Digital

Exclusive online content

The Politics of Feeling

By: Charles U. Zug
August 25, 2017

illions of Americans have only themselves to blame for their crippling, Donald Trump-induced “political anxiety disorder.” They’ve indulged the Politics of Feeling, which feeds their angst-inducing politics.

The Politics of Feeling takes two forms: first, news programs psychologically distort viewers’ worldviews by crudely stacking the decks in favor of a partisan position. Watching a three-pundit panel out-shout and ridicule political enemies deceives viewers into thinking that the world overwhelmingly favors their own opinions, and that rhetorical browbeating is preferable to reasoned, thoughtful debate. Such programs discredit our political reason by mocking and belittling arguments which contradict our own sub-rational, inarticulate “gut feelings.”

Second, our media-roused feelings are amplified by Facebook and Twitter, where we are free to unleash salvoes of simplistic truisms and volleys of vituperative platitudes without having to think through or respond to our opponents’ positions. Social media stokes our ideological narcissism by flooding our newsfeeds with stories calculated to flatter our prejudices. We are increasingly persuaded that the world resonates with and sustains our petulant political feelings—and we are appalled when our experience with real life human beings undercuts this view.

Ugly displays like these are not the cause of our anxiety and frustration; they are merely the effects of our own most damaging pathologies.

At its root, the Politics of Feeling has ascended because more and more we preface our political opinions with “I feel.” This habit, benign enough on the surface, reveals that we conceive of political disagreements as based not on arguments of contradictory logic, but on moods or dispositions constituted by differing feelings.

This is a grave problem for American democracy, which depends on collective deliberation. Reducing politics to ephemeral feelings rather than reasoned thought hamstrings the very possibility of deliberation: if there is nothing graver at stake in an argument than private feelings, the purpose of argument must be nothing more than to forcefully alter others’ feelings and replace their feelings with our own. But on what basis—with what right—do we seek to impose our feelings on others? How can we logically and morally rank feelings, if we possess no persuasive reasons to prefer some feelings over others? Without a standard for agreement, we have no common basis for consent. And if there is no prospect for discovering a rational standard—which is precisely what the Politics of Feeling teaches us—there is no good reason to deliberate; there is only reason to dominate.

Flourishing democratic politics depends on modesty and curiosity: “If I am unable to persuade you, then perhaps my own position is weaker than I initially thought. At the least, I have a duty to persuade those whom I disagree with, and to examine my own arguments if they fail.” The duty to persuade forces us to seek weaknesses in our own logic, and, by the same token, to seek hidden virtue in the perspectives we oppose.

Accordingly, politics in a world without the duty of persuasion ceases to be democratic, and quickly becomes despotic and tyrannical. As ordinary experience confirms, someone who enters a conversation convinced that the political opposition is unpersuadable has no incentive to deliberate: their only incentive is to use animal passions to humiliate the intractable opposition, and then to act.

The danger that such a transformation in incentives poses should be obvious. Tyrants have killed millions in part because they did not believe their respective political situations could be ameliorated through rational deliberation. The only alternative left, they felt, was to act: “triumph of the will”—and the death of reason.

Deliberation will be an important part of our society only so long as we collectively retain a sense of proportion in politics, discerning that our grasp of the political fundamentals is incomplete, and that we always have something to learn from one another. As the deliberation-based founding of our own country proved over two centuries ago, it is precisely our incompleteness and neediness as human beings, not our brazenness and bluster, that can give rise to the most admirable and valuable political undertakings.