Emotional Politics and a Communication Dilemma


The continuing popularity of Donald Trump and the rise of populist politicians in many European countries is cause for concern and reflection. Where does this wave of emotionalism come from? It could be a reaction to two factors. The first is globalization. The expansion of frontiers has caused instability. While technology has increased our perspectives from the local to the global, we have lost the assurances of that which is closest to us. The rise of fundamentalism in various forms is an attempt return to roots that have been destabilized.

The second is more esoteric, but no less important. Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, the 1995 bestseller, set off an important debate on who we are and how we behave. Goleman’s book was a frontal attack on the rationalism behind tests for intelligence quotients (IQ). The modern rationalism that has pervaded our lives has not solved basic problems. Economists can draw graphs and work on complex formulas, but they have not made the average person’s life better. Unemployment, job insecurity and income inequality have not been solved by quantitative analysis. Behavioral economics, based on psychological, social, cognitive, and emotional factors, now competes with neoclassical economics.
Rational choice political scientists and risk analysis experts did not predict the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Arab Spring, or the civil wars in Libya, Syria and Iraq. The rational construction of the European Union as a large customs union has not been accompanied by popular adherence as evidenced by the current Brexit debate. Universal expectations have not been fulfilled by incorporating scientific methods into public policy.
Populism rises and falls, like certain political parties here in Geneva. One answer to the current phenomenon is to ride out the wave. That is what President Obama explained when asked about some of the outrageous comments by Republican candidates. He seems to have faith in the American people to see through the demagogic silliness. But the wave of populism in Germany in the 1930’s had catastrophic consequences. Trump’s candidacy has already had negative international repercussions.
How does one debate or argue with populists? Debates have certain logic, as do all arguments. There is an unspoken set of rules in debates, just as the rules we learn in school when writing an essay. Beginning, middle and end follow each other in a logical sequence. We outline the development of our ideas. Paragraphs have topic sentences.
But what happens if this linear reasoning no longer applies? Emotions have no logical development. They are not linear. In a debate, if one of the debaters is emotional, there is no sense in arguing along rational lines. That will not work.
Many of Bernie Sanders’ proposals would neither pass Congress nor be economically feasible, such as all public colleges and universities should be tuition free. But that is not the point. The voters are angry and frustrated; he appeals to their anger and frustration. Donald Trump is similar. His proposals are not realistic, such as a 45% tax on all imports from China. But no logical editorial in the New York Times will change Trump supporters; they will not even read the arguments.
I am linear in my thinking. If you have read up to here, you are also linear and are trying to follow the rationality of my argument. All that is fine. We are trying to communicate along rational lines. What concerns me about the current situation is how to dialogue with those who are not linear, who are not reading this blog or following my type of argument. Is that communication possible? For linear people to dialogue with linear people is fine, even if they disagree with part of the argument or point to logical inconsistencies. It is how linear people can eventually dialogue with the non-linear that is the great problem today.
This is the underlying situation of the clash of civilizations. Not everyone has the same logic. Not everyone reasons the same way. The situation can be expressed as logic vs. illogic, reason vs. emotions, linear vs. holistic. However expressed, the difficulty of communication remains the same, and terribly worrying.

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  • Dear Danny,
    Even more than usual you have hit the nail. Unfortunately this comes from a colleague linear. Maybe all we can do is find other ways to communicate with the "world-is-flat" tribe, e.g. make better use of persuasive images in our story telling?

  • This time, I totally agree with you and appreciate the concept of linear thought. It's a rich approach and I would develop it in another way :

    Linear thinking, as expressed by speaking can be opposed to a comprehensive or synoptic, visual representation.

    Somehow, paintings, photos or films will capture our attention in a more immediate and easy way, than a "dry" text. Just think of newspaper articles with and without illustrations.
    A picture is supposed to speak a thousand words....
    I'm afaraid, all this has to do with some kind of a lulling confort.

    We are so used to tv reality-shows and their logic, that some of us can't make the difference between show and reality anymore.

    The logic of visual shows banks on outrage, surprise, laughs, looks, familiarity etc. All this has very little to do with the seriousness, intellectual demands and boring aspects of politics.

  • The all world is turning "populist" !

    Why, Switzerland main party, is not populist ?

    Hungary, Poland doesn't smell heavy populist smell ?

    France may not turn populist ?

    And if you look, Russia, Iran, Syria and so many other, didn't they jumped far more than populism ?

    The all world is populist, why USA should stay aside ??

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