As a politician and a professional therapist, I know what makes a good public servant. It is not party or experience or even intelligence. It is empathy. Without it, you are drawing a paycheck for filling a seat while ignoring why you are where you are.
Empathy is the capacity to care about others with understanding, sensitivity, and human compassion for their problems and their hopes. Without empathy, other people are just sticks on the ground, taking up space, but ignored easily or kicked aside.
Empathy is not solely in possession of one political party. As a Democrat, I look at Sen. Jeff Flake with admiration for his humane, humble demeanor. I see Sen. John McCain in the fullness of his service. I may often disagree with what they say or how they ultimately vote, but no one can or should question their sincerity and purpose. They have the empathy to serve well and they do.
That quality is not apparent in anything our president-elect says or does. Democrats and Republicans alike are the worse for it. That comes through in his early-morning temper tantrums on Twitter (something that is beneath the role of a president and has potential for great damage to the people and institutions he disdains).
That lack of empathy is unfortunately present in his choices for the Cabinet. Most are people no other Republican president would likely choose. Would John McCain have selected any of them? I doubt it.
Ordinarily the secretary of a department has appropriate experience, the respect of peers, and stature in a relevant field.
They possess appropriate empathy for the employees they direct and the citizens who are affected by those services. They are doers, not deniers. They are builders, not destroyers.
None of that seems evident in Trump designees. It is an empathy-free zone. Begin with the choice for attorney general who will have significant oversight of civil rights laws. Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions was denied appointment to a federal judgeship for racial remarks. He has demonstrated a lack of empathy for a large number of American citizens.
Betsy DeVos, who will oversee the Department of Education, is committed to private schools, inevitably at the expense of our public education system that distinguishes us from most of the world. She is a billionaire who doesn’t appear to have inherited an ounce of empathy for those with much less.
Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, will now oversee about 8,000 people working in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, an area in which he has absolutely no experience. None.
What that department and its employees do affects people of every economic level in every part of our country including homebuyers, people in inner cities and seniors. To keep all that operating well takes empathy for citizens who may be out of sight, but who should never be out of mind. Does Carson understand their needs?
A president’s Cabinet is not a social work agency to be filled with “bleeding hearts” and “do-gooders.” However, it must reflect what is most distinctive and wondrous about our country: We care about others; we care about both the successful and most vulnerable among us.
What has bound us into a historically and currently great nation is our ability to understand others’ hopes, appreciate their pain, and know we are our brothers’ and sisters’ helpers. That is empathy, which comes naturally to most of us, but obviously not to all. Some will never have it, but it can be learned by most. Let us pray that happens.