UCL European Institute


From Indyref to Indignados: how passions and politics mix

18 September 2014, 12:00 am

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As Scotland heads to the polls, this piece discusses the extent to which emotions have arrived at the heart of contemporary politics - yet we still hesitate to admit it. Emotions can neither be banished nor ignored when we discuss what constitutes political communities, how political decisions should be made and political action springs into being. Yet to embrace the rise of emotional politics without acknowledging how intimately it is and should be entangled with reason equally risks undermining just political action.
Dr Uta Staiger
18 September 2014

We have heard it all in recent months: the figures and predictions, warnings and forecasts, the costs, the benefits of a potential Scottish independence. Economists, politicians, lawyers and business leaders have weighed up data, and sparred over currency, taxation, and the NHS.

Yet when that YouGov poll hit on 6 September, which put the Yes campaign ahead for the first time, a sea change occurred. The Better Together camp realised it had missed a crucial beat. One, which Alex Salmond was particularly good at employing: that sweeping, passionate appeal to voters' feelings: to their hearts, not (just) their minds; to their emotional, not (just) their analytical capacities. Not only did Westminster's three main party leaders tear up their schedules and rush up to Scotland for a last-minute show of presence. The tone had changed. Rather than warning of the economic consequences of going it alone, David Cameron now gave an 'emotive', 'misty-eyed' speech in Edinburgh, confessing a Yes vote would leave him 'heartbroken'. Ed Milliband appealed to Scottish voters from the "head, heart and soul" to stay. Alistair Darling could have said: I told you so.

These developments, in themselves, are not surprising: they are far from an exception. What is remarkable, however, is the extent to which emotions have (literally) arrived at the heart of contemporary politics - yet we still hesitate to admit it.

In much of the history of Western political thought, certainly the liberal tradition that still dominates contemporary accounts of democratic politics, little relevance has been ascribed to the passions at all. Whatever the term employed: emotions, feelings, affect, desires - they have been called at best incompatible with, at worst disruptive to our prevailing ideal of politics. Political decisions, we tend to assume, should reflect a process of deliberation by citizens and politicians, which is unbiased and "unsullied by irrationality", as UCL's own Ronald Dworkin had it. Indeed, isn't to subject "our passions to the rules of an ever-strengthening intelligence", as Auguste Comte turned the phrase, how we rise above the animal nature in us? For unchecked emotion, that "wild beast" capable of frustrating all human pursuit of virtue, otherwise "distorts the rule even of the best men" - or so feared already Aristotle. Even if we do not go as far as Immanuel Kant, who likened the passions to "cancerous sores", doesn't it literally stand to reason that we sideline all interests and predilections if we are to make fair judgements for the common good - or at the very least hide them behind what John Rawls called a "veil of ignorance"? 

Emotions in politics, that much is clear, are worrisome not simply because they are deemed irrational, but because they may lead to injustice, intolerance and instability. Indeed, politics has been conceived as a corrective of reason to the often unpredictable, 'unthinking' and affect-driven conduct of citizens. "Why has government been instituted at all?", American founding father Alexander Hamilton asked in 1787: "Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint".

But clearly things are not quite as simple, nor have they ever been. Can we really make thoroughly objective decisions without involving any kind of emotional resources? Empirical studies in psychology and neuroscience since the 1990s have profoundly challenged that assumption. Drawing on these studies, political scientists have started to redefine emotions as themselves cognitive, that is, as particular modes of thought. But if sentiments, ideals and desires influence the choices we make, they are necessarily caught up in political judgements, too. Emotions do not contravene per se the principles of rational democratic deliberation. The main question is to what extent and under what conditions they may be aligned with reason to make just decisions. Could it have been this Nick Clegg hinted at when conceding he had become "too bogged down" in facts and needed to show "a more emotional side" when debating Europe with Nigel Farage?

Secondly, could we even sustain political communities - at, below or above the nation - without some recourse to feelings of solidarity or sympathy: that is, of "entering into the sentiments of others", as David Hume had it? It does not need reminding that one of the EU's greatest flaws is that "nobody falls in love with a Common Market". To support any form of social redistribution, to glue together a group of citizens (of which a great number where born into, that is, didn't voluntarily join the national 'club'), a minimum of sympathy or "fellow-feeling" (Adam Smith) is required. Nationalism is such sentiment directed at and defined through the nation. If Scotland, Catalonia or indeed UKIP ("Love Britain!") tell us anything, it is the degree to which it informs contemporary politics. (Much less do we heed the warnings emanating from Rousseau, who wanted to banish dissenting minds "for being incapable of sincerely loving the laws and justice").

And thirdly: why would we ever so much as lift a finger for a political cause if it wasn't for something we passionately cared about? Whether it is desire for the good or for truth, our own personal interests or the affective valence of an object, state or person, rarely is political action motivated by disinterested deliberative procedures. "Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm", said Emerson. Nothing terrible either, as Michael Walzer drily observed. Fear, hatred and envy are enthusiasm's easy bedfellows. Certainly, recent political upheavals, whether in Cairo's Tahrir Square or Kiev's Maidan Nezalezhnosti, were carried by social movements we could most aptly call, as the Spanish do, the indignados - the angry ones. Even in Scotland, where arguably most of the campaigning was done top-down, there now is "so much emotion on the streets". We cannot ignore that passionate conviction is driving political change, whether for good or worse.

Emotions that either seek to sustain or challenge the status quo are not just accepted in today's political world then; they are, apparently, quite requisite these days. This is neither a cause for celebration or desperation, but it certainly demands very careful judgment. We need to recognise that we live in intense political times, where emotions can neither be banished nor ignored when we discuss how political authority, decision-making and legitimacy should operate. Yet to embrace the rise of emotional politics without acknowledging how intimately it is and should be entangled with reason risks undermining, not constituting just political action. Some of our contemporary leaders would do well to heed this on occasion.