Empathy and social media

When it comes to people who support the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party in the U.S., there are certain things you never expect them to say. Things like “That Barack Obama really isn’t such a bad guy,” or “You know, up in Canada, they have a Jim-Dandy health care system.” But something like that happened to me earlier this summer. Back in May, I was having lunch with a friend of mine in Washington D.C. He’s a lobbyist for Tea Party-related causes on the Hill, and despite our political differences, he and I have developed a lot of respect for each other over the past 15 years or so. We were having lunch at The Hamilton when my friend said: “You know what? The Republicans have to give up on socially conservative issues like gay marriage. The culture wars are over. We lost. It’s time to move on.”

Even though my friend is quite a bit younger than me, he’s always been a bit to the right of me, politically. Actually, he’s more like a very small, very well-dressed dot on the horizon to the right of me. When I pressed him a bit further, he just shrugged and said: “I have lots of gay friends. If they want to get married, that’s fine. The real issue for me is bringing fiscal responsibility to government and that’s what we Republicans need to focus on.”

Now, back in May, I thought maybe my friend was what statisticians call an “outlier.” In other words, I thought maybe his views were unusual for a politically conservative young person. Two things proved otherwise. First, I found out that according to a Pew Study, even though Republicans are 60 percent opposed to same-sex marriage as a group, 60 percent of Republicans under the age of 29 support it. That means that young conservatives are almost as likely to support same-sex marriage as the average Democrat.

The second thing that proved my friend’s attitudes were no fluke was what happened to the U.S. this July.

In the space of just a couple of weeks, Obamacare survived a challenge in the Supreme Court, that same court delivered a verdict in favour of same sex marriage and, following a mass murder in a black church by a white supremacist, State capitols began taking down the Rebel flag – long associated with racism in the U.S. And then there was Bruce Jenner, who went from being the guy on the Wheaties box to the woman on the cover of Vanity Fair.

As I said to a friend: “At the beginning of July I was wondering if Hillary Clinton was too liberal for American voters. Two weeks later, and I’m wondering if she’s liberal enough.”

A new landscape

A few elections ago, if you didn’t hold socially conservative viewpoints as a candidate – or at least fudge the details on your liberal beliefs a bit – there was no way to be elected President. Now, you have to wonder if any Republican can actually win the Presidency. To win in the primaries, Republican candidates have to say things the “base” of the GOP wants to hear. But those same positions don’t sit well with people outside the party and, indeed, even with many inside the party. So, to quote my friend James Bullbrook: “The strategy that lets you win the nomination is what will cost you the Presidency.”

Maybe that’s why characters like Ted Cruz, Rick Perry and Donald Trump are running for the GOP nomination. None of them has a hope of winning the presidency – but all of them could follow Sarah Palin’s lead and land lucrative conservative pundit contracts when they fail.

So what happened? How did America go from being socially conservative to socially progressive in the blink of an eye?

I have a theory about that. It’s because of social media.

Back in the early days of the Internet, people used to talk about how the “World Wide Web” would bring people together and break down barriers. It didn’t take long before online bullying and trolling became so commonplace, people forgot those earlier, more optimistic hopes for the Web.

In the years that followed, though, the growth of social media has changed the landscape a bit. People often say that social media is a source of stress, but new research from Pew suggests the opposite is true. According to the study, “compared with non-social media users and those who are not as active on Facebook, [a person on Facebook] likely has more close friends; has more trust in people; feels more supported; and is more politically involved.”

Hard to avoid

Think about rural, conservative communities, for example. In the past, people in small towns weren’t likely to meet someone politically, religiously or sexually that different from themselves. Or, where those kinds of differences existed, social pressure kept them under wraps. If you wanted to meet people who were different from you, you had to go to university in the big city.

Nowadays, though, even if you’re from the most back-woods, bible-thumpingest, white-bread town in the swamps of Louisiana, you might have gay or Muslim or liberal friends in your Facebook social circles. You get to see what their day-to-day lives are like. You get to experience their joys and sadness. And slowly but surely, instead of focusing on the ways you’re different from each other, you begin to see the ways you’re similar.

For a plugged-in generation of millennials, social networking means you can’t avoid the people or ideas or issues you find unpleasant. They’re everywhere. And whether you’re a liberal who cringes every time old Uncle Joe posts a rant about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket, or a conservative who has to find a way to deal with a friend who has always been a Christian but has come out as gay – social media is making “differences” hard to avoid. And while older people may be clinging to their social views, young people aren’t. Conservatives in the U.S., like my friend, are going back to basics – back to fiscal conservatism and away from social conservatism.

Of course there will always be trolls and curmudgeons and people who will pick fights with others on social media (we’re looking at you, Drake, Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift). But there’s something bigger brewing on social media these days than celebrity cat-fights or Kim Kardashian’s rear-end.

It’s empathy. All the cool kids are doing it. And it’s starting to change the way we see each other in a big way.


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