Rethink­ing Lib­er­al­ism: The revenge of emotions

Grand Warszawski/​Shutterstock

Emo­tions play a huge role in pop­ulist pol­i­tics. Lib­er­als have largely over­seen the impor­tance of emo­tions. Pop­ulists are able to use fear and other emo­tions against liberal democ­racy. But the answer cannot only be reason. There is another way of approach­ing emo­tions in pol­i­tics, says polish intel­lec­tual Karolina Wigura. 

How illib­eral politi­cians win elec­tions by appeal­ing to our emo­tions (and what their polit­i­cal oppo­nents can do about it).

Amid the rapid turmoil brought about by the coro­n­avirus pan­demic, it has become increas­ingly clear how great a role emo­tions play in global pol­i­tics. Emo­tions influ­enced the deci­sions of entire states to intro­duce strict lock­down con­di­tions. They also under­pin the great protest move­ments we have observed through­out 2020. From Black Lives Matter demon­stra­tions in the US and UK through protests in defence of women’s rights in Poland, those phe­nom­ena hHave their source in a great inten­si­fi­ca­tion of social emo­tions during the pan­demic. Fear and anxiety easily change into anger and rage which has been illus­trated well by those move­ments of protest.

One might wonder what’s so strange about this. For cen­turies people have been aware that pol­i­tics appeals to emo­tions. Leaders of various greater and lesser states have per­fected their ability to spark emo­tions among their sub­jects at least since the days of Machi­avelli, who, in his famous trea­tise The Prince, claimed that a ruler should be able to effec­tively strike both fear and love.

Today, however, in the era of social media, emo­tions are not just an acces­sory to polit­i­cal strat­egy. They’re at its very heart, and those who can make the best use of them are also effec­tive at winning elec­tions. This is espe­cially chal­leng­ing for those politi­cians who wish to defend liberal democ­racy. After all, in recent years it has been its enemies who, for various reasons, have per­fected the art of address­ing mass emo­tions. The French philoso­pher Pierre Hassner wrote a few years ago about what he called the revenge of the pas­sions. We truly live in the times of the revenge of emotion. This calls for under­stand­ing and an appro­pri­ate reaction.

Karolina Wigura is assis­tant pro­fes­sor in soci­ol­ogy at uni­ver­sity of Warsaw and Editor of Kultura Lib­er­alna, a liberal media organ­i­sa­tion and journal. 

Is pol­i­tics the domain of reason or passion?

Until recently pol­i­tics appeared to be a domain of reason. Since liberal democ­racy defeated fascism in 1945, the belief has been that emo­tions in pol­i­tics lead to bloody upheavals and ethnic cleans­ing. That they should be treated with sus­pi­cion. And that good polit­i­cal systems should first and fore­most promote edu­ca­tion, law, con­sti­tu­tion­al­ism and inde­pen­dent insti­tu­tions. Addi­tion­ally, the idea was to grad­u­ally increase stan­dards of living so that people never again expe­ri­enced the level of anger and frus­tra­tion that once led to the dom­i­nance of polit­i­cal extremes and cruelty pre­vi­ously unprece­dented in Europe. This was to guar­an­tee that order and sta­bil­ity would be more durable than ever before.

A few years ago, however, things began to change. All at once, cit­i­zens of many coun­tries began to express anxiety, frus­tra­tion, fear and anger. They addressed these emo­tions against the liberal elites that gov­erned them. Then there were also politi­cians who readily seized on this public mood: the illib­er­als. Unlike their liberal coun­ter­parts, they expressed an under­stand­ing for these emo­tions. They pro­vided a vent for these feel­ings, and directed them against the old polit­i­cal and legal elites, foreign migrants and people living in a dif­fer­ent way than the major­ity. As a remedy, the illib­er­als promised a new wave of democ­ra­ti­sa­tion, sup­pos­edly placing public insti­tu­tions in the hands of citizens.

An example of exactly this kind of phe­nom­e­non is the victory and con­tin­u­ing pop­u­lar­ity of Poland’s Law and Justice party (PiS) with its anti-elitist, anti-minor­ity and anti-liberal rhetoric. But PiS is cer­tainly not unique. A long list of groups around the globe are cut from a similar cloth and they are either winning elec­tions or gaining size­able support. The list includes Donald Trump in the USA, Alter­na­tive für Deutsch­land in Germany, Thierry Baudet’s Forum for Democ­racy in the Nether­lands, Brexit sup­port­ers in the UK, Fidesz in Hungary, and so forth.

Elec­toral vic­to­ries by these politi­cians rapidly result in either the decom­po­si­tion of the rule of law and inde­pen­dent insti­tu­tions (as is the case in Poland) or at least put massive pres­sure on them (like in the USA). At the same time they enjoy social support. In Poland, PiS is in power for a second par­lia­men­tary term and has also had its pres­i­dent re-elected. In Hungary, Victor Orbán wins elec­tions one after another. When observ­ing what is hap­pen­ing, lib­er­als often reproach cit­i­zens by claim­ing they have been bought by illib­er­als, that their resent­ment and cyn­i­cism have allowed these changes to take place.

Democ­racy and a sense of loss

All this can also be described dif­fer­ently. The reasons behind the current polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion, and also the key to moving past it, lie in the great social and cul­tural shift in mass emo­tions we are all subject to.

“Step-by-step, year-by-year, the world is improv­ing. Not on every single measure every single year, but as a rule. Though the world faces huge chal­lenges, we have made tremen­dous progress. This is the fact-based world­view.” This is how, in his beau­ti­ful book Fact­ful­ness, the Swedish doctor and researcher on public health Hans Rosling describes the effects of the progress that has occurred glob­ally in recent history.

These changes span the last 200 years, but their great­est accel­er­a­tion has fallen in the last half a century. In par­ic­u­lar, these include the reduc­tion in infant mor­tal­ity rates; higher life expectancy; access to running water in house­holds; an enhanced level of edu­ca­tion for boys and girls; dietary stan­dards; access to tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments such as cars, com­put­ers and mobile phones; and, above all, an increase in the level of wealth of entire soci­eties, raising them from the lowest to at least average levels of affluence.

It would seem that this great sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal shift and the trans­for­ma­tion in ways of life should lead to increased opti­mism for the future and to a belief that we and our chil­dren can expect to live in a better world. Yet the paradox is that by reach­ing col­lec­tive success, we feel deeply frus­trated. Why is that so?

Like any change, devel­op­ment also comes at a cost. This is because change means loss. Long­stand­ing ties, cemented by tra­di­tion and social order, fall apart. Behav­ioural strate­gies, which thus far have func­tioned per­fectly, lose their effec­tive­ness. A loss of tried and tested habits occurs. And so, devel­op­ment is dif­fi­cult for emo­tional reasons; not despite the fact that it brings success, but pre­cisely because it does. This leads to the expe­ri­ence of a pow­er­ful emotion, namely a sense of loss. From there, we are just a step away from fear, frus­tra­tion and anxiety.

The politi­cians who were first to under­stand this mech­a­nism have been able to perform great feats in recent years. The perfect illus­tra­tion of this phe­nom­e­non is the success of Jarosław Kaczyński’s polit­i­cal group in Poland. He was able to trans­late the rather ambiva­lent and unde­fined sense of loss into very con­crete emo­tions: the fear of migrants and minor­ity groups (like the LGBT com­mu­nity), anger with the liberal elites, with the found­ing fathers and mothers of the Third Polish Republic.

We could find a similar expla­na­tion for the success enjoyed by the Alter­na­tive für Deutsch­land. Again, the sit­u­a­tion could easily be mis­un­der­stood. Many people in my country, like in other post-com­mu­nist states, believe eastern Germany should be bub­bling with enthu­si­asm related to its trans­for­ma­tion after 1989. When the wall came down and inter­na­tional powers per­mit­ted the re-uni­fi­ca­tion of Germany, the GDR was the only former post-com­mu­nist state that did not need to worry about where to find the funds for its mod­erni­sa­tion. West Germany pumped exor­bi­tant amounts of money into the infra­struc­ture of the eastern Länder. Train sta­tions and roads were either refur­bished or built anew, and his­toric cities were rebuilt. It was assumed that the trans­for­ma­tion would happen quickly, almost like a second Mar­shall Plan.

However, it quickly turned out that, con­trary to initial expec­ta­tions, the former GDR has not repeated the eco­nomic miracle of West Germany under Chan­cel­lor Erhard. Key macro­eco­nomic values (a lower rate of eco­nomic growth, a surge in unem­ploy­ment, etc.) were markedly dif­fer­ent to those of 1950s West Germany. It is, then, no wonder that even though Germany has been cel­e­brat­ing the 30-year anniver­sary of its uni­fi­ca­tion, the German media is full of scep­ti­cism and doubt about the real con­se­quences of the reuni­fi­ca­tion process. Dis­cus­sions point to short­com­ings, lost chances for entire groups of the pop­u­la­tion, unequal pay. Another argu­ment, raised in the dis­cus­sions about 30th Anniver­sary of German uni­fi­ca­tion is the missing recog­ni­tion of easter German achieve­ments after 1989. There are also nearly no elites from eastern Germany. The polit­i­cal ben­e­fi­ciary of all these reser­va­tions in the eastern Länder is none other than Alter­na­tive für Deutschland.

Empathy, belong­ing, and pluralism

So what should the defend­ers of liberal democ­racy do in the current sit­u­a­tion? For many, the first intu­itive response to pol­i­tics red-hot with emotion is that of reason. And there are good grounds for it. The history of Euro­pean pol­i­tics of at least this past century has taught us to be cau­tious when it comes to this sphere of the indi­vid­ual and social psyche. It is easy to manip­u­late emo­tions, recent exam­ples of which include both the atroc­i­ties caused by national social­ism in Germany and all sorts of other nation­al­ists, for example those whose actions led to war in the former Yugoslavia.

And so, the intel­lec­tual fathers and mothers of modern liberal democ­racy, like the popular German philoso­pher Jürgen Haber­mas or the Amer­i­can thinker Martha Nuss­baum, encour­age us to approach emo­tions with caution, and to trans­form them into ideas, or at least into careful liberal edu­ca­tion. In the view of Haber­mas, a new kind of patri­o­tism should be invented: instead of national feel­ings which may at times trans­form into exclu­sion of whole social groups and hos­til­ity, the philoso­pher pro­poses the concept of con­sti­tu­tional patri­o­tism, based on the Ver­fas­sung in Germany and the Lisbon Treaty for the EU.

Nuss­baum, on the other hand, has given a lot of reflec­tion to love, fear, and other emo­tions crucial to our col­lec­tive lives. When it comes to dealing with emo­tions in pol­i­tics, however, what she sug­gests is a rather utopian project of “Socratic ped­a­gogy” which is to lead to crit­i­cal under­stand­ing first and only then to com­pas­sion and sym­pa­thy. This approach is informed by the fact that many people who com­pre­hend the cost of trans­for­ma­tion and the sense of loss would be more likely to say that it is much better to focus on the rule of law, and insti­tu­tions, rather than the unpre­dictable reac­tions of the heart.

But there is also another way of approach­ing emo­tions in pol­i­tics. Instead of remov­ing them, we should look for such ways of working with them, and for such lan­guage of express­ing them, that would make them serve a better, not worse, polit­i­cal com­mu­nity. At the same time, this should allow for effec­tive­ness at the ballot box. An inno­va­tion in liberal pol­i­tics, there­fore, is a return to the sense of loss and an attempt to have a con­ver­sa­tion with that emotion, an attempt to respond to it with empathy and to create an alter­na­tive to illib­eral projects – in the form of an unxeno­pho­bic sense of belong­ing to one’s own polit­i­cal community.

The col­lec­tive sense of loss I have described can be likened to grief after the loss of a loved one. In the process of griev­ing, our first reac­tion is to look back and to dwell on the loss. And so, we could compare the content of reac­tionary illib­er­al­ism to pre­cisely this phase of griev­ing. Yet from the expe­ri­ence we have as people, we know that griev­ing also has other phases. One of them is the one during which we work on reviv­ing our­selves and on the sources of hope for the future. This is the phase that requires courage, hope and com­pas­sion, espe­cially for those who are unlike us.

This, then, could shape the future direc­tion of lib­er­al­ism This sort of polit­i­cal project has already begun to sprout inter­na­tion­ally. Zuzana Čaputová’s land­slide victory in the 2019 pres­i­den­tial elec­tions in Slo­va­kia could be explained through her posi­tion­ing of empathy at the very heart of her cam­paign. The pre­vi­ously little-known activist won the 2019 pres­i­den­tial race with a com­mand­ing 58 % of the vote in Slo­va­kia, long dom­i­nated by the pop­ulist party Smer-SD (Direction–Social Democ­racy). In my country, Poland, the mayoral candidate

Rafał Trza­skowski crushed a rival from PiS in the first round in Warsaw’s 2018 munic­i­pal elec­tion. Even if Trza­skowski lost the 2020 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, the sheer scale of support for him showed that making empathy an impor­tant, or even essen­tial element of polit­i­cal lan­guage, is key to success at the polls.

Emo­tions and Covid-19 pandemic

To con­clude, we should return to the Covid-19 pan­demic, to the ques­tion of its impact on col­lec­tive emo­tions and of how politi­cians can react to them. When the pan­demic broke, his­toric accounts of various epi­demics in the history of our con­ti­nent (and, more broadly, the entire planet) were helpful in sug­gest­ing what emo­tions would be stirred up, and what role they could play. The first and most impor­tant emotion tied to a pan­demic is, of course, fear. This fear has many pos­si­ble facets, but our reac­tions to it have remained unchanged for cen­turies. Today, just as in Boccacio’s day, we hear of the fear people have of a dan­ger­ous illness, spread around by those who live among us, by our own neighbours.

The second emotion widely spoken about since the great epi­demics of ancient Europe is sus­pi­cious­ness. In his History of the Pelo­pon­nesian War, Thucy­dides recounts the sus­pi­cion that the disease was created by Pelo­pon­nesians, who allegedly poi­soned the water in wells. 14th century doc­u­ments recount how Jewish pogroms were caused by the sus­pi­cion that Jews har­boured the Black Death. How is all this dif­fer­ent to today’s gossip that the coro­n­avirus is the product of a Chinese, or even Chinese-Jewish conspiracy?

Finally, the third basic pan­demic emotion is uncer­tainty. This emotion is also widely dis­cussed in his­toric accounts of epi­demics. Uncer­tainty was pre­dom­i­nantly linked to the fact that the rule of law crum­bled under plagues – it was no longer clear what common rules were in place anymore.

The current pan­demic and its con­comi­tant emo­tions create an addi­tional film over all that that had pre­vi­ously func­tioned in global pol­i­tics. If the oppo­nents of pop­ulists really dream of taking power from them, or at least of dimin­ish­ing their pop­u­lar­ity, they will have to con­sider all that is cur­rently at play. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, after the victory in the US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, did not hes­i­tate to appeal to courage and hope for the future. This might be the first sign of lib­er­als being ready to rein­vent pol­i­tics for the XXI century, trans­lat­ing fear into courage, sus­pi­cious­ness into caution and uncer­tainty into creativity.