Emotions and politics seem to go hand in hand. People can get as emotional about politics as they do about their football team or about religion. Often, the fall-back position of barracking for “our team” is arrived at with little critique or analysis of party policy. This element of “unthinking” in our political allegiances is inherently dangerous for the health of our democracy.
Reason is often seen to be what should guide politics, not partisan commitments or self-interest. In The Politics, Aristotle suggests politics represents the highest, most important and inclusive good for the whole community and not for sections of it. Like his teacher Plato, who viewed emotion as the enemy of reason, Aristotle did not favour a democracy that involved a herd mentality and the fulfilment of immediate interests over long-term and rational goals.
Although contemporary democracies are different from the direct democracies of the ancient Greek city-states, the citizens of our representative democracies still decide which party rules and the policies they adopt. Such decisions involve clashes of both values and interests in the pursuit and maintenance of power.
Especially in modern times, politics often appeals to sectional interests, and policies increasingly rely upon polls and media cycles. Political messages often play to voters’ emotions and negative campaigning is alarmingly effective.
Are we slaves to the passions?
Emotions exert a major influence in politics through influencing what we accept to be rational. The concept of reason needs to be deconstructed; it is so often rationalisation. Philosopher David Hume even contended:
Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.
In the early 20th century Sigmund Freud argued that “reason” is heavily influenced by the our unconscious mind. For Freud, the mind is not equivalent to the conscious, and most mental processes are unconscious. Freud claims that a person is not an “absolute ruler” of his or her own mind and that the greatest narcissistic blow we experience is that “the ego is not master in its own house”.
Political choices: rational or emotional?
So are citizens’ political choices rational or emotional? Our political allegiances involve values about what we want and desire. Our passions and values are vital components of our identity, of who we are and want to be. But our values are not easily reducible to reason — they mostly depend on unconscious issues, our “heart” or even our “gut feelings” rather than our “head”.
By default children follow their parents’ political choices. Children often grow up becoming rusted-on “Coalition voters”, “Labor voters” or “Greens voters” because their parents were. Political campaigns aim at the minority of swinging voters who are not rusted on to the major parties.
However, a recent study affords some hope that we are not merely political clones of whoever happened to bring us up. It turns out that because highly politicised homes focus on politics as important issues to discuss, this leads children to think about politics as relevant, and they are more affected than others by new environments be they university, workplace or groups of new friends.
Potentially, this cracks open a space for new thinking and not simply the reproduction of parental assumptions. Adolescents may also rebel against their parents politically, if their parents take politics seriously and hold strong political views. In homes where politics is not on the agenda, then politics is not important enough to rebel against!
The problem with the partisan politics of adopting an unthinking allegiance to a party is that we tend to excuse the faults of “our” side while attacking the other side even when it happens to be right. A group mentality or “group think” may blind us to the realities and even to our own supposed values.
Recently, the Greens Party has attacked the government for engaging in international action to prevent genocidal fanatics from massacring tens of thousands of civilians. How does the Greens’ position that accedes to mass rape and slaughter tally with their professed “progressive” values of rights for women, gays, Christians, Shi’ite Muslims and ethnic minorities in Iraq? The Greens cannot see past their hostility to the government, the Americans and mainstream politics to support the national and international interest.
Ideological partisans become attached to their positions and are involved in splitting the world into “us” and “them”, instead of looking at important issues on their merits. Underlying their attitudes is adherence to a group mentality that makes the enemy of my enemy my friend, no matter what. This means that complexity and nuance are ignored.
Unblinking adherence to an ideology leaves no room for rational discussion that can make a difference about real political alternatives. As John Maynard Keynes famously declared: “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, Sir?”