Balancing reason and emotion in democracy

23 Feb 2017

Mutual hate between the deepest enemies can be so much more helpful to both sides than expressions of sympathy among friends. Every atrocity of Islamic terrorists in a one country strengthens xenophobia in another, and every time right-wing extremists commit hate crimes against Muslim minorities, terrorists stand a greater chance of recruiting even more young people. It is a tragedy of our times: that during conflict democracy is increasingly turning into a suicide bomber against itself.

Participation in democracy requires a balance between reason and emotion. When there is too little emotion, politics becomes a dry game; but when emotions – and especially those of fear, rage and hate - rule without challenge from reason, political debate becomes a vacuum.

2016 saw the political victory of emotion over reason in that favourite word 'post-truth'. Emotional truth does not need evidence of a scientific kind; a feeling is true, if someone truly feels it. This explains why the lies and self-contradictions of Donald Trump do not disturb his followers, or why the advocates of Brexit in the UK could use 'expert' as a term of abuse.

Increasingly – across the world from Hungary to France, and from England to Russia and the US - almost all political commentary was organised negatively around xenophobia and positively around nationalism. Religion and class – once the powerful bearers for mass political participation, have increasingly lost their influence. People today, can barely relate the class conflicts of earlier decades and churches have ever fewer members. Virtually the only social identity remaining that can both have political meaning and carry powerful emotions is nationhood, and perhaps also race. And in a world characterized by globalization, European and other trans-national integration, immigration, refugees, and terrorism, many people have found their national identity becoming more salient and emotional. Marine Le Pen, leader of the French Front National, even quipped after the UK's referendum and Donald Trump's election that we are seeing 'the return of patriotism'.

With the triggering of Article 50 looming on the horizon, we are seeing an increasingly political rhetoric of many British politicians driving the UK out of much of the authority of the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg (of which the UK was a leading founder member), and to institute a British Bill of Rights instead. It is dangerous territory to imply that rights must be nationally specific, and not global. If rights are the products of reason, it is always possible to find similarities among different nations, and it is only if rights are seen as part of a national psyche - beyond the reach of rational discussion - that they become untranslatable across countries. 

Seeing ‘rights’ in way, has strange connections to the German concept of Verfassungspatrotismus (‘constitutional patriotism’). This concept gave an important answer to the urgent question facing Germans after World War II: How can people love their native land, when the idea of such a love being rooted in attachment to ‘blood and soil’ had become so dangerous? Can people truly treasure the humanistic values of institutions and customs that their country adopts, on rational grounds?

Many international institutions of the post-war period based the national quality of a constitution on the ability to seek connections among the constitutional values of different peoples, and build broader, transnational solidarities – an example of this is the European Court of Human Rights. Today these institutions face strong challenges from those who maintain that they and their underlying mentality were the antidemocratic constructions of ‘liberal elites’. As the world becomes an ever-more connected place – the more the mutual dependence of different nations can be seen and felt. However, many people seem to want to avoid this reality, and seek a nostalgic return to a past of national isolation.

Most supporters of Brexit and Trump were prosperous, but with them were some far less prosperous people living in areas of economic decline. These disparate groups were united by not feeling at ease with a rapidly changing world. Political causes making strong use of national identity have offered them something responding to deeply felt emotions of belonging and stability. Against these groups stand a generally younger, more self-confident population, more likely to see open horizons and multiculturalism as opportunities rather than threats.

We seem to be entering a new Weltanschaungsstreit, a conflict of world views. For many, there has simply been too much change: globalisation, immigration, changed gender relationships, a new sexual tolerance, disobedient children, big cities, new economic sectors. Fear of Islamic terrorism has given a sharp thrust to this development. For example: the Alternative für Deutschland party - previously the anti-euro group has since rebranded as into an anti-Islamic party. The Movimento Cinque Stelle was originally a movement critical of corruption among Italian politicians, but in recent years has discovered the issue of refugees from Islamic countries – though it is careful not to attack refugees themselves. And, although the official question in the UK referendum was membership of the EU, the campaign for Brexit added fears of Islamic refugees and terrorists to it.

So has the balance between reason and emotion been lost, or will we see a return in 2017? It is true that feelings of fear, rage and hate – in some circles are not being challenged by reason, which has resulted in a political debate that is dangerously close to becoming a vacuum. And by no means all people fall neatly on one side or other of the reason/emotion side of the debate. Supporters of Brexit do not have to be homophobes; not all would-be 'citizens of the world' believe in a deregulated global economy. But there are tendencies in that general direction, creating a new kind of social and political division in many societies.

As it develops, this division seems also to pit emotion against reason. This can be viewed in various ways: from one perspective, warm feelings of national solidarity against the cold reason of calculating self-interest; from another, emotions that can incite to hatred against reasonableness. The reaction against that has now arrived, with nationalism and xenophobia filling the emotional void for many people.

It seems that the biggest problem is that, in a struggle of emotions, those of fear, rage and hate, once aroused, can be so much stronger than those of welcoming openheartedness. These latter stand a chance only in an environment where both emotion and reason are at work together.

Colin Crouch is a Fellow of The British Academy, Professor Emeritus of the University of Warwick, and external scientific member of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies at Cologne. This essay is based on a shorter piece written for a volume of essays to relaunch the Frankfurter Schauspielhaus in 2017, with the title ‘Vernunft, emotion und demokratie.’

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