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English review - Politics and Emotion

In contemporary political campaigns, it sometimes seems as if appeals to emotions have eclipsed the role of argumentative debate. Appeals to emotions as a strategy for gaining popularity, starting public debate or formulating collective identities can be seen not just in traditional political institutions, such as parliaments and electoral campaigns. Appeals to emotion also play an important role in public debate, protest movements and social activism. Do deliberation and reason still have a place in contemporary politics? Or have appeals to emotion completely displaced these argumentative strategies, in favour of politicians tugging at our heartstrings? Eva Groen-Reijman, political philosopher at the university of Wageningen, has focussed on the legitimacy of political campaigns in general in the past, and discussed the legitimacy of the use of emotional appeals in these campaigns. Mathijs van de Sande, political philosopher at the Radboud University, looked at the role emotion plays in political movements outside of traditional political institutions. After their lectures, the two discussed emotion in politics further with program manager Tjidde Tempels.

Emotional Campaigning and Deliberative Politics

Before addressing the legitimacy of the use of emotional appeals in political campaigns, Groen-Reijman started by dispelling some myths about political campaigning in general and the use of emotions in these campaigns in particular. First, it is sometimes held that campaigns do not matter. Campaigns are brief periods and they influence very few voters. Instead, what happens in parliament, or what people believe in their day-to-day lives, is held to be more important. Groen-Reijman contested this view by stating that campaigns serve a crucial function in representative politics. Campaigns make clear how the aspiring representatives envision the right course for a given community and what they believe to be the most relevant issues. Thereby, political campaigns facilitate public debate about what to do about certain issues. Secondly, Groen-Reijman argued that it is not true either, that those influenced by emotional political campaigns are politically naïve. Rather, it turns out that those people that are most attentive to politics are more easily influenced by emotional campaigns. Finally, it also does not hold that appeals to negative emotions such as fear always have negative consequences. Appeals to fear, for climate change for example, can stimulate people to look into it and further think about these issues.

After dispelling these myths about emotions and political campaigning, Groen-Reijman asked what a good political campaign actually entails. She argued that a good campaign is not simply a successful campaign, as some believe. Groen-Reijman instead insisted on a deliberative view of politics, in which the goal is not merely to gain power, but also to facilitate public deliberation. From that perspective a good campaign is a campaign that facilitates public discussion. This means giving the public the right information about issues and possible solutions, so that a fruitful debate can arise. This does not mean however that appeals to emotions are completely excluded from political campaigns, because appeals to emotions can be beneficial for the public debate as well. Emotions can show that representative care about certain issues, as well as incite people to seriously consider an issue.

While reasonable argumentation and clear information should remain central from a deliberative democratic point of view, emotions play an important part as well. Therefore, it is important to find the right balance between reasonable discussion and emotional appeals in political campaigns.

Cheating at the Democratic Game?

Mathijs van de Sande discussed the role protest movements play in a democracy and the kind of tactics they make use of. He started by pointing out, that a large part of contemporary politics is happening not just within political institutions, such as parliaments and campaigns, but also in the form of protest movements such as ‘We Are The 99%’, ‘Extinction Rebellion’, or ‘We Are Here’. These movements are often perceived as illegitimate. Van de Sande identified three main reasons why these movements are often considered illegitimate, and sought to refute these. First, they are often seen as illegitimate because they break the law with their protests. However, according to Van de Sande, the way they break the law is a distinct kind of breaking the law, namely civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is a form of action in which one person refuses, or a group of persons refuse, to comply with certain rules in order to make a public statement on a state of affairs in order to bring about change. What sets this apart from simply breaking the law, and might make it a legitimate form of action, is that the activists often turn to civil disobedience as a last resort and are not merely doing it for their own good, but want to motivate others.

The second reason why protest movements are often seen as illegitimate, is because they have not been officially elected to represent the people. Van de Sande, however, argued that elected representation is not the only way that people can be represented. Movements such as ‘We Are The 99%’ might not have been elected in any official way, they represent a group of people by forming the group they represent. The third reason why protest movements are often deemed illegitimate, is because they make an illegitimate appeal to emotions. The philosopher contested this by pointing out the important role of emotion in the formation of political groups. Solidarity and trust are key to form a coherent political group that can also make demands and make itself heard. So the appeals to emotion of protest movements are of central importance in formulating new political groups that need to be heard in political debates.

Van de Sande therefore concluded that protest movements should not be perceived as illegitimate ways of political activity, but instead as movements that participate in politics by questioning the given political order, making representative claims on behalf of formerly unheard and unformed groups, and that they use emotion in order to be able to do so.

Emotions, Always Present, Sometimes Helpful

Politics and emotion seem intrinsically linked and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Emotions such as trust and solidarity are crucial for the coherence that a well-functioning democracy needs. Emotions such as fear and anger can make people seriously look into certain issues. According to Groen-Reijman we do not have to fear the use of emotions in politics absolutely, but we should be wary of the harm that the use of emotions in politics can cause to the democratic ideal of a deliberative society. Van de Sande also acknowledged the important role of emotions in the formation of political groups, regardless of whether they are inside or outside the traditional political institutions. Furthermore, protest movements can question the current political status quo by bringing new issues to light and representing formerly unrepresented groups and interests, especially by appealing to emotions. It thus seems that, despite how we might feel about it, politics and emotion are inextricably linked.

This report was written by Ward van Weenen, as part of the Research Master Philosophy of the Radboud University.