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From May's tears to angry Trump, is modern politics too emotional?

We should take our cue from the 18th century and understand that emotion and reason don't have to be opposites.

Politics has become emotional lately. Take Donald Trump, who was scolded by the Chinese state news agency for ‘emotional venting’ on Twitter in response to a missile test by North Korea. And Trump himself is the object of especially febrile emotions.

Karl Vick in Time magazine describes how his election has led to a profound split in the nation’s mental health. In an American Psychological Association survey, one in six US citizens report that the current political environment is a source of ‘significant stress’, and testify to anger, hatred, claustrophobia, relationship breakdowns, anxiety and irritation directly caused by Trump’s presidency.

On the other side of the wellbeing divide, Trump’s supporters declare themselves to be more ‘upbeat’ and envigorated by his energetic ‘wildness’ (although many Republicans also confess heightened levels of unease, directly linked to that unpredictable wildness). In Britain, a similar rise in emotional reactions to political events can be charted over the last couple of years.

Most recently, Theresa May’s speech to the Conservative Party conference – marred by coughing, a disintegrating set and a stage invasion – widely provoked either schadenfreude or sympathy, or an unsettling mixture of the two. And her ‘tears’ have prompted renewed analysis of gendered stereotypes regarding emotion.    

Views differ radically about the degree to which this emotional outpouring is actually desirable in politics. Many commentators, such as the economics professor Eyal Winter, warn that political emotions have a tendency towards irrationality, risk, and groupthink - which is the form of ‘bewitching’ upon which fascism relies. That others make a similar association of political emotion with knee-jerk jingoism was especially visible last summer, during campaigns to leave or remain in the European Union. Many Remain campaigners consciously opposed themselves to the ‘intellectually…bankrupt’, ‘paranoid populism’ and ‘vitriolic’ emotion of the slogans deployed by the Leave movement. These slogans – such as ‘Take back control’ and ‘We want our country back’ – revealed a side to emotional engagement in politics that was criticised by Remainers as mawkish, irrational, and driven by disgust and exclusivity.

In deliberate reaction against such tactics, one journalist emphasised that the ‘logic of “remain” must triumph over the emotion of “leave”.’ And observers noticed this intentionally unemotional character of the Remain campaign. MSN News described how, while Leavers exploited emotions connected to ‘uncontrolled immigration’, Remainers tended to focus on the economic case. The politics lecturer Simon Usherwood analysed the rhetoric employed by both campaigns, and concluded that, while Leavers were more fixated on ‘emotional arguments’, the Remain campaign made a ‘kind of rational economic argument’.

But in the wake of the Leave campaign’s success, Remainers’ opposition to the political recruitment of emotions became less certain. Many belatedly invoked emotional attachments to the EU that they had previously eschewed. Demonstrators wielded placards declaring ‘We love the EU’; social media memes emerged declaring ‘I love EU’, and petitions to belatedly remain included comments declaring love, affection and attachment to the ‘EU and all its diversity’, and describing how leaving ‘hurts’, and is ‘crazy’ and ‘madness’. The emotional reactions that had previously been suppressed now came to the fore, in the form of grief, loss, disappointment and mourning.

Why are we so confused about the role that emotion should play in politics? And was that question always this uncertain? No: in the eighteenth century, the emotional nature of political engagement was staunchly defended. At the beginning of that century, the philosopher Anthony Ashley Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury, was one of a number of writers who held the passions responsible for the very existence of human society. He saw citizens’ most virtuous and sociable instincts revealed in the form of sympathy, compassion and pity.

By the middle of the century, the great economic theorist Adam Smith was emphasising that citizenship required individuals to regulate and temper their passions – not to ‘let it all hang out’, in the parlance of the 1960s. Smith implicitly compared the way in which we all moderate our raw emotions in order to maintain friendships to the ‘invisible hand’ in economics, which guides self-interest towards the benefit of the community. (I was initially startled to confront Smith’s covert comparison of emotional management to economics – but perhaps it should not be so surprising. After all, economics is ‘the study of human wants’, the ‘science of craving’. The way in which we manifest our desires for material objects is entirely subject to economic considerations, and therefore so too are the emotions we might feel about those objects.)

In the second half of the eighteenth century, writers on feeling started showing greater interest in ‘unsocial passions’: anger, resentment, irritation, lust. Jean-Jacques Rousseau emphasised that, as the purpose of the passions was to motivate us to ‘provide for [our] needs’, anti-social emotions were warning signs that certain needs had not been met. Radical political writers built on Rousseau’s ideas to argue that the widespread occurrence of negative emotions in British society were eloquent testimonies to inequality, deprivation and oppression: ‘a savage spirit in the people and tyranny in the possessors of power are to one another cause and effect.’ This is very different to the way in which depression, anxiety, stress and trauma are currently understood and treated, as problems first and foremost in the individual, not in society more generally.

In the revolutionary decade with which the eighteenth century closed, the question of the propriety of emotional engagement in politics became more heated and uncertain. On a literal level, the seismic upheavals of the French Revolution took a significant toll on citizens’ mental health. The French psychiatrist Phillipe Pinel reported how the ‘mental alienation’ of 27 per cent of his 113 patients at the Bicêtre asylum, south of Paris, was directly caused by, or manifested itself in, muddled beliefs concerning ‘events connected with the revolution.’

Many inmates were suffering delusions, especially about the guillotine and decapitation. The politician and commentator Edmund Burke identified that an enormous shift was taking place in attitudes to emotion in the 1790s, a shift which mirrored and directly contributed to the political revolution in France. This ‘revolution in sentiments’ was ‘the most important of all revolutions’, Burke wrote in 1790, one year after the French Revolution had broken out. He held it responsible for overturning a patriarchal ‘age of chivalry’ – in which men felt emotional responsibility for their property and wives – for an age of ‘economists and calculators’, in which citizens’ relationships to one another were enforced by rational contracts.

But while Burke was lambasting revolutionaries for their lack of emotion, most reactionaries were doing the opposite: painting the sans-culottes in France, and the radical movement in Britain, as the unruly offspring of the eighteenth-century’s benevolent attitude towards emotion. Even the radical young poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge distanced himself from the working-class radicals whose temperament he attacked for being wild, excessively passionate, violent and bloody.

This ‘ignorant and needy’ multitude ‘must necessarily act from the impulse of inflamed Passions’, he wrote, and he warned that, ‘unilluminated by Philosophy and stimulated to a lust of Revenge by aggravated wrongs, they would make the Altar of Freedom stream with blood, while the grass grew in the desolated Halls of Justice.’ At the dawn of the nineteenth century, emotional engagement with politics was being tarred with the brush of violent anarchy. This coincided with further ‘revolutions in sentiments’, as Burke had put it: dramatic shifts in attitudes which effectively stripped emotion of the important political role that it had possessed throughout the previous century.

Today, we are living the legacy of this ‘revolution of feeling’. Now we tend to think of emotion as something whose importance predominantly resides in the individual. For example, one blog encourages readers to approach emotion as a ‘pure and natural’ phenomenon, whose cultivation, as part of a process of self-perfection, allows us to appreciate ‘each emotion [as] a beautiful sculpture that is formed when we let ourselves feel.’

Negative emotions are often dealt with through change in the individual – detaching oneself from difficult feelings, or attempting to become reconciled to disappointing circumstances – rather than through change in the material conditions that give rise to widespread dissatisfaction. We lack a thoughtful, nuanced understanding of the role that emotion might play in politics: of the uses of sympathy in collective action. Of the importance of emotional engagement in order to motivate individuals to campaign and vote. Of the idea that emotion and reason are not necessarily opposed, but can work in harmony.

The widespread assumption that emotion is basically apolitical means that it is only relatively recently that women’s disproportionate engagement in emotional labour has been tackled with reference to wider gendered inequalities, and that emotional resources have been acknowledged to be able to be exploited.

But the unsettling and often tragic nature of international politics over the last few years has inevitably provoked strong emotional reactions. We should not be surprised by this, nor, as some Remainers advocated, attempt to suppress all emotions in favour of ‘logic’. It is time, not to fight emotion in politics, but to seek to better understand it.

Rachel Hewitt is the author of A Revolution of Feeling: The Decade that Forged the Modern Mind (Granta, 2017)

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”