Transformation

The passions of populist politics

To fight right-wing populism the left must embrace emotional politics - and deal with the risks involved.

Paolo Cossarini
8 September 2019
Flickr/Matt Brown. CC BY 2.0

Until a few years ago, deliberative democracy and protecting the public sphere were the central issues in political debate. Now it’s the turn of emotion and post-truth politics, and no wonder: how else to explain why America’s disaffected working classes voted for a billionaire who is making the rich richer in 2016, or why the Leave campaign in the UK won over swathes of those who will be hardest hit by the consequences of Brexit.

However, does it follow that people were simply responding to their feelings in these events and going with their gut? More broadly, does the divide between reason and emotion in politics still hold true?

Advances in neuroscience have confirmed that thinking and feeling are intimately interconnected. If in the past of politics not everything could be attributed to the operation of reason, it’s equally true that not everything now can be ascribed to the pull of emotion. Yet in network societies where the weaponization of information is reshaping democratic politics at a very deep level, emotions have certainly made a comeback, and are often considered to be at the core of the current populist wave.

Emotion can be addressed towards many different targets. Outrage, for example, has led to protests against greed, corruption and austerity measures as part of the Indignados Movements in Spain and Greece, and Occupy Wall Street in the USA, but it has also reinforced a hatred of immigrants and support for racist policies – President Trump calling Mexicans “rapists,” for example, and Italian politician Matteo Salvini intervening to stop humanitarian rescue ships in the Mediterranean Sea.

Political emotions are a key concern for all those interested in current affairs, but they are ambiguous, and focusing only on whether emotion can explain and predict political phenomena is too limited a frame. When it comes to democratic politics, we should also ask how emotions can establish a normative order and underpin a specific political agenda. It is here that emotions meet populism.

In a new book edited with Fernando Vallespín, I explore the links between populist politics and the specific dynamics that emotions trigger in contemporary societies. We investigate the extent to which the global rise of populism and the role of emotions in politics converge on a specific logic – one that goes hand in hand with current forms of communication centered on social media.

Emotions, together with values, attitudes, rituals and performances of all kinds, are part of our identity, and they play a crucial role in forming our worldviews and creating social bonds. In addition, emotions motivate individuals and groups to engage in political action. They can be both the means and the ends of these actions, and they shape, often rhetorically, political goals and strategies.

Clearly, there are certain classes of emotions that are more suited to liberal democratic politics than others. Hate, most obviously, is not the friend of a peaceful and tolerant society. Whether it comes from ordinary people or from the President of the United States, such feelings often solidify into hate groups whose ultimate aim is to defame and disempower someone else, and as it spreads this dynamic can eventually eat up the liberal order. Attacks against minority groups such as Latino and LGBTQ people are one expression of the devastating potential of hate as a political emotion.

However, similar passions can also prefigure alternative political ideas and practices. Anger is a classic example. Take the recent wave of protests sparked by actions such as Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future, and Extinction Rebellion. The deep sense of injustice that lies at the core of these movements is a key driver for angry citizens to participate in political demonstrations, and to support radical changes in our political and economic systems.

The same sense of injustice is also linked to emotions such as empathy and hope, which can trigger affective bonds which are more open to cultural diversity, equality and democratic participation, and which can foster a more progressive and egalitarian agenda.

Emotions, then, are part and parcel of politics in all its forms - they are not exclusive to populism - but is there something specific to populist emotional appeals that is missing from the supposedly-rational deliberation of non-populist forms of politics? This question is particularly interesting for at least two reasons.

First, the nexus between populism and emotion points to a specific style of doing politics, exposing the deep transformations that liberal democratic regimes are currently undergoing. In a nutshell, populism is seen to be opposed to technocratic, elite-based government, a stance that involves particular stylistic, performative, and aesthetic features that mobilize diverse sets of passions.

While technocracy is based on the appeal of expertise and the assumption of stability, populism is generally seen as rooted in the appeal of ‘the people’ versus ‘the establishment.’ It is built around charismatic leaders who are frequently defined by their ‘bad manners,’ and who capitalize on the sense of betrayal and alienation that citizens are experiencing towards political institutions.

Secondly, taking emotions seriously in political analysis can also help to make populism - a notoriously slippery phenomenon - much clearer, allowing us to see its deeper impact on societies. Common to all definitions of populism are the idea of ‘the people,’ and the antagonistic division of society into two opposing blocs. Emotions shape both of these elements of populism in crucial ways.

Individual and group identity-formation is shaped by affective dynamics: ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’ are collective subjects formed through processes that involve passionate engagement. Hence, working-class voters can identify with the richest men in the world like Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi because such men have set out an emotional strategy through which they present themselves as part of the ordinary people, pitted against the existing political and economic system.

The murder weapon in this drama is social media and its burgeoning role in public and political life. Short, nuance-free, and emotionally-driven messages were already taking over during the era of Berlusconi’s television stations in Italy, but they have since grown to dominate the entire political landscape. The construction of ‘the people’ and the structuring of society into two opposing blocs are processes that increasingly take place on social media. It is here that identity-formation takes place. Connecting people who think alike rather than promoting informed dialogue between different groups reinforces narrow identities and produces sharply contrasting affective communities.

Social networks favor the ‘balkanization’ of online discussions and operate on the basis of flows of praise or discredit (‘shitstorms’ and ‘cybermobbing’), filling the public sphere with heat and noise and preventing critical thinking and cross-partisan engagement. Excessive social media usage can contribute to political essentialism.

Of course, any political subjectivity can find expression and have a voice on the Internet, and messages of all kinds can flourish, from reactionary to progressive. Much has been said about the extent to which the left also has to embrace an emotional type of politics (or at least an emotionally-resonant communication strategy) in order to halt the rise of right-wing populism. Constructive emotional dispositions are certainly necessary for those who aim at social and political change.

However, anyone involved in social transformation must also be aware of the inner dynamics of emotions, and their ambiguous potential in the digital era. The risk for the left is that, as its politics become increasingly emotional in the search for personal and public traction, this may further trivialize the political debate, paradoxically reinforcing right-wing populism and nationalism.

It is not hard to imagine the consequences of all this for democracy. Apparently, the pull of democracy has never been stronger, but the reality is that democracy as we know it is under pressure. Its institutions and functioning are being questioned from outside and within. Democratic legitimacy - the idea that existing representative political institutions are the most appropriate for managing society - is under fire. How else can we interpret Boris Johnson’s move to close down the UK parliament in his attempt to deliver a No-Deal Brexit?

Against this background, progressive politics can and must seek to renew its strength by combining its principles with passionate engagement. However, if we don’t want to live in a world that’s run by comedians, the enthusiastic devotion of progressive politics to social change must be articulated together with a love for nuance, an attachment to pluralism, and a fondness for complexity. The strength of reasoning in the public sphere, even when channeled by powerful emotional messages, must not disappear from the democratic stage.

Paolo Cossarini and Fernando Vallespín’s new book is Populism and Passions. Democratic Legitimacy after Austerity.

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