Stop Shaming Political Emotions

Emotions in politics, like emotions in life, are powerful.

Posted Mar 17, 2018

Donald Trump’s emotions are not the problem.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

You would be forgiven for thinking they are, because so much ink has been shed on his emotional decision-making, his emotional appeal to his supporters, and his volatile emotion sliding onto the screens in our pockets at regular intervals, courtesy of his Twitter account.

When he angered our allies in the United Kingdom by firing off about ongoing investigations into the London Underground attack, his own United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley defended him by saying that he was just feeling “emotional and passionate.” Chinese state media shamed him for “emotional venting” on Twitter. The data visualization firm Periscope chartered out a so-called Emoto-Coaster during his campaign speeches—you can watch the fluctuating proportions of anger, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise expressed in his campaign speeches in little waves of red and green and blue.

I’m not arguing that our president is stable and worthy of our trust.

But vilifying emotions in politics is not the lesson we should learn from his presidency.

As a psychologist who studies emotions and a faculty developer who leads workshops on the intersections of emotion and cognition, I think that shaming emotions and prioritizing levelheaded coolness is the wrong response.

Emotions evolved in the first place to prioritize actions that are important for our survival and well-being, pushing us toward things that are good for us (tasty food, attractive mates, social connections) and pulling us away from things that are bad for us (physical danger, potential contaminants). They are often characterized as predispositions to action, ramping up our nervous system in preparation to either approach or avoid.

Adobe Stock Images
Source: Adobe Stock Images

As human life grew more complex, so did emotions and their roles in our lives--helping to define our values, focus our attention on our goals, and serve as a fuel for ongoing behavior. They are the passion part of Angela Duckworth’s “grit,” where she identifies successful goal striving as a formula of passion plus perseverance.

I recently participated in a massive online education course called Engagement in a Time of Polarization. As part of that course, course leader and digital literacy guru Bonnie Stewart tweeted out a call to discussion: What is it about the Parkland teenagers that is so compelling?

People had a range of interesting responses, from their age (young enough to be vulnerable but old enough to speak for themselves), to their journalistic skills honed on the student newspaper, to their privileged position as white youth from a wealthy suburb.

But I suspect that part of what has gripped public imagination is that they follow this formula of accessing deep emotion and then using it as fuel for measured action. They source their motivation and their strength from their trauma, from the wells of loss and fear for their lives, and we vividly feel along with them.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

They made it out alive. They almost didn’t. We feel the pulse of that horror.

But then they have translated that passion into town halls, Q&As, clever tweets. Their emotions are the raw engine of change, but they’re directing it in considered, meaningful ways.

And the public is listening. Businesses are listening. Congresspeople are listening.

We don’t need some grand return to pure rationality in our politics. Let’s not return to a time where an enthusiastic yelp can cost you a presidential run. Let’s not forget that in addition to fear and anger, emotions like pride, gratitude, and compassion can fuel prosocial change.

Let’s feel, and then act.