In Sidney Lumet’s film Network, TV audiences shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” from their windows and balconies. What happened at Washington’s Capital evokes associations with gloomy, but visionary images, where people, tired of the monotony of their lives, lack of fulfilment and competing 24hr news channels stage an anger-fuelled revolution that is difficult to comprehend.
The year 2020 for many ended with a disturbing feeling of emptiness, pandemic, professional and family troubles, as well as an increasingly uncivil and conflict-ridden politics. It was only justified for American opponents of Donald Trump to end the year with a sense of relief, after the victory of the liberal candidate Joe Biden,. After the elections, hopes were so high among the liberals that one might get the impression that they were almost doing their best to convince themselves that the worst was now behind them. A number experts on American politics attempted to pour cold water on this; reminding us that Trump’s defeat is one thing but the end of Trumpism is something entirely different. But they were not listened to, in part because good news is very important in psychological terms.
Neurobiologists know that our brains react especially strongly to the passing of danger. It causes a release of endorphins, the feeling of happiness that we have succeeded and that the worst is behind us. This is an important, evolutionary mechanism, which helps us remember dangerous situations and learn how to behave in order to avoid them. But this mechanism can be misleading. After 2020, many people believe that the worst was behind us, because Trump had lost the elections and in a few months’ time, millions of people would have been vaccinated against the coronavirus. Unfortunately, illiberal populism is showing us once again that it knows how to manage our collective emotions.
It was not an accident that populists started winning elections. Their victories are not down to just one reason. The global rise of illiberal populism can be traced back a number of years. But at the moment of their success, politicians such as Viktor Orbán, Jarosław Kaczyński, Andrej Babiš, Brexiters and Donald Trump were the only ones that knew how to effectively communicate using the emotions that predominated in their voters, one of which was a feeling of loss.
“Great achievements come at great costs”, wrote the prominent 20th c. liberal, Raymond Aron. This is what happened with liberal democracy around the world. On the one hand, successful democratic transformations, well-functioning democracies, extended life expectancy, and lower infant mortality can all be found both in our region and elsewhere. On the other hand, this change has caused a loss, not only of jobs, but of traditional sources of identity, social networks, well established habits, and ways of understanding the world. For a long time, liberals remained blind to how social emotions had changed, and illiberal populists showed a talent and determination to acquire power by communicating using these emotions; translating a vague sense of loss into more specific feelings: the need to protect your home, unfriendliness towards neighbours, immigrants, people who are different in any way, etc.
The coronavirus pandemic has provoked a new political agenda and new emotions. If illiberals do not manage the pandemic well, as was the case in the United States and Brazil, the virus can become their political killer. But it does not mean that illiberals are left empty-handed or unable to act. Donald Trump has lost the election, but thanks to existing trends his political career is still alive and there is a risk that he rebuilds his opposition movement, and continues to undermine American democracy. What are the trends?
First, anger. This emotion was a game changer in the politics in 2020. Anger was visible in the “Black Lives Matter” protests , as well as in the women’s rights protests here in Poland. Anger is one of our culture’s passions. As brilliantly said by Peter Sloterdijk, anger is at the beginning of the canon of European literature, as Homer’s Iliad starts with the words: “Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.”
The passion of anger plays an important role in the first book of the Iliad. Sometimes it appears as though anger was one of the characters. And still today, 3,000 years later, when I look at discussion in the public sphere, I get the impression that there has never been positions formed so passionately, in such extreme and angry terms as they are now.
In the following months, anger will work just as did in the cases of the above protests: it takes one spark to fuel a fire. Events at the Capitol were neither the repetition of a past event nor a onetime event. We can expect more such explosions, sudden and large-scale.
For me the, events at the Capitol were an outburst of fierce anger caused by nearly a year of living through a pandemic, which is itself like a constant mourning. The feeling of loss has come to dominate our times. Everyone has lost something in the recent months. Some people have lost a loved one. Others a lifestyle, their hobby, private space and many other things besides. Mourning is a kaleidoscope of emotions: accepting things as they are and denying them, shifting from anger to calmness, from exasperation to hope, from panicked fear to defiant courage. Anyone who has experienced mourning knows that these emotions can happen in any order, it is not linear, but often a vicious circle. And the feeling of mourning does not go away, because the pandemic has not (yet) ended, so it is not possible to work through this mourning and find closure.
The second trend is the emergence of a new political entity and an asymmetry in evaluating the behaviour of ourselves and others. When he spoke to the crowds, Trump spoke explicitly about emotions to the thousands gathered. But there was something more to the way he talked. You can find it in his words: “All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical-left Democrats, which is what they’re doing. And stolen by the fake news media”. His long speech was full of emotional words; lots of suspicion and anger on his behalf and on behalf of his supporters. “I hope”, he said, “I will never concede (…) we will never concede” he added and finally “I understand your emotions”, “I understand your suffering”.
Emily Pronin is an American psychologist who works with asymmetries in our thinking when we evaluate ourselves and others. She claims that every day, we assume that only we have good intentions. That if something is wrong, then it must be because someone misled us, or we made a mistake. The process is completely different when we evaluate others. They always have bad intentions, they do not make mistakes, but conspire. This psychological mechanism and its consequences have been subject to moral consideration since the dawn of ethics. The problem is that our feelings today have been impacted by two factors.
The first, as described by the French political philosopher Pierre Rosanvallon, is a change of the political subject that is now influenced by social media. Individuals demand a recognition of their emotions, because, at least in theory, we all have an equal voice on these platforms. The result is constant fight for the attention of 7.5 billion people, which makes things very complicated.
The second consequence is related to the aforementioned Iliad. The sources of emotions that gathered people at the Capitol, within the Black Lives Matter or women’s rights protests come from the outside, too. These are the forces that work on us. But in ancient antiquity, people believed that feelings were forces from gods, and today, our feelings are fed by the traffic on the social media. They are like Google trends: they appear quickly, explode and disappear rapidly.
Many people hope that 2021 will be better than the previous year. But right now, only one thing is certain: this will be the year of anger increasingly conveyed on social media.