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The Fuel of Autocratic Leadership: Politics of Emotions

Ahmet İnsel*

In the 2016 presidential election in the United States, contrary to the expectations declared by public opinion polls, the result turned out differently, and although Hillary Clinton received the majority of the total votes, she lost the election to Trump due to the two-tiered US electoral system. Many urban Democratic Party voters were astonished and angry at the fact that a significant portion of the poor or middle-class citizens living in rural America voted for a candidate who went against their economic and social interests.

Sociologist A. R. Hochschild questioned this astonishment in her research published in 2016. Her book, “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right,” is based on conversations she had with segments of the population that were inclined towards the Republican Party’s radical right wing – represented by the Tea Party at the time – a few months before Donald Trump was elected. She seeks to answer the question of how a significant portion of the social classes that would be most negatively affected by the policies of a right-wing party could vote for that party. The conclusion she draws is that the political affiliation of this predominantly devout Christian group of “white Americans” is primarily determined by a sense of belonging to a socially privileged group – the “real Americans,” as it were – characterized by symbols, values, and a sense of privilege. In short, Hochschild points out that it is not an economic rationality that determines this political affiliation, but rather a complex mix of concerns, hopes, disappointments, and a search for pride. She refers to these as deep stories. These stories are powerful, established, partly foundational symbolic structures and narratives that are kept alive by right-wing politicians and ideologues. They adapt these stories to the political-economic context, identify the phenomena and themes that the “authentic people” are uncomfortable with or concerned about, articulate them, and “explain” them. They propose or facilitate the proposal of simplistic solutions that are perceived as common sense. Thus, it becomes evident once again that, in contrast to the assumption in the liberal and left-wing political tradition that politics is primarily a realm dominated by rational choices, the dominance of mixed and conflicting emotions in the political sphere.

Another area where the assumption of rational behavior is challenged is deliberative democracy. Deliberative democracy, which is based on reaching a compromise through talking, discussing, and examining concrete events and data when there is a conflict, acknowledges a common ground between parties in distinguishing between right and wrong, truth and falsehood. This is, in a way, a presupposition of the principle of freedom of expression. The basis for the belief that all ideas, even if they are based on the most exaggerated lies, the most fabricated data, or the most unreasonable proposals, should be freely expressed is the assumption that citizens will be able to distinguish between truth and reason. However, there is now a wide-ranging area where the opposite is true, both in the past and in the present. The public sphere, primarily constituted by social media, allows for the rapid dissemination of exaggerated or fabricated facts that appeal to instant reactive emotions, beliefs desired to be held, and emotions such as fear, hatred, and resentment. Political personalities that combine and amplify all of these can easily flourish in this realm. Politicians and political formations commonly referred to as populist create an “us” and “them/enemies” camp based on this triad of fear, resentment, and hatred and establish a direct sense of belonging between themselves and this “us.” They nourish the perception that the ethnic, religious, or cultural identity they protect is under threat from internal and external enemies. In this way, they prioritize and strengthen group identity, thereby generating consent for their political leadership.

Eva Illouz, who examines this system of dominance in the example of Israel under Netanyahu’s rule, explores how authoritarian populist leaders establish and maintain their dominance by nourishing a world of emotions and excitement derived from disgust, fear, hatred, and love for the nation. In her book titled “The Emotional World of Populism,” she demonstrates how this complex mixture of emotions, overwhelming excitement, and directed self-interest expectations undermines and destroys democracy by creating a social dynamic composed of the combination of emotions.

This political discourse, defined as the politics of emotions and excitement, and the policies derived from it, can be observed today in Israel with Netanyahu and the extreme right-wing Zionist and fundamentalist party leaders allied with him, in Indian Prime Minister Modi, in Hungarian Prime Minister Orban, and of course, in Turkey with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The title of Hochschild’s book has a meaningful connotation in Turkish as well. It is the verse that the generation who have taken ideological formation in the boiling pot of Tayyip Erdogan and similar sacred nationalism often repeat, “You are a stranger in your own homeland, a pariah in your own country!” It is a verse by the master Necip Fazıl that carries great significance. In a timely manner, after the election victory on May 28, Tayyip Erdogan declared, “We are no longer strangers in our own homeland, we are not pariahs in our own homeland,” thus announcing that they had reached the goal indicated by Master Necip Fazıl.

The wave of anti-democracy generated by this populist politics of emotions also responds to the expectations of trust, protection, patronage, and privilege that feed on the trauma of neoliberalism’s general policies of insecurity through an ethnic and religious-based lens. It directs fear towards hatred, solidifying both the fear and the hatred of the masses who fear both internal and external enemies and establishes an identification between the leader and the masses. This authoritarian-autocratic politics of emotions, based on the identification of the masses with the leader, addresses the void created by the diminishing or even disappearing sense of common identity in today’s societies. It finds its appeal in the world of post-modern imagination where the individual is excessively emphasized, success and failure, wealth and poverty are reduced to individual qualities, and community affiliations and common values are devalued. It channels the reaction against this post-modern imaginary through movements of anti-democracy that emphasize ethnic and religious identity and the defense of the “authentic nation,” led by “charismatic” leaders who propel them forward.

[1] Stranger in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, The New Press, 2016.

[2] The Emotional Life of Populism: How Fear, Disgust, Resentment, and Love Undermine Democracy, Polity Press, 2023.

Ahmet İnsel (b. 1955) is a Turkish economist, editor, journalist and political scientist. Professor at the University of Paris 1, he regularly appears on the Turkish and foreign media, especially French, to talk about the political situation in his country.

The article was originally published in Birikim Magazine and has been translated from Turkish.

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