Cafe Culture

Emotions and Politics

As we reflect upon the dramatic political developments in North Africa and the Middle East, and as we anticipate a tough political battle in the United States about the budget and the role of government, James M. Jasper, a sociologist of social movements, emotions, and strategy, reminds us in this post and in another tomorrow that politics and public debate are  not only reasoned. They also have an emotional side that must be critically understood. – Jeff

Emotions matter in politics. This is evident at home and abroad. In the last two years, we have seen American citizens shouting at their own Congressional representatives in town hall meetings, a hateful Jared Loughner attempt to assassinate his own representative, and a million Egyptians assemble in Tahrir Square and topple a repressive regime.This leads to a pressing question: What emotions matter and help mobilize political action?

A sense of threat and urgency, anger and indignation (which is morally tinged anger), sometimes a desire for revenge, and, on the positive side, hope that the dangers can be resisted - one of the most effective ways to pull these together is to find someone to blame. If there is no one to blame, collective mobilization lacks a focus. It is more likely to be the kind of cooperative endeavor we see after natural disasters: shock, but no politics. And the more concrete and vivid the perpetrators, as the case of Hosni Mubarak showed, the more focused and intense the outrage.

In such mobilization we see the “power of the negative”: negative emotions grab our attention more than positive ones. The events in Egypt and Libya suggest that the power of the negative is increased when hatred, rage, anger, and indignation are focused against one person. Most revolutionary coalitions are held together only by this outrage over the old ruler or regime. It is hard to question the mobilizing power of such feelings, whether the mobilization is for voting in elections or efforts at revolution.

But are there other ways to mobilize large numbers of people? In the US, Democrats’ electoral campaigns, and especially Obama’s, are full of reasoned arguments, based on empirical evidence, with a regard for fiscal responsibility and logical coherence. They mostly avoid nasty frontal attacks on opponents, such as the gun lobby, bankers, or other potential targets. As Dr. Phil might ask, “How’s that working for you?”

The strong Democratic showing in 2008 might reinforce our civilized sense that rational discourse, buttressed by the opinions of experts and especially economists, can prevail even in a nation where a solid third of the electorate believes in the literal truth of the Christian Bible. But did the Democrats win because of their reasoned arguments? Or because the elections occurred during one of the nation’s worst financial collapses ever? (Even eight years of the worst president in US history might not have been enough without the economic crisis.) Let’s not fool ourselves. In normal times an articulate “egghead” like Obama could not win.

2010 was a more typical election in the United States.

Since Plato and Aristotle, commentators have feared strong emotions in public debate. They have twisted their logic to defend rhetoric and democracy even while recognizing the power of emotions. They distinguish between good and bad rhetoric, thinking and feeling, or real and sham democracy. There is no way around it: democratic procedures can lead to results that no one likes – and certainly not the intellectuals who write about such things.

In the United States, Democratic politicians are rarely as cutthroat as their Republican opponents, who simply do not believe in democratic procedures as much as they believe in the substance of outcomes. For instance, Republicans continually attack the legitimacy of the judicial branch – until they need it to steal elections as in 2000. But one result of the Democrats’ decency is that they lose elections even when the majority agrees with their positions. Another downside of decency is that the Democrats lost an opportunity to use the financial meltdown of 2007-2009 to make the kind of structural reforms we desperately need. And the reason is their unwillingness to pin the blame on anyone too directly. If the Democrats could not make financiers and hedge fund managers into robust villains after the meltdown, they are simply not political beasts. They will never have a better chance to fix our financial system.

The emotional dynamics differ somewhat for voting and for protest movements. The organizational structure for the former is already there, so that a small emotional push can move people to vote: it is easy to do. Participating in a longer-term movement requires the creation of networks and organizations and communications and other infrastructure in addition to the arousal of emotions. In voting, the power of the negative helps explain the “pendulum of threat” that moves back and forth: one side wins, the other side feels threatened and mobilizes more energetically in the next election, and so on.

  • Gary Alan Fine

    My good friend James Jasper is well-known for his comedic prowess. He is among the wittiest of social scientists. In his essay “Emotions and Politics” he is insightful as usual. And he and I agree about the value of savory political speech.
    However, he includes a claim, quite undefended, that is sure to provoke loud laughter and wild guffaws among any conservative who happens upon his commentary. Jasper argues that “Democratic politicians are rarely as cutthroat as their Republican opponents, who simply do not believe in democratic procedures as much as they believe in the substance of outcomes.” Huh. Here is a party that argues that Republicans want to kill old people (remember Alan Grayson), that the Tea Party is fundamentally racist, that Republicans are reprising Goebbels, that they are responsible for the shooting of Rep. Gabi Giffords and that Dick Cheney is the spawn of Satan (or is it the reverse?). Jim, remember how Obamacare was passed after the election of Senator Scott Brown. It was hardly a triumph of the niceties of democratic process over the substance of outcomes. I was just talking with Chief Justice Bork about this very point.
    Despite partisan blinders, we have no good evidence on which party is sweeter and more tender, but it is absolutely true that partisans of each believe that their opponents are the blue meanies. Perhaps we can construct such a test with liberals and conservatives agreeing prior to collecting data on what will constitute a fair test. My bet is on “no significant differences.”
    Until then Jim and I can agree that pungent politics makes for good citizenship.

  • Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

    I also appreciate James Jasper’s humor, and his insight. I think it is an empirical question about whether Republicans or Democrats use charged demonizing language. Certainly there is no equivalence between the President and those around him, in contrast to his opponents. And does it follow from what Jasper writes here and in his next post that pungent politics makes for good citizenship? Perhaps sometimes. But certainly at others, it does not.

  • Jim Jasper

    Gary, I did not mean to say that all Democrats are nice, all Republicans naughty. But it does seem as though a smaller proportion of Republicans value procedural rationality over the logic of substance. The reason is obvious: more Republican voters derive or justify their positions on the basis of scriptures that they believe are the word of God. Compared to that, democratic procedures, constructed by flawed humans, are poor tools indeed. The tendency of Republicans to make disparaging comments about the judiciary suggest they do not accept its validity (like some of Bush’s comments in 2000), apparent evidence of a fundamental rejection of Constitutional procedure.

    And my point was the the Obama administration passed up a fine opportunity to demonize the financial industry in classic populist style, even if money, not inherent sweetness, was the reason.

    By the way, you don’t think Dick Cheney is the spawn of Satan?

  • Christian

    James, why not advocate the development of a movement that values both civility and progress? Does civility not appeal to the “masses”? How about facts and reason? It looks to me that there is plenty of emotion on both sides of the political spectrum. I think what is most needed is an understanding of the problems. If people understood the problems most comprehensibly, they would vote better–whatever this means–and we would ultimately end up with an improved country. So what I see as key is a group of intelligent, principled people enlightening the public about the nature of our nation’s problems. I don’t see any other path to sustained progress. If we focus on the emotional push to edge out a win, the same should be expected from the other side. So what you end up with at net is stagnation–not to mention the continuance of frustration and ignorance.

  • Jim Jasper

    You raise a key question, Christian: what is the role for expert evidence and knowledge in a democracy? There are industries of social and natural scientists who know an enormous amount about various challenges we face as a nation and as a world. There are also economists who can plausibly tally up many of the costs and benefits of various policies.

    We should not be controlled by experts, but we should take account of what they tell us, just as you suggest. Unfortunately, this has not worked well in practice. On the one hand, the experts tend to be arrogantly dismissive of the public. On the other, people tend to ignore what the experts say, often BECAUSE the experts say it. This is especially true in the US, with its strong Protestant heritage that suggests each person’s view is as good as anyone else’s. The populist right has done very well by targeting elite egghead intellectuals and professors (one of the reasons they have been able to starve public universities, but that is another issue).

    The alternative to careful weighing of evidence is Faith, still very powerful in the US. Only a third of us believe evolution should be taught in schools without also teaching Creationism, and another third believe that Creationism should be taught and NOT evolution. A large and growing number of Americans do not believe in global warming.

    In 2008 a near-consensus of economists thought we needed a giant stimulus package to prevent the collapse of the economy. That’s exactly what we got, because Obama believes in scientific evidence. Had McCain been elected, I am not sure we would have gotten this. Certainly, most Republicans opposed it, and blocked additional stimulus funds.

    Let’s face it. The Republicans generally and Bush II especially have succeeded in part by appealing to faith rather than to evidence. The Democrats are not much better, but they are somewhat better. They do not reject scientific reason out of principle.