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.

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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)