Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns-Goodwin appeared yesterday as part of the “roundtable” segment on NBC’s Meet the Press. When the topic turned to Brexit, host Chuck Todd turned to Kearns-Goodwin for some insight. Here is how she responded:
Well, I think Cameron made a Faustian bargain when he decided that he thought he needed the far-right vote to win that election. He won it big anyway, and he promised to bring up this referendum. And now what’s going to happen to him? He’s lost his prime ministership, he’s lost his legacy, Britain may fall apart and not become the Great Britain.
Churchill must be dying in his grave right now. And he did it to himself. I mean, the leaders of both parties were not able to reach the people, which shows that something’s wrong with the leadership, maybe in the countries in general. They didn’t argue passionately enough, they didn’t emotionally connect to the people who felt that something was wrong in their mired unemployment. And when you have that inability to see other people’s point of view, when you have lack of empathy, when you have lack of sides seeing each other, something goes wrong in a country. And I think it’s a pretty scary phenomena. (Italics mine)
Empathy. Seeing other people’s point of view. Kearns-Goodwin’s diagnosis of Brexit is correct. It also has implications for American politics and culture. I find it particularly interesting that Kearns-Goodwin is a historian. Most historians know that empathy, or the idea of “seeing other people’s point of view,” is essential to interpreting the past. The study of history makes us more empathetic people. It is good for civil society.
As many of you know, I have elaborated more fully on the relationship between empathy, the study of history, and civil society in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.