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by Matthew Flinders
2nd October 2020

Emotion (noun)
– a strong feeling such as love or anger, or strong feelings in general.
– the feeling that someone has about a product or service that can influence their decision whether to buy it or not.
– arguably the defining force driving, shaping and framing political phenomena.

If the 20th century ended with an outpouring of research and writing about the health of democracy, then the opening decades of the 21st century have been defined by scholarship on the rise of populism.

This huge volume of work charts the decline of traditional forms of political engagement, falling levels of public trust in politicians and the emergence of a worrying gap between the governors and the governed. Concerns for democracy have evolved into interpretations of crisis with even the most ardent or balanced defenders of democracy seeming increasingly anxious. Anyone who doubts the authenticity of this position can simply examine the intellectual evolution of John Keane; his magisterial The Life and Death of Democracy (2009) provided a balanced and optimistic account of social and democratic change. Just over a decade later, his latest book, The New Despotism (2020), warns of the corruption and inversion of democracy. Add to this the work on ‘pitchfork politics’, the growth of ‘illiberal democracies’ and ‘democratic backsliding’ as a consequence of COVID-19 and the world begins to look decidedly gloomy.

It’s probably worth mentioning that the ‘undoing of democracy’ has been something of a perennial theme within the social and political sciences. It’s been nearly half a century since the Trilateral Commission published its landmark report on The Crisis of Democracy and so maybe – just maybe – the time has come to dig beneath the democratic debris to understand the deeper roots of disaffection. We need to develop new perspectives, tools and insights that shed fresh light on these perennial themes and began to achieve some sense of control over the democratic challenge.

Why the need for new perspectives, tools and insights?

The first relates to academic cultures and rituals. Many years ago, John Kenneth Galbraith advised younger scholars that if they ever wanted a lucrative book contract they should propose ‘The crisis of American democracy’ because the apocalyptic appetites of publishers and the public could never be sated. Even the most cursory analysis of recent books on democracy reveals a distinctly one-sided analytical and normative basis. Crisis and chains, revolts and rupture, disaffection and death, suicide and salvation… but very little work that embraces Elinor Ostrom’s plea that political science be self-aware in the sense of challenging dominant assumptions and self-evident truths.

The point is not to deny the existence of the dangers of populism or the innate fragility of democracy but to acknowledge that repetition of this disaster narrative risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by eviscerating public confidence, and dare I say hope, in the collective capacity of mankind to control and reduce shared risks.

It is this focus on ‘hope’ that brings me to my central point: those who want to understand the transformation of society need to understand the changing emotional landscape, and how critical shifts in popular feelings are affecting democratic politics.

It is this shift in popular feelings that populist parties have been able to recognise and (critically) to funnel and flame. If this is ‘the age of anger’ where we are all in a state of collective doubt and anguish then it is populist politicians who have recognised that ‘feelings trump facts’. If you feel you have no future, if you feel hopeless and left behind, if you feel unloved and undervalued, if you feel a stranger in your own land…, then no amount of ‘evidence’, ‘science’, or ‘facts’ is going to change your mind.

It’s not the economy stupid, it’s emotions. Period.

In the UK, the Brexit debate was settled not by hard cold facts or economic predictions but by a relentless campaign of emotive posturing and positioning by the Leave campaign. The aim was not to present a coherent or even truthful argument but to create an emotional connection with vast sections of the public that had, for one reason or another, lost confidence in the ability of mainstream politics to deliver for them. The paradox is that the likes of Donald Trump or Boris Johnson are not known for their emotional intelligence or empathy. What they brought to the table was an outsider or maverick status that disaffected democrats were willing to take a chance on.

Anyone who doubts this link between emotions and populism should read Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land (2016). This piece reveals the study of emotions to be some way beyond the mainstream focus of political science when it should be at the core.

You don’t measure or gauge emotional undercurrents or the mood of the people through survey responses, questionnaires or the algorithmic analysis of ‘big data’. You do it through embedded observation or more emotionally attuned social and political science. There is much to be said for what Richard F. Fenno described as ‘watching politicians’ (1990) – seeing the faces of the people in the crowds, tracing the emotional reactions, listening to how the views and attitudes of the audience change and exploring the degree to which facts can break through an emotional barricade.

It is the politician who forges a connection with the dominant popular emotion of any given moment that wins. Politics is essentially about mood-reading and mood-shaping; just as it is about funnelling and framing frustration.

This is arguably where Boris Johnson and Donald Trump excel.

Boris is defined by blond ambition; he does not attempt to hide his disdain for fine detail but where he excels is in reading the mood of a community and strategically exploiting his well-honed performative skills to suggest that he understands how they feel. That an Eton-schooled, Oxford-educated, Bullingdon Club boy should be able to engage in ‘anti-establishment’ populist politics is a reflection of carefully calibrated chameleon-like skills. But there is little doubt that he uses his blustering buffoonery and faux flattery to craft a connection with the mood of the public.

Trump, by contrast, is defined by an arguably more sinister form of statecraft. He ‘gets’ the emotional landscape of American politics and seeks to exploit division, putting self-interest above public-interest. In recent weeks this has come to the fore in a strategy that seeks to both express and feel the ‘real’ pain of white law-abiding American men while framing the angry black man as little more than a folk devil. As Benjamin Wallace-Wells has noted, Trump’s campaign may not be staffed by many strategists but it clearly has a strategy – to inflame emotions, deepen the pre-existing schisms and underline the need for a strong leader who is willing to break the rules. Not surprisingly, this is all about building what Hochschild called ‘the empathy walls’ between different social groups. As Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times, recently pointed out: ‘Not in generations has a sitting president so overtly declared himself the candidate of white America.’ The emotional landscape of Trumpism looks pretty bleak but maybe, just maybe, this reflects at least some awareness within the White House of the core argument of this piece: feelings trump facts.

Matthew Flinders is Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre and Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield, he can be found on Twitter @politicalspike. He is guest editing the upcoming Global Discourse themed issue Understanding the Politics of Fear: COVID-19, Crises and Democracy.

What Kind of Democracy Is This? by Matthew Flinders is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £8.79.

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