A reappraisal of emotion in politics

Suddenly he was there, the angry citizen no longer prepared to take it on the chin. But wait – surely strong emotions have no place in politics? In their new collection of essays, Het hart op de tong, René Gabriëls, Sjaak Koenis and Tsjalling Swierstra argue that emotions are indispensable to democracy. “The emotional cocktail of anger, fear and compassion has also resulted in very positive things. But beware: it’s explosive stuff!”

Their edited anthology opens with a poem by the Dutch poet K. Michel: ‘Now everyone’s angry’. It certainly seems that way. People are speaking out more loudly than ever before. Citizens are clashing over the tradition of Black Pete and the Children’s Pardon for asylum seekers who grew up in the Netherlands. Neighbourhoods are revolting against refugee centres. The stereotypically level-headed northerners are getting worked up about gas field earthquakes. Parliamentarians hurl insults at each other. Anger, fear and mistrust seem to be winning the day – and not just in the Netherlands. Consider Brexit, or the rise of the German Wutbürger (‘enraged citizen’).

All this, explains professor of philosophy Tsjalling Swierstra, is why they published the collection. “Suddenly he was there, the angry citizen whose real wants are unclear. What does his anger mean? But we quickly realised there are positive emotions as well, like compassion, pride and hope. Our starting point, paradoxical as it sounds, is that we should stop fearing emotions. But this raises the question: given that these emotions exist, and we can’t do without them, how are we to deal with them? After all, this is explosive stuff.”

Hans van Vinkeveen (text), Ted Struwer (illustrations)


hart op de tong

Emotions are intense, short-lived and biased. As such, they tend to be deemed ‘unreasonable’ and politically undesirable. The view of emotion as a threat to democracy dates back to Plato, explain the editors. “The moment you allow the common people a voice, you get emotions, which lead to violence”, says Swierstra. “It was the same diagnosis with the Second World War: if people mobilise, this leads to fascism and irrational outbursts. It’s safest, then, to keep the masses passive and removed from politics so that a sensible elite can rule the country.”

The essays show that the notion of politics without emotions is unrealistic. In the absence of emotion, according to Swierstra, there would be no modern welfare state and no emancipation of workers. “Fear, anger and compassion form an emotional cocktail that has produced very positive things.” But don’t we wear our hearts on our sleeves too much these days? Not really, says Sjaak Koenis, senior lecturer in philosophy. “Emotions are like heat produced by the friction of social change. Is that harmful? It can also be bad if emotions aren’t expressed in a political system. To me, there’s nothing worse than systematically ignoring groups of people.”


hart op de tong

According to Koenis, the fact that emotions are now coming to the fore also says something about Dutch politics. “We have a long tradition of pacification. Our elite has always wanted to suppress emotion and sort things out among themselves.” This began to change in the 1960s due to leftist resistance; today, it’s fomented by new right-wing parties like the Party for Freedom and the Forum for Democracy. “What they have in common is that they erode hierarchical relationships and challenge the established authority.”

Koenis argues that we must keep in mind the paradoxical effect of democratisation. “On the one hand, it contains an element of liberation: when people get angry they rise up to emancipate themselves. On the other hand, increasing equality arouses envy and anger.” For example, as the gap between the highly educated and less well-educated shrinks, labour market competition increases. This anger is reinforced by the assumption in our neoliberal society that people who lag behind have only themselves to blame. Social media is another instigator. But again, there are two sides to this, Koenis says. “There are no brakes, no filters, but people do take matters into their own hands. Does this threaten democracy? It’s first and foremost an effect of democracy.”

Internal combustion engine

hart op de tong 2

We shouldn’t be too sensitive to the harsh tone of current politics, Koenis continues. “It’s a political style the Dutch parliament isn’t used to. To me, the crux is that parliament is an institution that shapes and channels citizens’ emotions. Failing this, their anger will only increase.” Still, we shouldn’t be blind to the explosive side of emotions. “I compare politics with an internal combustion engine running on emotions”, says Swierstra. “It has to be contained through what we call reason. This friction produces progress, but it can also explode.”

Fake parliament

When asked about their own fear and anger, the pair burst out laughing. As philosophers, they’re more partial to calm. Koenis is concerned, however, by emotions that attack the institutions themselves. “Take Geert Wilders calling the parliament fake or refusing to accept court rulings. Will this last? If we lose these forms of civilisation, we’re doomed.” Swierstra: “For the first time, I’m worried about the continued existence of democracy. That’s what I mean when I say the engine may explode if reason can’t keep a lid on emotion. But in turn, this emotion gives me energy to look for ways to make democracy more resilient, so it can take a hit.”

Both philosophers also see opportunities in further democratisation. “There’s great potential in the fact that people are, on average, much better educated and more well-spoken than they used to be. We have to try to tap into this potential.” Swierstra: “Governments should let people in and allow vocal citizens to help make executive decisions, so they can see for themselves how hard it is to translate primal impulses into policy.”

Tsjalling Swierstra (1960) is professor of philosophy at Maastricht University and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. He publishes on ethical and political issues surrounding new and emerging technologies as well as on social issues such as meritocracy, freedom of choice, trust and civilisation.

Sjaak Koenis (1955) is associate professor of philosophy at Maastricht University. He writes on tolerance and the desire for culture and on the relationship between democracy and resentment. His latest book is De januskop van de democratie: Over de bronnen van boosheid in de politiek (2016).

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