Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Anger and Passion: The Emotions of Politics

Politics is an emotional sport. Discuss politics with others and surely emotions will flair. Because of that in Minnesota the quip is that one does not discuss politics with others in order to avoid controversy. Skip to safer subjects, such as the weather, family, or sports.

But for those of us who like politics, analyzing it without emotion is trying. My task with the media is to be enthusiastic about what I do (which I am) but not to let me emotions influence or affect my judgments. This is a tough call. Moreover, my work and attempt to be excited but not biased does not mean that I do not think there is no role for emotion in politics. There is, and the two emotions I wish to discuss are passion and anger.

This year anger seems to be the buzzword. Tea Party members claim to be angry, voters claim to be angry, and politicians, sensing voter anger, also want to say they are angry. Anger is important in politics. This year the angry voter–mostly middle class or above white guys–seem more motivated to vote than do others who are affected by a different emotion–disgust, alienation, or disaffection.

The beast evidence is that women fit into the latter category, perhaps, and they will not show up to vote this year. Today’s USA TODAY front page noted a Gallup survey and the impact that anger may have this year. With there being a huge gender gap between men and women and who they support, a strong male turnout coupled with a weak female turnout bodes badly for Democrats.

So yes, the angry voter will turnout. Anger is a big motive, but what good does anger do? When I think of anger this year I think of times when we get frustrated with our computers and we hit it. Hitting it and cursing at it makes us feel better in the short term but what then? The anger has not fixed the computer and perhaps hitting it has only made the problem worse. My point? Anger may be a good motivating force but it is hardly the basis for making good public policy.

After the shouting is done and the public votes for candidates in anger, what will happen? Voters may find the anger has produced even more problems than before. This is exactly where I see the Tea Party folks. They are angry but what will their anger yield? What are their public policies? I do not see anger producing anything of real significant policy value.

Passion is the other major political value. In my ten rules of politics I say Rod Stewart is correct–it is about passion. In my non-profit law class I discuss how non-profits, especially founders of organizations, are full of passion. My job in class is to channel passion into the skills to run a non-profit. In politics, passion is what moves people to engage. Passion about issues and causes and people leads to candidates running, people voting, and to other political activity. Passion excites but can be channeled, unlike anger which seems more a lashing out activity.

The Democrats had passion in 06 and 08 (maybe anger too) but seem devoid of it this year. The lack of passion is disappointment with Obama (criticized for not be angry and passionate but too cerebral or rational) and perhaps more so with the lack of a compelling narrative for 2010 (I blogged on this recently). Lacking passion, and a passionate narrative, Democrats face a tough time this year.

Of course there are other emotions in politics. Resentment seems to loom large anymore, as many anger or what others have received or earned, believing they too deserve their fair share. The Tea party movement seems to have this emotion, as well as a sense of victimization in their hearts. Wether such feelings are deserved or well-founded is another question entirely.

But while emotion is important to politics, I want to end with arguing that we do not have enough reason or rationality in politics. I have academically written about the need to have more social science or fact-based political discourse and policy making. I say to my students in class that unlike elected officials who can drool out any stupid idea or proposal they please without offering evidence to support its merit (emotion is the substitute for facts, I guess), in class you are expected to offer reasoned evidence to support your answers and propositions.

Over the years I have written about stupid public policies and other political myths. There are so many policies we keep adopting yet the evidence is that they fail to work. Why do we keep repeating dumb mistakes. Perhaps it is because we let too much emotion blind our ability to do what makes sense. David Hume, a famous philosopher, was correct when he said they were are more likely to be moved by our emotions than reason. Appeals to hearts are more effective than to minds, but then where are we?


  1. I think it's the grievance and resentment that create the anger.

  2. Steve:

    The more I wrote this piece the more I thought about all the emotions of politics. Resentment and grievance, envy, and perhaps others are there too.