The eruption of contemporary populist politics across states and within the global news media has elicited a whirlwind of reactions from the interwebs and braniacs alike. For many, the message seems simple, perhaps reminiscent of Winston Churchill’s infamous quip about the best argument against democracy. The success of president-elect Donald Trump, the United Kingdom’s European Union membership referendum (Brexit), and – perhaps smaller but not less worthy of comment – the One Nation party’s senate success in Australia have turned the attention of many political commentators to the media of communication. As Mark Chou and Michael Ondaatje have argued in relation to the Trump campaign,
Citizens who depend on the media for reliable campaign coverage and substantive analyses of candidates’ policies will be left either unsatisfied or none the wiser. In the worst case scenario, the public will begin to believe that style, performance and drama are what ultimately matter when it comes to understanding electoral politics. That is bad both for individual citizens and for democracy as a whole.
Employing a dramaturgical analysis, they question the authenticity of Trump’s presidential persona (as, no doubt, many of us have) by describing the affectations of his melodrama: ‘Building the wall, keeping Muslims out, demonizing China, provoking Islamic State, championing the rights of “everyday” Americans – all these are “policies” which would fit perfectly within a melodramatic paradigm’. While there is little doubt that the Trump phenomenon is a socially engineered one, reminiscent of Trump’s persona on The Apprentice, it is not so clear whether the revelation of this engineering is a threat to his public image. To understand the meaning of the theatricality of populist politicians, attention must be focused on the context of reception – on how audiences use popular imagery, language and politics in their own lives.
Perhaps one of the most direct (and certainly most readable) commentaries on the emergence of populist sentiment in the United States to date has been Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land. Hochschild’s book is an exercise in overcoming the emotional and cultural barriers that divides the politics of the ‘North’ and ‘South’ of the USA. Although the geographical imagery is a loose guide to the divide that she is attempting to bridge across, Hochschild argues that it is vital for understanding the cultural semiotics that individuals use to frame their political kinship and adversaries. Hochschild’s interview participants (snowball sampled from the southern state of Louisiana) are all white Tea Party supporters from the middle, lower-middle and working classes who share a ‘deep story’ about the progress of American society and their place in it. This deep story is not a factual account of history, but rather ‘a narrative as felt’ (p. ix). Hochschild describes this feeling-narrative thusly:
A deep story is a feels-as-if story—it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel. Such a story permits those on both sides of the political spectrum to stand back and explore the subjective prism through which the party on the other side sees the world. And I don’t believe we understand anyone’s politics, right or left, without it. For we all have a deep story. (p. 135)
The analysis of ‘deep stories’ require putting aside the moral and emotional objections that one has to a claim in order to reproduce the logic of feeling associated with the claim. For Hochschild, this requires scaling ‘empathy walls’ – in other words, overcoming the knee-jerk reactions that feel when in the presence of the politically contentious or outright abominable. These walls are ‘obstacle[s] to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances’ (p. 5). This is not a call to embrace racist, sexist or otherwise prejudiced politics, but rather an invocation to seek out the interpersonal logics that influence how others engage with politics in the first place. The medium of communication says nothing about the message without the context of reception.
Generalising from Hochschild’s methods, what her book offers is not only an analysis of the undercurrent of Tea Party politics in the USA, but also a tool kit for the exploration of the politics of ‘Others’ in politically bifurcating societies. For Hochschild in the United States, the empathy walls that she faced as a Berkley-educated-and-professor-emerita sociologist were those generally between the Democrat and the Republican, or more accurately between the progressive and the conservative in that nation. However, the interaction rituals, communication formats and structures of feeling that allow such chasms to emerge are not specific to the United States.
The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has already surveyed the sites of disintegration of moral debate in his book, After Virtue. At the heart of modern politics is a distrust of political speech that takes the form of moral claims. Moral claims are popularly attributed the status of opinions, attitudes, feelings or preferences (a theory that MacIntyre terms ‘emotivism’) and are unlike factual judgements, which are either true or false. As MacIntyre notes, within this emotivist mindset,
moral judgments, being expressions of attitude or feeling, are neither true nor false; and agreement in moral judgment is not to be secured by any rational method, for there are none. It is to be secured, if at all, by producing certain non-rational effects on the emotions or attitudes of those who disagree with one. We use moral judgments not only to express our own feelings and attitudes, but also precisely to produce such effects in others. (p. 12)
Emotivism is not an ideal for MacIntyre, but rather a response to a specific historical malaise – a theory about the use of moral expressions. Emotivism has historically emerged when individuals ‘use moral and other evaluative expressions, as if they were governed by objective and impersonal criteria, when all grasp of any such criterion has been lost’ (p. 18). In other words, emotivism rests on the premise that we cannot provide satisfying objective (or agreeable) justifications for moral claims. If the failure of the radically ‘left’ and ‘right’ of politics to communicate with one another reflects an historical political trend, it may rest within the disintegration of the Enlightenment ideal of rationally justifying moral claims. The task facing those who seek to repair public and political arenas, as sites of agonism or authentic communicative action, is to bring divergent political identities into a common sphere of conversation where moral claims are not brushed aside as sacred expressions of incommensurable attitudes or treated as the basis of stereotyping persons.
Hochschild’s work is valuable here because she has partially succeeded in overcoming the folk theory of emotivism that breeds suspicion between the wings of politics. Although I’m unsure how successful such a text will prove in inspiring a new agora in American society, Hochschild has certainly provided some interesting tools to think and write with beyond the United States context. In Australia, for example, where the resurgence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party has sent a shiver through the progressive and left-leaning, a cultural semiotics of the party’s voting base would perhaps bring progressives and regressives closer to communication.
Please feel free to comment/criticise on these remarks. I’d love to discuss your take on this.
Hochschild, Arlie R. 2016. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, New York and London: The New Press.
MacIntyre, Alasdair. 2007. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, third edition, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.