How the US election result could trigger a society of empathy

Charles Eisenstein

For those shocked by the election result, anger and blame may be convenient ways to make sense of it. But Charles Eisenstein, who predicted Trump’s victory, believes this time of uncertainty holds an opportunity for empathy to drive a new political story

Normal is coming unhinged. For the last eight years it has been possible for most people (at least in the relatively privileged classes) to believe that society is sound, that the system, though creaky, basically works, and that the progressive deterioration of everything from ecology to economy is a temporary deviation from the evolutionary imperative of progress.

A Clinton presidency would have offered four more years of that pretence. A woman president following a black president would have meant, to many, that things are getting better. It would have obscured the reality of continued neoliberal economics, imperial wars, and resource extraction behind a veil of faux-progressive feminism. Now that we have, in the words of my friend Kelly Brogan, rejected a wolf in sheep’s clothing in favour of a wolf in wolf’s clothing, that illusion will be impossible to maintain.

The wolf, Donald Trump (and I’m not sure he’d be offended by that moniker) will not provide the usual sugarcoating on the poison pills the policy elites have foisted on us for the last 40 years. The prison-industrial complex, the endless wars, the surveillance state, the pipelines, the nuclear weapons expansion were easier for liberals to swallow when they came with a dose, albeit grudging, of LGBTQ rights under an African American president.

We are exiting an old story that explained to us the way of the world and our place in it

I am willing to suspend my judgement of Trump and, very sceptically, hold the possibility that he will disrupt the elite policy consensus of free trade and military confrontation – major themes of his campaign. One might always hope for miracles. However, because he apparently lacks any robust political ideology of his own, it is more likely that he will fill his cabinet with neoconservative war hawks, Wall Street insiders, and corporate vampires, trampling the wellbeing of the working class whites who elected him while providing them their own sugar-coating of social conservatism.

The social and environmental horrors likely to be committed under President Trump are likely to incite massive civil disobedience and possibly disorder. For Clinton supporters, many of whom were halfhearted to begin with, the Trump administration could mark the end of their loyalty to our present institutions of government. For Trump supporters, the initial celebration will collide with gritty reality when Trump proves as unable or unwilling as his predecessors to challenge the entrenched systems that continually degrade their lives: global finance capital, the deep state, and their programming ideologies. Add to this the likelihood of a major economic crisis, and the public’s frayed loyalty to the existing system could snap.

Moving beyond blame at a time of uncertainty

We are entering a time of great uncertainty. Institutions so enduring as to seem identical to reality itself may lose their legitimacy and dissolve. It may seem that the world is falling apart. For many, that process started on election night, when Trump’s victory provoked incredulity, shock, even vertigo. “I can’t believe this is happening!”

At such moments, it is a normal response to find someone to blame, as if identifying fault could restore the lost normality, and to lash out in anger. Hate and blame are convenient ways of making meaning out of a bewildering situation. Anyone who disputes the blame narrative may receive more hostility than the opponents themselves, as in wartime when pacifists are more reviled than the enemy.

Racism and misogyny are devastatingly real in the US, but to blame bigotry and sexism for voters’ repudiation of the establishment is to deny the validity of their deep sense of betrayal and alienation. The vast majority of Trump voters were expressing extreme dissatisfaction with the system in the way most readily available to them.

Millions of Obama voters voted for Trump – six states who went for Obama twice, switched to Trump. Did they suddenly become racists in the last four years? The blame the racists (the fools, the yokels…) narrative generates a clear demarcation between good (us) and evil (them), but it does violence to the truth. It also obscures an important root of racism: anger displaced away from an oppressive system and its elites and on to other victims of that system.

Finally, the blame narrative employs the same dehumanisation of the other that is the essence of racism and the precondition for war. Such is the cost of preserving a dying story. That is one reason why outbursts of violence so often accompany a culture-defining story’s demise.

Entering a space between stories

The dissolution of the old order that is now officially in progress is going to intensify. That presents a tremendous opportunity and danger, because when normal falls apart the ensuing vacuum draws in formerly unthinkable ideas from the margins.

Unthinkable ideas range from rounding up the Muslims in concentration camps, to dismantling the military-industrial complex and closing down overseas military bases. They range from nationwide stop-and-frisk to replacing criminal punishment with restorative justice. Anything becomes possible with the collapse of dominant institutions. When the animating force behind these new ideas is hate or fear, all manner of fascistic and totalitarian nightmares can ensue, whether enacted by existing powers or those that arise in revolution against them.

That is why, as we enter a period of intensifying disorder, it is important to introduce a different kind of force to animate the structures that might appear after the old ones crumble. I would call it love if it weren’t for the risk of triggering your New Age bullshit detector, and besides, how does one practically bring love into the world in the realm of politics?

So let’s start with empathy. Politically, empathy is akin to solidarity, born of the understanding that we are all in this together. In what together? For starters, we are in the uncertainty together.

Empathy is akin to solidarity, born of the understanding that we are all in this together. We are in the uncertainty together

We are exiting an old story that explained to us the way of the world and our place in it. Some may cling to it all the more desperately as it dissolves, looking perhaps to Donald Trump to restore it, but their saviour has not the power to bring back the dead. Neither would Clinton have been able to preserve America as we’d known it for too much longer.

We as a society are entering a space between stories. Everything that had seemed so real, true, right, and permanent is coming into doubt. For a while, segments of society have remained insulated from this breakdown (whether by fortune, talent, or privilege), living in a bubble as the containing economic and ecological systems deteriorate. But not for much longer.

Not even the elites are immune to this doubt. They grasp at straws of past glories and obsolete strategies; they create hollow and unconvincing customs, wandering aimlessly from ‘doctrine’ to ‘doctrine’ – and they have no idea what to do. Their haplessness and half-heartedness was plain to see in this election, their disbelief in their own propaganda, their cynicism. When even the custodians of the story no longer believe the story, you know its days are numbered. It is a shell with no engine, running on habit and momentum.

Bringing empathy into political discourse

After various retrograde versions of a new story rise and fall and we enter a period of true unknowing, an authentic next story will emerge. What would it take for it to embody love, compassion, and interbeing? I see its lineaments in those marginal structures and practices that we call holistic, alternative, regenerative, and restorative. All of them source from empathy, the result of the compassionate inquiry: “What is it like to be you?”

It is time now to bring this question and the empathy it arouses into our political discourse as a new animating force. If you are appalled at the election outcome and feel the call of hate, perhaps try asking yourself, “What is it like to be a Trump supporter?” Ask it not with a patronising condescension, but for real, looking underneath the caricature of misogynist and bigot to find the real person.

An authentic next story will emerge. What would it take for it to embody love, compassion, and interbeing?

Even if the person you face is in fact a misogynist or bigot, ask, “Is this who they are, really?” Ask what confluence of circumstances, social, economic, and biographical, may have brought them there. You may still not know how to engage them, but at least you will not be on the warpath automatically. We hate what we fear, and we fear what we do not know. So let’s stop making our opponents invisible behind a caricature of evil.

We’ve got to stop acting out hate. I see no less of it in the liberal media than I do in the right-wing media. It is just better disguised, hiding beneath pseudo-psychological epithets and dehumanising ideological labels. Exercising it, we create more of it. What is beneath the hate? My acupuncturist Sarah Fields wrote to me, “Hate is just a bodyguard for grief. When people lose the hate, they are forced to deal with the pain beneath.”

I think the pain beneath is fundamentally the same pain that animates misogyny and racism.
Please stop thinking you are better than these people. We are all victims of the same world-dominating machine, suffering different mutations of the same wound of separation. Something hurts in there. We live in a civilisation that has robbed nearly all of us of deep community, intimate connection with nature, unconditional love, freedom to explore the kingdom of childhood, and so much more.

The acute trauma endured by the incarcerated, the abused, the raped, the trafficked, the starved, the murdered, and the dispossessed does not exempt the perpetrators. They feel it in mirror image, adding damage to their souls atop the damage that compels them to violence. Thus it is that suicide is the leading cause of death in the US military. Thus it is that addiction is rampant among the police. Thus it is that depression is epidemic in the upper middle class. We are all in this together.

Something hurts in there. Can you feel it? We are all in this together. One earth, one tribe, one people.

Confrontation without hate

We have entertained teachings like these long enough in our spiritual retreats, meditations, and prayers. Can we take them now into the political world and create an eye of compassion inside the political hate vortex? It is time to do it, time to up our game. It is time to stop feeding hate. Next time you post online, check your words to see if they smuggle in some form of hate: dehumanisation, snark, belittling, derision. Some invitation to ‘us versus them’. Notice how it feels kind of good to do that, like getting a fix. And notice what hurts underneath, and how it doesn’t feel good, not really. Maybe it’s time to stop.

Something hurts in there. Can you feel it? We are all in this together. One earth, one tribe, one people

This does not mean to withdraw from political conversation, but to rewrite its vocabulary. It is to speak hard truths with love. It is to offer acute political analysis that doesn’t carry the implicit message of “Aren’t those people horrible?”. Such analysis is rare. Usually, those evangelising compassion do not write about politics, and sometimes they veer into passivity.

We need to confront an unjust, ecocidal system. Each time we do we will receive an invitation to give in to the dark side and hate the deplorables. We must not shy away from those confrontations. Instead, we can engage them empowered by the inner mantra that my friend Pancho Ramos-Stierle used in confrontations with his jailers, after being arrested while meditating when police raided the Occupy Oakland encampment in November 2011: “Brother, your soul is too beautiful to be doing this work.”

If we can stare hate in the face and never waver from that knowledge, we will access inexhaustible tools of creative engagement, and hold a compelling invitation to the ‘haters’ to fulfill their beauty.

Charles Eisenstein is an author and speaker, based in the US. A version of this article was first published at

Main image: Chris J Ratcliffe/Stringer

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  • Matt Rivers

    What an amazing article. So very inspiring and exactly how I and many others feel.

  • This was brilliant Charles… thanks for writing… and keep going with this thread its much needed

  • DaleK

    Nothing like a good morning cry. Thank you!

  • Ismail Mayat

    Brilliant article, “Hate is just a bodyguard for grief. When people lose the hate, they are forced to deal with the pain beneath” mind blown!

  • Pingback: Three more (of 6) articles related to (once again, like it or not) that “US 2016 Election thing” | Kauilapele's Blog()

  • SirMoustache

    Thank you for this article! :-)

  • JohnJustice

    Let’s not be too dismissive of the so-called liberal elite ( there is an element of the derision you condemn in your critique of the Hillary camp). They have been responsible for much of the progress in the world. Yes, they don’t always get it right and can be too slow in tackling the Big Problems, mainly because they have to compromise with the system as it is if they are to stand any chance of moving us in the right direction. But much better to have them in charge and nudging us forward than those peddling instant simplistic or idealistic solutions that can never work in our complex world.

  • Madeleine Innocent

    Stunning, deep article. I hope everyone reads and understands what he is saying.

  • taxpaer1961

    Wow, I’ve been tired of all the “news stories” out there and just for kicks, typed in positive news stories and found your site. I may not agree with everything stated(by looks of all the youngsters that have photos that are present, but I am open minded and love reading from all facets of society. I must say this is a well thought out and wonderfully written article that spews wisdom beyond (now I’m assuming the author is young) their photo. Well done Charles. Well done indeed.

  • taxpaer1961

    Question and I’m not trying to be snarky, but you’re “responsible for much of the progress in the world” is a little vague. Could you help me to understand what you are speaking of? Thank you.

  • JohnJustice

    How about this link
    which describes various measures of quality of life and shows how countries led by liberal/social democrat elites lead the way in this respect.

  • TIL correlation DOES prove causation

  • Jason Rafferty

    Beautifully written.

  • Trilby Elliston Williams III

    The “liberal elite” seem to be the latest scapegoat. No matter how hard we try to eliminate blame and responsibility someone isn’t going to escape it and now it’s the ” liberal elite”. The entire term is designed to induce guilt in people who are guilty of finding success in life through wise choices and not complaining about carrying a large chunk of the tax burden that keeps the country afloat. Well forgive us for bothering to go to school and majoring in something that contributes to the world and being rewarded for it. Forgive us for not recognizing our climate problems as we’ve been so preoccupied developing an electric car and solar power technology that might help alleviate at least some of these problems. I guess we should have just sat home after 10th grade until our coal mining job arrived.

    Yes, empathy is important but victimhood doesn’t attract empathy maybe pity but then resentment allows follows. During the election I not only saw the lack of personal responsibility people take for their lives and the enormous amount of energy they place in blaming others. I not only saw it on the conservative side and also saw it on the liberal side especially among white, college graduates. Young adults like a friend of ours who graduated from a prestigious school with a major in “Queer Theory” and the best job offer he got was a manager trainee for the Gap. It’s not his fault because we “Liberal Elites” have been too busy developing technology in computers, artificial intelligence and bio-technology while we’ve let people just sit home and wait for something than either requires no skills or absurd skills to drop out of the sky for them. Let me tell you how life works. You create something that advances the world and the world will smile back at you. I’m not positive it’s just empathy we need to develop but our own character.

    As a gay person I’m more interested in removing the road-blocks that interfere with self responsibility and taking advantage of a world that is full of opportunity and creativity. if we all tended to our own garden first then the world would flourish. No I’m not saying that it’s a level playing field for everyone but it’s not liberal elites who are the new creators of all that ails us. In fact we might be the only thing that has kept this country from dying completely but its going to take more than us to make this country flourish. Thanks, I’ll actually feel a little less guilty enjoying my Trump tax break now.

  • Vicky Paige

    The news anymore is so depressing! I googled is there any good news and found this article. The worst if felt by the younger generation trying to find a way, wanting to go to college and faced with unthinkable debt. As a parent, we have worked hard and yet cannot afford to retire much less help with college. These are difficult times to say the least. Mostly I can not understand how 1% owns 50% of all the wealth. How greedy can a group of people be? I find this fact very depressing.

  • Chloe Oliver

    Thank you for writing such thoughtful and profound words. They resonate with me so deeply and I am truly humbled by them. As shocked as I was by the election, I felt a deep grief while also feeling a glimmer of something within me that I have no words for…hope, maybe? A feeling that out of the depths of darkness and chaos there would emerge true compassion and a force greater than hate – something that would bring people together to rise above hatred and fear. We can only wait and see what unfolds but I commit to doing my part to keep practicing compassion for all human beings – regardless of which ‘side’ they are on. This is for me the greatest challenge of all but Gandhi’s words keep running through my head “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”.

  • Trent Simmons

    Vicky, I agree. How can ALL the people in the US and Europe and other first world countries be so greedy. Most middle class people in the western world talk about the 1% but fail to recognize that they themselves are in the top 5% worldwide.

  • Stuart Major

    Chimes with an interesting recent read Zero Marginal Cost Society by Jeremy Rifkin

  • John Coates

    Just think of Mandela and his empathy to liberate South Africa without a civil war. Amazing how this article resonates with his, and Ganghi’s way of thinking. How do we do this with a very different leadership? Perhaps some states could lead the way by legislating a maximum wage law – say 100 times the lowest paid employee?

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