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.