Rethinking Liberalism: The revenge of emotions
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.
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.