Bill Clinton not only told people he felt their pain, he made people believe he was sincere. Such empathy is in short supply nowadays.
Take Mitt Romney, the likely Republican nominee for president. We've learned recently that he assaulted a prep school classmate and cut his hair because it didn't conform to Romney's view of proper appearance. He played cruel tricks on a nearly blind teacher. He threw rocks at his future wife's horse. He donned costumes to frighten others. Think those were youthful indiscretions? What about the man who likes to fire people? Who thinks every college student has a parent at home with money to loan for a business startup?
Barack Obama demonstrated a bit of empathy last week by saying the example of friends and co-workers had persuaded him to change his mind about same-sex marriage. Most voters took it as a calculated political ploy. (That's laughable given that Republicans are rubbing their hands to make hay among anti-gay voters. A local poll found only 6 percent of 4th District of Arkansas Republican voters in support of equal treatment under the law for same-sex domestic partners. Six percent!)
Romney's coldness didn't electrify Republican primary voters, but his money prevailed against the odd lot of opponents. Conformity seems to be the order of the day. And you'll get Republican conformity from Romney — against rights for women and sexual minorities, against welfare, for low taxes for the wealthy. Whatever tenderness he lacks, Romney empathizes with rich men.
We find the urge for conformity in places other than presidential politics. Occupy Little Rock, a small but spunky group demonstrating now for six months as part of a global movement against the influence of big money on public policy, has exasperated city government. Lance Hines, a city director from western Little Rock, finally had all he could take of the site of their tent camp and started the conversation that led to an eviction notice. The very sight of this group irritates the establishment as much as long hair irritated Mitt Romney in the 1960s.
Conformity is really big in Lance Hines' western Little Rock, a Republican enclave. To live in a home in a major portion of it — Chenal Valley, controlled by powerful Deltic Timber — you have to agree to a 17-page list of rules on everything from roof pitch to shrubbery.
You see conformity, too, in the push by the business community to bulldoze a residential neighborhood between UAMS and UALR to build a "technology park" — a taxpayer-financed spec office building in a well-groomed park that is supposed to be the region's ticket to prosperity, a magnet for the next Apple.
The mostly low-income black people who live in the targeted neighborhood include more than a few who value their homes for more than the "fair market value" condemnation likely would bring them. That "fair value" won't be enough to buy them much anywhere else. Businessmen from Chenal Valley and similar environs don't care a fig. They look at this neighborhood and see blight well-removed from their vision. What better replacement than a soulless office building subsidized by a regressive sales tax that was opposed by those targeted for removal.
The people who live in the neighborhood see yards where their kids played, houses where they celebrated Christmas, the neighbors they've long known. In Mitt Romney's world, they're just a parental loan away from prosperity and Chenal Valley. Comfortably rich, they then could join Lance Hines in railing about scruffy hippies in need of haircuts and their unsightly tents.