The extraordinary outpouring of public emotion for Princess Diana. The very high positive poll ratings for Bill Clinton. Tony Blair's massive victory in Britain (and the approving response to his emotional speech at Diana's funeral). Could it be that what people want of their leaders is changing? Instead of solutions to problems, are they asking for their leaders to share their pain? And what does it all mean for the body politic?
We don't know where this is going, but empathy appears to be replacing issues in the hearts and minds of a growing number of voters. With the cold war over and the economy rolling along nicely in many countries, politics is getting deeply personalized. Diana was perceived as warm and caring, as opposed to the cold Windsors. At her death, people related to Diana's closeness to her children, her touching those who were sick, her bouts with illness, her battles with her in-laws and, finally, her divorce. Bill Clinton doesn't get that kind of love, but people do approve of him. His difficult childhood, battles with weight, and marriage difficulties all resonate with the populace. More important, his efforts in health and education, even if ill-founded, are perceived as caring. For this, the populace seems willing to forgive his foibles.
Could the politics of empathy simply be a result of the tumultuous years of downsizings and divorce? Or perhaps in an age when people don't expect much good from their government by way of policy, they turn to their leaders for sentimentality instead. In any case, the trend is not to be applauded. Empathy is important, but more is needed from our leaders, and more should be expected from the people.