Rethinking Liber­alism: The revenge of emotions

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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.

Dr. habil. Karolina Wigura is a historian of ideas, soci­ol­o­gist, and jour­nalist. She is member of the Board of Kultura Liberalna Foun­da­tion, based in Warsaw, and a Senior Fellow of the Center for Liberal Modernity, based in Berlin. Wigura is also lecturer at Warsaw University’s Institute of Sociology and focuses on the political philos­ophy of the 20th century and emotions in politics, as well as sociology and ethics of memory, partic­u­larly tran­si­tional justice, histor­ical guilt, and recon­cil­i­a­tion. She is also an assistant professor and member of the European Council on Foreign Relations. From 2016 to 2018, she was a co-director of the Polish Programme in St. Antony’s College at Univer­sity of Oxford. 

Wigura was awarded fellow­ships at Institute of Advanced Studies in Berlin, Robert Bosch Academy, Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna, German Marshall Fund, and St. Antony’s College at Univer­sity of Oxford. In 2008, she received the Grand Press prize for her interview with Jürgen Habermas “Europe in death paralysis.” Wigura is the author of The Guilt of Nations: Forgive­ness as a Political Strategy (2011) and The Invention of Modern Heart: Philo­soph­ical Sources of Contem­po­rary Thinking of Emotions (2019) – both in Polish. Her work has also been published in The Guardian, The New York Times, Neue Zuercher Zeitung, Gazeta Wyborcza, and other peri­od­i­cals. Her latest book co-authored with a conser­v­a­tive and catholic intel­lec­tual Tomasz Terlikowski is “Polish atheist vs. Polish Catholic” recently became one of best­sellers in Poland (2022). Wigura is currently preparing, together with Jarosław Kuisz, a book on the impact of the war in Ukraine on Central and Eastern Europe for Suhrkamp Verlag. Wigura studied sociology, philos­ophy, and political science at Univer­sity of Warsaw and Univer­sity of Munich. She received her doctorate and habil­i­ta­tion from Univer­sity of Warsaw.

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.