Charles D. Hayes: The Politics of Emotion


There are two fundamental ways, we do politics, either we compare ideas and strive to negotiate compromise, or we simply relate. The former method relies on reason, the latter emotion.

To reason one’s way politically, requires a civic education and a willingness to live up to one’s responsibility as a citizen in a democratic republic. To relate via emotion, is a tribalistic inclination based, in part, on the primal instinct of us vs them. It’s akin to the same impetus that enables us to become instant fans of team sports.

Now, these two dramatically different methods are not completely cut and dried. Most of us exercise these methods as matters of degree. But, unless you do your homework to the point that you know what you are talking about, then, relating is the only option because you will lack the knowledge necessary to participate in political discussion effectively.

Citizens who wear their politics as a matter of their tribal identity are infamous for offering political arguments that are intelligibly incoherent, reminiscent of the tea party and Trump supporters frequently interviewed on television carrying placards.

When citizens’ primary political orientation is one of relating, facts don’t matter, policy doesn’t matter, better arguments don’t matter, instead fear and hatred often substitute for substance and that’s where we find ourselves today.

We have a President-elect, whose support is steeped in emotional revulsion of the “other” and yet, those of us who care about policy and the better argument are still trying to address their emotion with reason and it’s not working, it’s like fighting fire with oxygen.

The angst felt by those who rely on relating over reason is real. They have good reasons to be upset. We have a dysfunctional political system and both major parties share blame. Now, those of us who rely on reason are also upset because we believe that our way of life depends upon reason, in the same tradition that our founders crafted the laws and rules we try to live by.

So, what is happening is that those of us who advocate reason get emotional when the relaters just relate and they get more emotional when we try to use logic, at which time, they just call us “liberals” and they think by doing that they have won the argument.

For citizens, whose politics is simply a matter of their identity, as in us vs them, they don’t think the rules apply to them, everything they do is automatically self-justifying their identity, is their license of legitimacy, in all important matters.

For example, for the GOP, Democratic Party appointees must meet astringent vetting standards, for the GOP, however, expediency trumps the need for vetting.

My point, in this piece, is that to deal effectively with the emotional angst of people who are never going to become civically responsible, we are going to have to come up with ways to appeal to their emotions by addressing their concerns in an emotional tribal context.

We must discuss the things they care about, family, work, military service, firearms, and religion in terms they can relate to emotionally, or else we are just going to become more and more polarized.

One method that I have used effectively, for example, is to discuss healthcare on their terms, using examples of the armed services risking their lives on foreign soil, while their family members back home face life and death medical issues because they can’t afford health insurance. This makes a difference because they can relate.

Now, admittedly there is no point in trying to reason with dyed in the wool ideologues and when I identify them as such I’ve just started blocking them, but some of us have friends and family members that we don’t want to write off and it takes an extraordinary effort to communicate effectively.

In these instances, the trick is not getting so angry that we blow and I will admit that despite my best efforts, there are times in which I just lose it. It’s very hard at times not to tell these folks where to get off the train, but if we don’t at least try relate on their terms, nothing is to be gained. If you have ideas about how to do this, please post them.


One response to “Charles D. Hayes: The Politics of Emotion

  1. Your analysis is on point. The problem, of course, is that they (“THEY”) seem to have no interest in a dialogue of any sort, regardless of whether they’re friends or family.

    The words “Liberal”, or more often “Libtard”, and “Politically Correct”, with the occasional “Tree-Hugger” tossed in for good measure, are hurled as epithets, although there appears to be very little actual comprehension of Liberal viewpoints, Progressive values, Environment 101: Staying Alive, or even Basic Good Manners.

    We in return envision the great unwashed “white trash” element of society, to whom books are an enigma, spelling and grammar are of no importance, bigotry is endemic, misogyny is ingrained from birth, killing living creatures for no reason is considered sport, facts have no value, logic doesn’t compute, and deliberately shooting themselves in the proverbial foot is somehow viewed as enhancing their collective masculinity.

    We’re still willing to try to talk to these people, but preferably before they get us all killed.”

    The thing is… It’s a very difficult conversation to have when only one side is actually willing to converse, and over such a wide gulf.

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