UCL European Institute


The heart of the matter: passion, politics and the EU referendum

23 June 2016, 12:00 am

The heart of the matter: passion, politics and the EU referendum

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Both Leave and Remain have appealed to voters' guts to the extent that reason itself has become suspicious. Emotions will rule the day on 23 June, but at what cost?
23 June 2016
Uta Staiger

Politics today is suffused with emotion.

There is anger mixing with angst in the German Wutbürger, the Spanish indignados, and the French labour law protestors. There's Donald Trump riding on a wave of demagoguery, hurling disgust at Mexicans, hatred at Muslims and disdain at women. There's fear vying with grief and defiance in Orlando, Paris, or Brussels.

And then there's Brexit.

Now, referendums are never one for nuance. They are yes or no, black or white, in or out: they are a "conflict-maximising mechanism" if ever there was one. But the extent to which passions have become, literally, the beating heart of the UK's vote on EU membership is quite extraordinary to observe. It is also, I wager, a sign of things to come.

In order to fully grasp the implications of these developments, it is worth disentangling the different ways in which emotions are at work here. I suggest there are three main ones: the role of the emotions in decision-making, in political mobilisation, and in community building.


Throughout great swathes of western political thought, the passions did not exactly receive good press. Immanuel Kant thought them "cancerous sores" debilitating practical reason. Subjecting them to our intellect, Auguste Comte believed, is what raises the "human to superiority over the animal attributes" in us. Consequently, as Aristotle already had it, the law must be the expression of "intelligence without desire". Indeed, in order to arrive at just decisions, we need to deliberate in a manner that "will engage the mind rather than ignite the passions", as IM Young said, hiding our personal preferences behind a "veil of ignorance" - to quote John Rawls. In other words, our political decision-making should rest to the greatest degree possible on reason, reasonableness, and impartiality.

The question of course is if this might be truly possible. Already Spinoza and Leibniz considered that we could not separate our thinking from our bodily being. Neuroscientists today come to not too different conclusions. Feelings, they say, are "mental experiences of body states" - and play a vital role in practical decision-making. As such, emotions are no longer believed to be the opposite of reason, but a particular form thereof: they are themselves cognitive. They are made up of feelings, as well as beliefs and evaluations. And if ideas, ideals, and values thus influence the choices we make, they are necessarily caught up in political judgements, too.

In this context, recent research on voting behaviour in EU referenda has come up with a revealing observation. Singling out two main emotions - anger/resentment and anxiety/fear - researchers found that angry voters tend to rely less on deliberation and more on deep-seated political convictions. In consequence, these are more likely to support the 'risky' option. Anxious voters in turn increasingly seek out information and make use of reflective judgment. As such, they are more likely to be swayed by cost-benefit considerations.

This raises significant questions. Some suggest certain emotions can enhance, others lessen the quality of democracy. Would we readily agree that "outrage, perhaps, is more damaging than fear if we hope to foster an informed citizenry"? Normatively, this leaves us between a rock and a hard place. Emotions may not contravene per se the principles of rational democratic deliberation. But we need to understand under which conditions may they be aligned with reason to make just decisions. How can they feed into - rather than undermine - the impartiality that is indispensable to fair decision-making? What is the right balance between feeling and thinking, affect and cognition?


Emotions work as intensifiers, allowing us to weigh aspects of political discourse, sift and rank priorities, and accord salience to the plethora of issues that confront us. They also motivate us to campaign and cast our vote. To differentiate decision-making from political action, we might turn to the concept of 'concern'. These are "things that we care about, aspects of the situation that present themselves as reasons for or against action". Political campaigns are set up to narrow in on people's concerns, so as to convince and engage them in political causes that speak to them: they try to translate political ideas into political action.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage is thus likely right that the Leave side's greatest asset is passion. "People who've made up their minds on our side of the argument, it's almost like a conversion. Once you've decided, you believe I it strongly, you tell your friends and family, and you're more likely to go out and vote", he said in a recent interview. On the contrary, those inclined to vote Remain, "might not be bothered to go down to the polling station and vote, because there's no passion". He thus recalls, surely unwittingly, Rousseau, who saluted those who "do by inclination and passionate choice the things that men motivated by duty or interest never do quite well enough".

The dichotomy between Leave's appeal "appeal to the gut, and the heart" versus Remain's appeal to the head, between the emotional and the rational, certainly dominates the campaigns' media representation. This is however not quite true. It may not rival the Leave campaign, which has successfully banked on a heady mixture of anger ('unelected bureaucrats'), resentment ('out-of-control immigration') and defiance to mobilise their supporter base. But by betting near-exclusively on voters' anxieties ('Project Fear'), Remain has taken consistent and deliberate recourse to 'the gut'.

If it turns out not to be enough, it may be due to an ingenious use of mobilisation's heart and soul: credibility. Political power is not necessarily wielded by the most sincere, but by those who most credibly perform sincerity. Suffice it to say that the prime minister has not been among them. But this goes further. By rounding on the credibility of 'the establishment' and 'the expert', the Leave campaign has very effectively disarmed Remain's focus on anxiety by cutting out the agents on which it relied. What was meant to elicit fear has been delegitimised, constructed as an attempt to belittle Britain, and consequently turned into defiant pride.

And certainly, Remain has not appealed to 'the heart'. Leave may be thin on actual details, but their vision pulls no emotional punches. Boris Johnson's final statement at the BBC EU referendum debate hailed the dawn of the UK's 'Independence Day', pitting a message of hope against one of fear - and rousing the greatest cheers of the evening. Remain must know it should not "cede passion or patriotism to the other side". Only two years ago, when the polls indicated that the Scots might vote for independence, they got it. Then, Cameron rushed to the north to give an "emotive", "misty-eyed" speech, assuring his audience a Yes vote would leave him 'heartbroken'. He simply cannot muster it now.


The reason may lie with the third way emotions are at work in politics. By allowing us to enter "into the sentiments of others", as David Hume has it, emotions play an intrinsic part in creating and sustaining political communities. Identification with a national political community is hereby often associated with 'hot' emotions, suggesting again a direct but unreflective link between emotion and the motivation to act. These sentiments may overwhelm reason and indeed self-interest.

What was meant to elicit fear has been delegitimised, constructed as an attempt to belittle Britain, and consequently turned into defiant pride.

In contradistinction, cosmopolitan or transnational affiliations are associated with 'cool' emotions. Put differently: just as we are unlikely to "fall in love with a Common Market", as Jacques Delors put it, we may be unable to invest affectively in (the idea of) a community of 500 million. While the dichotomy almost certainly oversimplifies the matter, it highlights the challenge of making an engrossing case for EU membership, in particular in Britain.

To support the principle of redistribution, any society needs a minimum of sympathy or "fellow-feeling" (Adam Smith) between citizens. Most commonly, these sentiments are managed at the level of the nation, which is prioritised as a defining and positively valorised framework, which seeks to interpret the national community through territory and institutions. Transnationalism is hard pressed to compete. In this sense, the grassroots 'love-bombing campaigns' from the rest of Europe, heartfelt as they truly are, may in fact miss their mark. From #HugABrit to Britain Please Stay and the InLove campaign, they seek to deliver, as the latter had it, "emotional arguments to pull on the heartstrings of heart-only voters as well as heart-head confused voters". In a huff, the Times retorted #Pleasedonthugus, reprimanded all those young 'eurozone refugees' for showing a 'deep ignorance of British national character', and encouraged awkward handshakes with no eye contact instead.

On a more serious note, however, for democratic politics to work, people also need to "feel as if they are adequately represented" by elected politicians. The European Union has failed to attain this standard; it is ultimately the most entrenched and far-reaching of its many problems. In face of this, Leave's extraordinarily effective slogan of 'take back control' is premised precisely on a deeply felt yearning for national self-rule. As such, it has successfully blended feelings of old-fashioned British exceptionalism with a very modern populist promise to reduce complexity in an overly complex world. It has managed to coalesce a wider swathe of the population around this cause than has previously seemed imaginable.

But political community may also have suffered as a consequence of the referendum, no matter what the result will ultimately be. It has not only split families, colleagues, and political parties over Europe. If, as no other than John Locke first suggested, the relationship between citizens and their representatives in parliament is of a "government of trust", the country as a whole will also have taken a beating. Pitting 'ordinary people' against 'the establishment', insinuating the unreliability of all expert opinion, riding roughshod over facts, and putting the infighting of the entire political class on prime time TV, is unlikely to do much good for public's trust in their elected representatives. Yet what else is the notion of parliamentary sovereignty based on?

Hearts and minds beyond the referendum

The three different layers of emotions coalesce in contemporary discourses around popular sovereignty. Ultimately, the appeal to 'take back control' is utterly, instinctively appealing. It feels right: it offers an instinctive, if arguably illusory stand against a world that is ever more confusing, unequal, and uncertain. Yet it has done more. We have arguably entered a self-reinforcing circle of mistrust, in which reason itself becomes suspicious: a target, a conspiracy. "It's complicated" is unpopular. So are those who make its case.

Effectively, this is but a variant - albeit a truly British one - of a wider European pattern of radical disenchantment with liberal democratic and representative politics on the right and the left, which crisscross former party lines and ideological divides. It is also one that seems to belie received opinion on the impact of politicisation in the polls. As regional elections in Germany or presidential elections in Austria have made only all too clear, high voter turn-out may no longer be detrimental to the chances of populist alternatives: quite the contrary.

This does not mean we need to go back to labelling passions in politics as "cancerous sores". But it does challenge us to reconceive of politics. We need to take the role of the emotions in political deliberation, action, and community building very seriously indeed. Yet at the same time, we must not disregard the accompanying dangers. Otherwise, we might run the risk of giving unfairness, uncertainty, and prejudice a freer reign - and who would wish to be at the receiving end of those? The challenge today's liberal democracies face is thus one of balance: to confront and engage with the rise of emotional politics without neglecting how closely it needs to be entangled with reason. Otherwise, we risk undermining, not constituting just political action.

Uta Staiger is the executive director of the UCL European Institute.