The Importance of Emotion in Politics

 Ellie McFarland | @El_FarAwayLand

The 2020 election is nearly a year away and presidential campaigns are in full swing. It’s important to keep policies in full view for this election. The value of scandal, personality cults, and individual moral over voting history and policy ended in 2016. This is exactly the time to abandon emotion in favor of facts and statistics. However, while the presidential race heats up, the “culture war” rages behind the scenes. This is where everyday politics happens, especially with the death of the mainstream media. These are conversations about law, ideology, philosophy, and more. And in these conversations, emotion is vitally important.

Morality

This isn’t to say that facts and logic are irrelevant, or that emotion is the only thing that should be considered in a debate on politics. But this is to say that these conversations cover things that, at their root, are about morality. And morality it turns out is strictly emotional. Unless the conversation is about something like the evolution, the shape of the Earth, or the existence of some object, it always comes back to feelings. People like Ben Shapiro can pretend that their arguments about the immorality of abortion are factual all they want, but their politics have just as much emotion as everyone else’s. A conversation about abortion will never rest on a scientific fact if a person values the life of a mother over the life of a fetus.  

Morality, unlike scientific reality, is not something that can be proven in any objective or quantifiable capacity. It’s a difficult situation, but wishing for another doesn’t make it appear. This is true even when it comes to issues as sterile as pothole filling. Congress, Senate, or whoever makes the decision, will still have to take into account emotion. It is inherent in the question “what kind of world do we want to live in?”. This is the question that is at the root of all governmental and political decisions or debates. Should we outlaw cannabis? A person who values a society where people can do what they please with their own bodies wouldn’t think so. But a person who values public health over absolute freedom might very well think we should.

The Core of the Discussion

Logic and facts can and should always supplement these discussions, but they will never be the core. David Hume said, “Reason is, and ought only to be a slave to the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”. When examined closely, even the pothole situation is ruled by “the passions”. Filling the pothole means diverting resources from other things. This carries an implicit assumption of value and therefore feeling. Why fill this specific First Street pothole rather than the one on Third Street? Well because no one uses Third Street. We decide it is better to improve the commute of 600 people rather than the commute of 7 people. This is because people would rather have a world where resources are used to help the most amount of people. By and large at least.

Divisions of Values

The truth is, most people making decisions in modern politics have the same values. Then, when all the relevant values are agreed upon, the conversation about how to best achieve a goal becomes an objective one. Then, it becomes a talk about facts and statistics, which is beautiful and productive in itself. But in real politics, the conversations real people are having, values sometimes run completely against each other. This is why emotion is so important in this discussion of politics.

A socialist is put off by a dangerously free market and a capitalist is put off by bureaucratic regulation and red tape. This may be because of how they were raised, the situations they were put through, or any number of other reasons. But they are all fundamentally emotional. A difference in values always arises from a difference in the presence or placement of some emotion. To convince someone of your values, you have to convince them your position is fundamentally good. Or, at least that it’s better than the alternative. But what is “good” or “better”? They are subjective, nearly gut feelings.  

The Philosophical Angle

That is the philosophical angle only, though. The practical implications lie in whether or not a society is happy, or at least not angry. This is the goal of an effective government in the first place. The American revolution wasn’t spurred because the founding fathers deduced England’s rule was illogical. They found it was immoral and they reacted with explosive anger to end an oppressive regime. All state oppression that has ended has ended because people felt dissatisfied in some way. Maybe people’s taxes went up, so they voted someone else in. But maybe the state was killing civilians and there was a nation-wide coup.

Being Put off by Ideas

In politics, Emotion is primarily important to consider when making a law or policy if a politician has any desire involving reelection. It’s also important to consider in any political conversation outside of pure theory. One of the reasons anarchy isn’t a very popular idea is because people feel that it’s dangerous. Anarchists will never convince people to abolish the state on the basis of monetary waste alone. They will have to convince people that the government’s waste or violence is worse than the somewhat unstable idea of lawlessness. Until this is done, no anarchist ideas will ever be achieved. People don’t go along with ideas, much less a revolution, they are put off by. This same idea also goes for the more milquetoast political ideas.

Is Emotion a Necessary Evil?

Emotion, in a less radical light, is a necessary factor to consider to maintain or create any amount of power. Because in fact, at our core we are no less animal than a dog. We can pretend in the short term that facts and logic are what really rule our society. But when you get down to it, facts and logic only serve to spin our emotions in different directions. Something that sums this point up pretty spectacularly is presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s tweet, “I get emotional about facts.”. This was a response to the common phrase, “facts don’t care about your feelings” coined by Ben Shapiro.

Emotions are seen as almost manipulative, and appeals to emotion certainly can be, especially in politics. But emotions are no less virtuous or important than facts. Emotion, as it is an instinct, is where all other aspects of our humanness come from. Emotion’s importance is far from the speaker of the house’s gavel being a daisy. It is far from each member of congress hugging after a law is passed. But it is a factor as practically relevant as finance. Accounting for the importance of emotion isn’t about being soft, but about maintaining justice and taking into account both halves of reality.  It isn’t petty or childish but is an example of balanced maturity and admirable humanity.


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