those leaders who best reflect our sensibilities, we must support them and govern collectively.
What is the place of love in politics? Front and center. Loving each and every person is our primary shared responsibility.
Image: Creative Commons License from Venrun 8 Feb 2012