The Laboratorium (3d ser.)

A blog by James Grimmelmann

Soyez réglé dans votre vie et ordinaire afin
d'être violent et original dans vos oeuvres.

Emotional Mobilization, or Old Man Yells at Death of Reason

One thing that’s been especially exhausting for me over the last two years is the increasingly unshakeable sense that the basic architecture of personal participation in democratic self-government is broken beyond repair.

By this, I don’t mean that government has been captured by a powerful and wealthy elite that shuts everyone else out: it has, but only at times and only in part. I don’t mean that people with bad values are in power and pursuing bad policies: they are, but throughout history they often have been. And I don’t mean that the people in power are threatening to destroy basic democratic institutions: they are, but even if formal institutions like voting rights, an independent judiciary, and anti-corruption laws were in perfect shape, there would still be a much deeper rot.

Instead, I mean that “democracy” assumes and depends on a set of stories about how individuals do and say things that collectively determine what government does. These stories involve words like “debate,” “public opinion,” “influence,” “deliberation,” “activism,” “demonstrate,” “support,” and so on. There are lot of variations, of great interest to political theorists and no much interest to anyone else, but the basic thrust of them all is more or less the same. People think and talk about values, government, and the world; they try to persuade each other and government officials; they vote to support the policies they believe in. There is a crucial link in there from words to action: people figure out what they want from government, which then translates (however imperfectly) into government action.

This older and dying narrative of political participation asked people to speak thoughtfully, act deliberately but with conviction, and to practice in their daily lives the values they wanted their government and society to embody. This is a sustainable way of living politically; politics is a source of social sustenance. The exact mechanisms by which this authentic mode of living reasonably translated into political impact were always a little bit tenuous, but it was clear enough they existed. The foundation of collective self-government was individual civic virtue.

Now, unfortunately, it is increasingly obvious that this style of personal engagement with politics simply doesn’t work at all. The mass media won’t cover it (not when there’s another Trump tweet to write about it), and it won’t go viral on social media. It might be personally enjoyable, but it is essentially ritualized play, rather than a form of actual politics.

Instead, the mechanism of control over government is no longer reasoned persuasion but emotional mobilization. This is partly a function of living in a partisan age: Trump may have revealed that base-activation is the dominant electoral strategy. But I’m becoming convinced that it’s even more a function of living in a social-media age. The way to build mass political power is to get something emotionally powerful and politically activating go viral among people who agree with you.

Again, this may seem like a rant against polarization. But this rant, at least, is not. The important phrase in that sentence is not “among people who agree with you”; it is “emotionally powerful.” Effective political participation requires sustained collective emotional commitment to a cause much more than it requires sustained collective reasoned commitment.

To be sure, my Facebook and Twitter feeds are filled, morning to night, with reasons to oppose the Trump administration’s policies and to mobilize against them. And the reasons are usually excellent ones. But the reasons are just the popsicle sticks: the supporting armatures for the emotional payload that does the real work.

Because the thing about emotional mobilization is that it works. The left wins when it mobilizes on the basis of mass outrage: against the travel ban, against taking away people’s healthcare, or now against tearing children from their parents. These are awful policies and the mobilization against them is effective in blunting them and laying a foundation to win enough votes to fix them for real.

But this new mode of political engagement is profoundly exhausting. Keeping up with the news requires struggling through a firehose of attempts to activate your passions. They’re pretty effective attempts, too, since the people making them share your values, goals, and premises. They know how to hit you where it hurts, and you count on them to. People who you disagree with are activating too. Deliberately or not, they make you mad at their stupidity and immorality – and the people who agree with you are great at digging up and highlighting the things most likely to make you mad.

Add another emotion: guilt. Every encounter with politics on social media makes me feel guilty if I sit it out: I’m not helping with a worthy cause. It makes me feel guilty if I join in: I’m degrading public discourse. And don’t even get me started on trying to post with nuance: I couldn’t tell you how often I’ve deleted a post because I expected to be yelled at or because I didn’t want to distract from useful yelling.

We are living in a crisis. Hugely consequential things are being fought over and settled daily. The most important election of anyone’s lifetime is probably the one coming up in November. This is the time to act; this is the time when it matters most. But it has never hurt like this.

The usual cliche about politics is that it compromises your values: you have to do bad things in the service of a greater good. Ordinary citizen politics now increasingly requires a different kind of compromise: you have to live an unvirtuous life in the service of a greater good.

I don’t think this can go on for very long. And I fear it will not.