A Sentimental Democracy?

A Sentimental Democracy?

Manuel Arias-Maldonado 

Ever since the Enlightenment introduced its program for the reeducation of the human species, we had grown accustomed to think that emotions would see their social role gradually diminished as modernization and rationalization advanced. Hence the fearful representation of the future that can be discerned in those cinematic and literary distopias that depict technocratic communities where -as in Godard’s Alphaville- all traces of human emotions have been erased and life operates in a robotic fashion. Yet the present looks very differently: emotions seem to reign supreme and it might be argued that is sentimentalization and not its opposite that should -at least on the political realm- be confronted. Whereas sociologist Norbert Elias once described a “civilization process” that had driven Western social development since the Middle Ages, perhaps now we are going through an affective phase of the latter that can be discerned in both the public conversation and the political process of contemporary liberal democracies.

There is no shortage of examples. Although it has ebbed in the last few months, a wave of populism has broken into the shore of liberal democracies on both sides of the Atlantic, making clear that this old anti-political impulse was far from extinct. Great Britain voted for Brexit, the US electorate made a former TV star and real-state tycoon its president, Marine Le Pen made into the second round of French presidential elections. Previous referendums -in Switzerland on European workers, in Hungary on inmigration quotas- had already produced rather emotional public debates. At the same time, a public conversation that has been radically changed by digital technologies looks more polarized and less civil than ever -a confrontational climate that translates into popular unrest and institutional vetocracy. There can be no doubt that the Great Recession, together with the fears aroused by globalization and technological disruption, is a key factor in this emotional eruption. But there is something else.

That something is what science is saying about us. Of course, it is not saying just one thing, nor there is enough consensus yet about the details involved. But it seems to be clear that natural and social sciences are contesting the traditional description of the individual as a rational decision-maker, i.e. the conception of the subject upon which our democratic institutions had been designed. It is not just that natural sciences have developed new ways to look into the brain: social sciences have experienced an affective turn that has placed emotions in the center of their research. Psychology, sociology, political science, even economics -social theory is now embarked on an effort to elucidate how individuals perceive reality, process information and make decisions, under the influence of which social factors and affected by which biases, being prone to which kind of mistakes and sensitive to which stimuli. The notion of a sovereign subject is thus discarded -we are post-sovereign subjects that possess much less control over ourselves and our decisions than we had thought. To hell with Descartes!

Needless to say, pointing to the limits of reason is barely a novelty in Western thought, which has always showed a remarkable ability to problematize itself. A number of thinkers, from Hume and Nietzsche to Freud, have emphasized how human beings are subdued to passions, feelings, the unsconscious, or however we may call that dimension of subjectivity that lies beyond our control. Yet what new findings are doing is to provide a more precise account of such limitations, thus suggesting a conceptual displacement from the ideal subject of Kantian liberalism -a rational decision-maker that tries to maximize her preferences- to the real subject described by neurosciences and psychology: an individual who is not in control of her perceptions and decisions, but that actually perceives reality and takes decisions under the powerful influence of internal and external factors, be them somatic or affective or social. Hence the talk of a post-sovereign subject: someone whose perception of certain topics or aspects of reality is affectively saturated (a racist does not see all races in the same way), who reasons in a motivated way (emotionally attached to some ideas or preferences), who feels an intense sense of belonging to its own moral tribe (but an equally intense rejection of the rival ones), who experiments a pleasurable physiological feeling when receiving information that confirms her own beliefs (but tends to discard that which challenges it), who is vulnerable to the way in which ideas are narratively presented (or to how stories are framed), who feels the pressure to conform to social peers (or even desires what others desire), who might even be already born with either a progressive or conservative worldviews (instead of shaping it via socialization). All of which has the most formidable political consequences.

To begin with, might it not be the case that political liberalism and representative democracies are not well-equipped to fight against ideologies or movements that are more openly emotional? Such emotional appeal has a lot to do with their outright opposition against “the system”, thus taking advantage of the psychological and affective satisfaction provided by the idea of resisting an unjust order. Tellingly, some findings suggest that the happiest political subject is the one who holds radical beliefs which are not represented by her government -contrariwise, if the government were aligned with her views this citizen’s happiness would be diminished. It must be noted that by its very nature political feelings are ambiguous: resentment and outrage can be perilous, but also point to unmet social needs as well as to subjectivities that awaits recognition. And a political life devoid of any emotion can hardly be envisioned: it is for love of freedom or hatred of injustice that the most noble causes have been fought. But then again, dreadful crimes have been perpetrated for the same reasons. This ambiguity is unavoidable. The main problem lies in the predominance of emotions over reason, that is, in a political process whose elements of reason and deliberation might be routinely outweighed by political affects: a sentimental democracy.

In this regard, some social trends can be identified that help to explain this sentimentalization. On the one hand, the weakening of tratidional political parties and the increase of social fragmentation give shape to party systems where parties make a permanent effort for distinguishing from the others less in their policies than through political discourse and rethorical exaggeration. This leads to an aggressive pluralism that often produces an institutional blockage that in turn reinforces moral tribalism. On the other, the category of the rebel has been fully incorporated into the collective imagination -first with Romanticism, then with the singular allegiance of counterculture and capitalism. The outcome is paradoxical: everyone is supposed to rebel against something and political candidates enjoy a premium for being anti-establishment, while challenging political correctness has become a winning strategy for populisms all over the world. Finally, new information technologies are making a dubious contribution to political culture and public conversation: social networks are mostly used to make expressive statements and to adhere to viral causes on the spot instead of fostering an informed deliberation on public issues. Citizens seem to be inhabiting echo chambers where they only talk to those who belng to their same moral tribe, while consuming information coming from those sources that are already aligned with their worldviews. Hence the idea that we are living in a post-truth or, more accurately, a post-factual democracy. Additionally, new information technologies have made it easier to campaign and mobilize public support around emotional messages. All in all, it seems reasonable to conclude that the digiticization of the public sphere is inherently emotional and hence gives rise to affective publics that do not fit well in the normative ideal of the democratic conversation.

Therefore, perhaps democratic liberalism is too cool to articulate contemporary political passions and, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued, should embrace emotions itself in order to prevail against its adversaries. In other words, if reason cannot beat emotion, maybe the right emotions can help us? Just maybe. It is unclear, for instance, how can the public outrage against elites in the wake of the financial crisis be counteracted on the emotional terrain. Different ideas has been put to the fore, however, in order to make our democracies more emotionally responsive. Among them we can find the emphasis on rituals, political discourse, and public ceremonies vindicated by Nussmaum herself; the libertarian paternalism espoused by Cass Sunstein, which attempts to redesign our choice arquitecture in order to help us to decide better; or the creation of a meta-morality for the human species under which the conflicts that derive from the existence of different moral tribes can be serenely debated, as Joshua Greene argues. They are all interesting -none is completely convincing. However, they all acknowledge that the sharp separation between reason and emotion cannot be kept for longer if we are to be consistent with our scientific findings. The task is thus to channel political affects in the best possible direction -that of the reasonable conversation among reasonable citizens that accept the legitimacy of the others’ views. These proposals can all certainly help.

However, it should be noted that the ideal subject as described by the philosophes of the Enlightenment were just that: a model towards which to advance departing from a sociological reality that was very far from the ideal. Kant would not see autonomous citizens under his window! Reason has always been a regulative ideal that has helped to modernize societies and to make them more just. In fact, political liberalism has traditionally been suspicious of reason itself, designing a system of government that does not aim towards human rational perfection. Therefore, the most clever answer to the affective turn is trying to understand ourselves better: as post-sovereign subjects that however can become aware of their own rational limitations and hence, paradoxically, increase their freedom and self-control. This applies to neuroscientific findings as well: as they give an account of human inclinations that seem to be biologically imprinted on us and constitute -as Jon Elster says of emotions- “tendencies of action” that pushed as in a certain direction, we should not react by accepting those impulses whatever their moral implications are. Rather we must accept that they exist as such and devise strategies to stop or re-channelling them. For instance, if it is true that loneliness produces pain in order to foster social cooperation, more attention has to be paid to the human craving for a sense of belonging -which, in turn, can explain the ongoing appeal of communitarian or populist ideologies. Such is thus the paradox of the post-sovereign subject: by discovering her lack of freedom, she actually acquires more freedom. It is not a miraculous solution, but just perhaps the only one at hand.