We all feel compassion fatigue

You might have read of a syndrome known as “compassion fatigue,” a malady thought to afflict physicians dealing with the chaos of long nights in emergency rooms, clergy counseling troubled parishioners or social workers monitoring their clientele. At some point, frustration takes hold and empathy wanes. It’s also likely that professionals in these situations lose their objectivity about their charges. The patient or client who once seemed like a victim deserving of pity now seems like a flawed character who created many of his own problems.

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I am starting to have compassion fatigue when it comes to the American public, at least toward that slice of voters that responds to polls. This emotion struck me last Friday when I heard the announcement that employment was up slightly, but that the trend was offset by the fact that fewer people are even trying to find work any longer. How can so many so-called “discouraged workers” quit on researchers charged with chronicling their plight and recording trends in something important like unemployment? The pollster and political consultant in me wants to become cynical and hypercritical of these dropouts. But, on second thought, a long-suffering inner voice asks me to look past the data to focus on the human situation before me. They have just quit. It’s pitiful. “There, but by the grace of God, go I,” the old adage says.

A related kind of angst and melancholy mood often comes over me during focus groups these days. Focus-group participants, more than the rest of the American public, seem to be suffering mightily. Unless an American is at the bottom of the barrel, why would he or she fight rush-hour traffic to trek across a busy urban or suburban area on a Tuesday or Wednesday night to get to a 6 o’clock focus group that pays participants $75 or so for two hours of talk, over Diet Cokes and stale cookies, about an unfamiliar or boring topic? I’m not talking down my business, but it’s a legitimate question to ask. Anyway, it seems I can’t make it through a two-hour group nowadays without someone at the table spinning a tale of woe about why he couldn’t do this or that because he didn’t have the money to do it. I’m not talking about complaints of not having the dough to fly to the Caribbean for vacation. I’m talking about not having the five or 10 bucks necessary to use a pizza coupon offer. People are in bad shape.

I bring all this up because I suspect that most political professionals, including elected officials, their staffs and consultants, are experiencing compassion fatigue these days. This is potentially troublesome for several reasons. For one thing, these same professionals are ostensibly supposed to play a key role in making things better and might not be able to redress a needful public’s situation effectively if their own thinking is clouded by others’ troubles. Political professionals have private lives, too, that may be effected. While I suspect that the typical politico is far better off economically than the average American, there are still consequences of wallowing in the torment of others on a daily basis. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that a professional colleague has experienced problems in personal relationships on account of compassion fatigue. And despite the widely held suspicion that political professionals are cold-blooded, reptilian creatures unlikely to show empathy, I would bet that some are being moved to charitable acts of great generosity. 

I advise us all to resist impulses to become too emotionally involved. Keep our wits. Don’t get sucked in. Maintain some distance to ensure objectivity about present circumstances. But it might be hard to do so unless things get better soon.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.