Amid alarming levels of political polarisation, politicians, civil society, and ordinary citizens alike call for greater empathy between partisans. But is empathy really an effective tool for minimising polarisation?
Few need convincing that the American political climate is extremely polarised. The severity of polarisation in the US has come to define the last three decades of American politics; the last six years especially so. While both the Democrats’ and Republicans’ policy platforms have historically been next-door neighbours on the political spectrum, polarisation among the American public reflects much greater cleavages. Misguided feelings of resentment have shifted the locus of blame from elite decision makers to fellow citizens who identify with the out-party.  In other words, polarisation of the masses has outpaced polarisation of the political elite. 
Affective polarisation refers to the polarisation that occurs at the social – rather than policy – level. Its primary actors are individual citizens and its arena is emotional; affective polarisation measures the extent to which partisans treat each other as a stigmatised outgroup. Increases in affective polarisation have resulted in the conflation of party affiliation with social and cultural identity.  Democrats and Republicans have come to be associated with distinct demographics: Democrats are increasingly the party of women, urbanites, professionals, and people of colour, whereas Republican voters are disproportionately male, rural, older, white, and Christian.  In the United States, outgroup prejudice based on party affiliation now exceeds prejudice based on race, religion, and other historically significant social and cultural schisms. 
The knee-jerk response to affective polarisation is a call for greater empathy. Arlie Russell Hoschild’s book Strangers in Their Own Land, for example, focuses on the deconstruction of what she terms “empathy walls”: those psychological structures that prevent us from deeply understanding someone in the out-party, and that make us “shoehorn new information into ways we already think”.  Hoschild’s book details the “deep story” of lower-middle class, white, Southern Americans. The deep story, in Hoschild’s words, is a “feels-as-if” story; a story that removes judgement and allows those on both sides of the political spectrum to understand the subjective prism through which the other party contemplates politics.  Her intended audience are Liberals: in an effort to depolarise the US, her book represents a plea directed at the Left to understand and empathise with the Right. Hoschild’s appeal to empathy does not stand alone. The Washington Post, NPR, and The Atlantic, and, notoriously, Neil Young are a few among many examples of influential publications and figures that imagine empathy as a critical ingredient in solving American polarisation. Intuitively, this makes sense: affective polarisation is fundamentally driven by people’s emotions, and an emotional problem should require emotional solutions.
However, the research on empathy as a tool for minimising polarisation yields mixed results. Simas, Clifford, and Kirkland, for example, find evidence that greater empathetic concern will actually exacerbate, rather than alleviate, affective polarisation. Their study finds that increases in empathetic capacity correlate with stronger identification with those in the in-party, and even less tolerance for those in the out-party. They also find that those who express higher levels of empathy are also more likely to express a desire to censor public expressions of outparty viewpoints, while those at the lower end of the empathy spectrum did not distinguish between inparty and outparty viewpoints. Other studies have confirmed their findings: increases in empathy are correlated with increases in schadenfreude, which refers to the feeling of pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune.
These studies illuminate the psychological complexity of empathy. Empathy is a flexible, context-dependent response, which itself facilitates an increase in negative emotions such as anger or desire to punish, particularly where interactions between partisans are perceived as threatening.  Feelings of being threatened are pervasive in American politics. In 2016, 45% of Republicans viewed the Democrats as an existential threat to the nation and their way of life, while 41% of Democrats levelled the same accusation against their Republican counterparts. Another study finds that 70% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans describe themselves as “afraid” of the out-party. Thus, according to Simas, Clifford, and Kirkland’s findings, the American context is ripe for producing the counterproductive effects associated with increased empathy, and may only exacerbate already dire levels of polarisation. 
Ultimately, calls for greater empathy as a solution to affective polarisation underestimate the psychological complexity of empathetic concern. While empathetic concern is often assumed to be a universal, utilitarian good, data suggests otherwise. Empathy is nuanced, complicated, and constituted by multiple overlapping psychological processes. Those who accuse the American public of lacking empathy fail to appreciate this nuance, and likewise fail to acknowledge the potential unintended, counterproductive consequences that could arise from increases in individual citizens’ empathic faculties. In short, polarisation is not a result of a lack of empathy among the American public, but rather a product of the inherently biassed ways in which we experience empathy.  The imagined 1:1 correlation between an increase in empathy and a decrease in polarisation is just that – imagined.
This is not to say that we should abandon empathy entirely. Simas, Clifford, and Kirkland find that although empathy may aggravate many manifestations of affective polarisation, it may minimise at least one: social distance. Empathetic concern motivates prosocial behaviour; higher levels of empathy should increase individuals’ openness to contact or interaction with members of the out-party. To the extent that out-party contact can function to decrease polarisation and maintain national unity, empathy is still a valuable political tool. Further research shows that citizens with higher levels of empathetic capacity are more likely to participate in the political process, which bodes well for the integrity of democracy in any given country. Thus, the American public and its leaders should seek to complicate their understanding of the role of empathy in politics. Empathy alone is an insufficient solution to affective polarisation; appeals to empathy should be complemented with other persuasive tactics in order to dampen the potential negative consequences.