Slander and lies – what some of the research on politics and emotions has to say

As the 2013 Australian Federal election draws nearer, the emotional rhetoric on the failings of one politician or another intensifies. Julia Gillard is warning the country against the Rise of the Abortionists in Blue Ties, while former Labor leader Mark Latham is describing Kevin Rudd as living in a whole new ‘realm of evil‘.

Meanwhile, having successfully wound up his opponents in a little ball of panic and fury, Tony Abbott luxuriates in being able to tone down his normal hubris to appear more rational and statesmanlike. He can take comfortable from the knowledge that Labor will do the job of attacking each other for him. Let us not forget his previous chestnuts however, including such choice phrases as “Gillard won’t lie down and die”, “Climate change is absolute crap” , “Bad bosses, like bad fathers and husbands, should be tolerated because they do more good than harm”, and “Jesus knew that there was a place for everything and it’s not necessarily everyone’s place to come to Australia”.

(Let us not entertain the outbursts of Barnaby Joyce or Chris Pyne, in a similar vein but of greater magnitude).

Amongst all this fog of heated, emotional exchange, careful and critical debate over policy is lost, and the many untruths propagated by the Coalition on climate change, asylum seekers, and national debt go bizarrely unchallenged. Is this simple Labor dysfunction and implosion? Does no one listen to the Greens? Or does this speak to more subtle forms of emotional manipulation on the part of the Coalition and its political advisors?

I thought it might be useful to look at what some of the social and political research has to say about the manipulation of emotions for political purposes. Here are a few examples of how emotions and politics can interact, and a few thoughts I’ve had on how they might do so in this election: 

  • Anger has been described as the ‘essential political emotion’ (Lyman 1981). A study by Mackie, Devos and Smith (2000) report greater levels of anger and a stronger desire to act on such anger against alternate political groups amongst patricians with strong group bonds. Party members get angrier when they can get angry not only for themselves, but on behalf of their in-group and against the out-group. Think Young Liberals. Or Barnaby Joyce.
  • But why get angry? One reason is that being seen to oppose any action on climate change – regardless of the economic rationality underpinning the policy – has strong emotional appeal to core Coalition values. Bruce Tranter (2012) finds that Australians who identify with Coalition Parties are broadly against commitment to action on climate change. He also finds that those who evaluate Coalition leaders positively are less likely to vote for the Greens in the Senate, even after controlling for party affiliation, background, values and attitudes towards global warming in statistical models.
  • Here’s another good (strategic) reason. The theory of ‘affective intelligence’ in politics (Marcus and MacKuen 1993; Marcus 2000) suggests that anxiety drives voters to gather more information on policies and candidates, and rely less on party identification. THis should mean that the more worried voters get, the more information they should seek out (for example around issues of climate change in 2007, when everyone wanted to see Al Gore’s film).
  • However, other studies (Ladd and Lenz 2008) suggest that anxiety occurs post (rather than prior to) party identification, and directs voters to gather information about parties and candidates that they already like and dislike in specific ways. In other words, anxiety channeled through dislike and anger reduces the accuracy of the information gathered. Valentino et al (2008) find that anger leads voters to close themselves off to new and counter-attitudinal information, while Groen (2011) cites several studies showing that anger leads to people to change their risk appraisals in arriving at political decisions and preferences, and to see major issues (such as war or economic disaster) as less risky, and the solutions to these risks (such as withdrawal or the provision of welfare) as less preferable. Using political rhetoric to promote shame and anger around an issue is thus an effective emotional strategy if one wishes to downplay the risks – and indeed the evidence – involved in that issue. Such as around climate change, asylum seekers, and debt
  • One problem with the ‘get really angry strategy’ is when you are not allowed to show your anger. Thomas Scheff and Susan Retzinger (2000) argue that shame directed at oneself can constrain anger, creating a ‘feeling trap’ whereby one is ‘angry at being ashamed’ or ‘ashamed of being angry’, and one experiences ‘helpless anger’ or ‘humiliated fury.’  This sounds a lot like the situation the Coalition found themselves in 2007, when they didn’t get climate change, but couldn’t openly refute the evidence behind it at the time given the turn in global sentiment at the time. Lucky for them, Tony Abbott came along and found a way to turn helpless anger into useful anger
  • And that brings us to Labor today. Thomas Scheff says that powerlessness results in a heightened sense of shame. This is accompanied by feelings of fear or despair if you blame yourself, or anger if you blame someone else for the cause of your shame. Labor MP’s seem to be exhibiting a lot of despair (i.e. packing up offices) and anger (Gillard vs Rudd) at the moment. Given the spectacularly shameful loss in public support between 2010 and 2013 following one political blunder after another, perhaps we can’t blame them.

As Alan Jones said, “Maintain the rage” …

Posted in Emotions, Opinion.