Populist politicians are not new to the global stage, they have routinely emerged throughout history. However, thanks to the internet, populists in the 21st century are proving to be difficult to compete with. This is because of a transition towards emotional politics – the right has weaponised emotions for short term gain. To fight populist politics, the left too needs to embrace emotional politics.
When millions of working-class Americans voted for Donald Trump in 2016, they did so because Trump appealed to feelings and emotions. They were angry and upset that the system was not working for them, and in Trump, they saw a chance to change the status quo. While emotion alone is not responsible for Trump’s presidency, it certainly played a strong role. From Modi in India to Bolsanaro in Brazil, emotional politics have given rise to the current populist wave.
We’ve seen how emotions can be weaponised before – from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Wall Street movement. If you look at the protesters marching against the death of George Floyd in America, you can see that it’s not just African American protestors, protesters of all colours and creeds are present. Anyone who feels strongly about the incident is on the streets. That’s the power of emotion.
Emotions can also be attributed to the changing nature of protests. In the early days of the Arab Spring, the protests were focussed around the economic conditions, but within months evolved into anti-government protests denouncing corruption, authoritarianism, human rights violations and poverty. Similarly, protests in late 2019 in India started off against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, before evolving into a larger protest against the government’s right-wing policies.
The challenge with political emotions is that they are ambiguous, there’s no accurate way to measure it. And since emotions are easy to change, using it to predict political phenomenon is almost impossible. Just think of the 2016 US Presidential elections, no one for a second believed Donald Trump had a chance of becoming President. Yet here we are, four years later.
The link between emotions and populism has been carefully documented by Paolo Cossarini, Fernando Vallespín in their book “Populism and Passions- Democratic Legitimacy after Austerity”. Emotions, together with values, attitudes, rituals and performances of all kinds, are part of our identity, and they play a crucial role in forming our worldviews and creating social bonds. In addition, emotions motivate individuals and groups to engage in political action. They can be both the means and the ends of these actions, and they shape, often rhetorically, political goals and strategies.
The Right Kind of Emotions
It’s important to note that not all emotions can be weaponised. There’s a certain ‘class’ of emotions suited for liberal politics, and these are usually the negative kind – anger, hate and greed. Fuelling these emotions gives rise to hate groups, who through their violent acts can lead to the collapse of rational democracy. What began in the White House has today trickled down to everyday American society. By normalising hate, and violence, Trump has shown just how devastating those emotions can be in politics.
That said, anger is a good example of an emotion that can be reconfigured to push back against populism. The rise of Extinction Rebellion and #MeToo are examples of this. The deep sense of injustice that lies at the core of these movements is a key driver for angry citizens to participate in political demonstrations, and to support radical changes in our political and economic systems.
Other emotions, like empathy and hope to have a role to play. They can trigger affective bonds which are more open to cultural diversity, equality and democratic participation, and which can foster a more progressive and egalitarian agenda. President Obama for instance often used hope as a theme in his speeches. It may not have been as powerful as Trump’s use of hate, but it nonetheless was effective.
Why Do They Appeal to Populists?
Emotions, then, are part and parcel of politics in all its forms – they are not exclusive to populism – but is there something specific to populist emotional appeals that are missing from the supposedly-rational deliberation of non-populist forms of politics? This question is particularly interesting for at least two reasons.
The first has to do with the style of politics. Populists thrive on performative actions and believe in the power of images. Look at Trump walking around without a mask, even though his own government recommends it. Similarly, Boris Johnson reverted to delivering milk as part of a campaign for the 2019 elections. Such performances help to deliver the ‘people vs establishment’ narrative that populists drive.
This narrative calls for charismatic leaders, who don’t shy away from the camera. They are able to capitalise on the sense of alienation and betrayal that they claim citizens feel towards political institutions. They then insert themselves in situations, to affirm this narrative. Without the anger and hatred, populists would have little reason to do what they do, which would then remove them from the public eye.
Secondly, taking emotions seriously in political analysis can also help to make populism – a notoriously slippery phenomenon – much clearer, allowing us to see its deeper impact on societies. Everywhere in the world, populists need to divide society into two blocs. For Trump that’s Americans vs immigrants, for Johnson, it’s Britain vs the EU etc. Creating these blocs, and identifying the antagonist require emotion. Emotions shape both of these elements of populism in crucial ways.
Identity formation relies heavily on emotion since there’s no clear cut definition for most groups. ‘The people’ and the ‘establishment’ are collective identities that are formed through passionate engagement. To understand this, let’s look at the current wave of protests in America following the killing of George Floyd.
By its nature, the police are a toll of the state and can thus be seen as part of the ‘establishment’. However, as violence and rioting began to spread, Trump called for the police, as well as other establishment tools like the National Guard and the military to be deployed. If identity formation relied solely on rational thinking, Trump supporters should’ve rallied against the deployment of the police or National Guard. They are part of the very establishment Trump and his cronies have been fighting against.
However, because they are so caught up in the emotions, Trump is able to sell these tools as tools ‘for the people’. He was able to sell the deployment of armed police as a necessity for the people. Emotion allowed Trump to manipulate the identity of the ‘establishment’ for his own needs, with little or no check from conservative supporters.
The Role of Social Media
Of course, all this would not have been possible without social media, the biggest enabler for populists in the 21st century. The construction of ‘the people’ and the structuring of society into two opposing blocs are processes that increasingly take place on social media. It is here that identity-formation takes place. Connecting people who think alike rather than promoting informed dialogue between different groups reinforce narrow identities and produces sharply contrasting affective communities.
Reinforcement through social media is far more effective than any other medium simply because social media is structured to create echo chambers. They are structured to allow us to hear exactly what we want to hear, with little or no effort. Networks fill the public sphere with heat and noise and prevent critical thinking and cross-partisan engagement. Excessive social media usage can contribute to political essentialism.
The left has also been known to embrace emotional politics, not just in the 21st century but long before as well. The challenge is that they are less aware of the dynamics of emotions, and their potential in the digital era. The risk for the left is that, as its politics become increasingly emotional in the search for personal and public traction, this may further trivialize the political debate, paradoxically reinforcing right-wing populism and nationalism.
While populists may claim to ‘revive’ democracy and offer a vision of a ‘return’ to simpler governance, the truth is that democracy is in grave danger. It is being attacked, not just from outside forces, but also from within. Democratic legitimacy – the idea that existing representative political institutions are the most appropriate for managing society – is under fire.
It is therefore of great importance that progressive politics must seek to renew its strength by using passionate engagement. The strength of reasoning in the public sphere, even when channelled by powerful emotional messages, must not disappear from the democratic stage.