A Transatlantic Take on the Final Stretch of the US Election, Emotion, and Global Geopolitical Shifts
The final debate of the US presidential race was a reminder of how little the decision of who gets to be next president, and ultimately “leader of the free world” will depend on fact.
While Kristen Welker, the adept moderator of the debate, created the necessary conditions for the two candidates to outline their policy differences, neither exposed anything new or surprising.
Perhaps one’s heart may have skipped a beat when Joe Biden seemingly antagonized big oil by prophesying its demise. But even that was not jaw dropping – oil companies have been seeking ways to greenwash and get a foothold in a future green economy for years now.
The theatre of the debate and its pointlessness underscored the limited role that fact, metrics, and quantifiable variables play in determining electoral outcomes, at least this year. (Some would argue that this is not a new trend, it has simply been amplified).
Granted, income, age, education level, zip code, and so forth, have an evident interaction with voter electoral choice. Indeed, reason and rationality are meant to be the cornerstones of electoral decisionmaking according to the enlightenment ideas that inform conceptions of democracy, centuries later.
In the final stretch of the US presidential election, it is not clear, however, if quantifiable approaches to understanding how people vote are still sufficient.
In the last crawl to the finish line, the two contenders replayed their greatest hits to audiences of convinced supporters. A veneer of voter education masked what was really an organized cultivation of affect, suspicion, skepticism, and the validation of gut feeling. What seemed to resonate as “true” in public discourse were not only facts but the emotions that either candidate elicited.
This may sound pretty basic – that electoral choice often boils down to sentiment – but the enlightenment idea of democracy as underpinned by rationality and reason is profoundly persistent. And, as such, any talk of emotion comes across as mushy and inoperable.
Nonetheless, Martha Nussbaum, the political philospher, points to the idea of “political emotion” as an organizing concept that may help us understand how political systems take form – and especially those that are socially just. In essence, her argument implies that we ought to go beyond the parameters set in continental Europe centuries ago and explore the world of emotion and how it impinges upon political choice.
Both candidates in the election appear to have grasped the importance of “cultivating public emotion” but they applied their knowledge in vastly different directions.
To Trump, the strategy has always been a vigorous appeal to suspicion and paranoia, which served him very well in the previous polls. This time round, he expanded into skepticism to renewed doubt about the voting process itself and a deepened cynicism about science even in the face of a fatal pandemic.
Biden, too, has characterized the entire election as a passionate “battle for the soul” of the country. Decency and altruism are at war against hatred and anxiety in this version of the election. The shared affection for the union itself was at risk of fraying beyond repair and voting was thus a means of restoring love for country and neighbour.
Nussbaum’s work on political emotions returns to this idea of love as framed by Biden. In her work, cultivating “public emotions rooted in love” is essential to producing socially just polities. Love, seen as consisting of “intense attachements to things outside our control” , is transformative to the degree that it fosters a “commitment to shared goals … and keep(s) at bay the forces of disgust and envy.”
French political philosopher Alain Badiou who wrote In Praise of Love sees love as a force with implications beyond electoral choice. It also acts as a counterforce to the capitalistic project as a whole. Macroeconomic structures and public policy decisions become less narcissistic and more attentive to the needs of the marginalized as public emotions tied to love foster an economics that is more socially conscious.
Badiou is aware of how uncomfortable and utopian his ideas sound but extends his arguments to articulate a skepticism with voting and elections as a whole. He wonders whether democratic elections actually serve the interest of anyone beyond small groups who “see the world according to their own situation and their own dreams.”
The systemic deficiencies of democratic systems are thus ultimately resolved through a grasp of emotion – of love – and how these can be put to work to deliver social justice.
Media coverage of the US at this time, including France’s respected Le Monde Diplomatique, has framed the US as being in the grip of madness (la follie). The BBC, at the time of writing, is describing it as a “crazy” election. Yet, this simply exposes a poverty of useful vocabulary to speak about the important emotions that have a bearing not only the electoral outcome but on global geopolitical realities.