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Politics and emotions: Part I

Affection and emotions are omnipresent phenomena in all human interaction, in the context of politics, all kinds of affective relationships and emotional experiences can arise.

Today, it is common to hear that democratic decision-making is less and less rational and more affective. Many interpret that the time for rational deliberation and orderly political procedures belongs to the past and they see this increase in affectivity as an "involution." But most agree that the study of emotions is fundamental because what had been generally repressed and controlled in modernity, such as emotion, passion or desire, is definitely present in the politics of contemporary societies.

Let's go slowly to understand this topic.

What is meant by the political?

For Hannah Arendt, what emerges or appears when men meet to discuss common issues from word and action is the political. The word is what allows us to present ourselves to others and create something new in the public as a manifestation of human freedom. And this implies wanting to participate, wanting to discuss, making our voices heard in public and having the possibility of tracing the trajectory of a community as regards the public, the common good.

On the other hand, according to M. Ragip Zik, Robert Walter-Jochum, Dina Wahba, even the most precarious concept of the political must encompass at least three key dimensions: power, normativity and the exercise of the public, aspects that allow us to trace this concept from its daily iterations up to the large scale and that make it possible to go beyond an exclusive definition for democratic societies towards a conception of the political that can cross all kinds of social scenarios.

  • Power: power relations are inherent in all social relations and all human interactions, this definition as a type of relationship between subjects must be completed with the fact that power implies possession of the means for dominance and that, in the case of the political, they allow to achieve effects such as determining the behavior of others. For the political to emerge, power relations must be "negotiated" and manifested in their contestability, hence the importance of the exercise of the public and the norms.

  • Normativity: the political generally implies negotiating, debating or at least positioning oneself with respect to what is "correct" and "incorrect" or "good" and "bad" in a given context. Based on the laws or regulations, the extent to which power can be exercised in a given society is determined. The relationship between power and norms can define whether a society is very democratic or very authoritarian.

  • Exercise of the public: politics needs publics in which negotiation can take place. These audiences involve the manifestation of power relations and their normative evaluation. In this exercise, people can balance power and regulation and affect institutions.

What do emotions have to do with politics?

The presence of emotions in public space has the power to advance the functioning of democracy

Some authors such as Martha Nussbaum, support this premise and argue that affections facilitate better cooperation and deepen the fight for justice, especially those that connect with feelings of tolerance, openness to the ideas of others, kindness and moderation. Thus, hope and love play a fundamental role for democratic processes to flow.

There are emotions that have the power to destabilize a political system

Nussbaum also argues that there are negative emotions and they are those that weaken tolerance among citizens and erode their identification with democratic institutions, for example, fear, anger, and envy. These affects are believed to hamper rational deliberation, poison hope, and impede cooperation to build a better future.

Both conflict and consensus are affective modes of political engagement.

Although some doubt that what is politically good or bad can be categorized in a forceful way because that would be a universalist understanding of emotions, blind to the constitutive ambivalence of political affectivity, which does not account for the historical and cultural variability of this aspect ; However, it is clear that both judgment and criticism are always emotionally constituted.

In conclusion…

Thinking about political emotions implies keeping in mind that affection and emotions are present in all human interaction and in all aspects of society. What changes is not the absence or presence of affects and emotions, but the ways in which these affective registers emerge.

Thus, the presence of emotions in the public sphere is not good or bad per se, what really matters is the type of emotions that are at stake and to what extent they promote or hinder political discourse or action.

And although it cannot be said that societies have become increasingly affective in recent times as a result of certain historical developments or that some societies are more prone to affectivity than others, it can be said that they are definitely present in the practice of politics.


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