Are “Feelings” Compatible With Democracy?

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Are “Feelings” Compatible With Democracy?

Are individual “feelings” and America’s democratic model, at their base, incompatible? Given what we are seeing this election, it’s certainly a question worth asking.

As Molly Wharthon recently wrote of young people in a New York Times Op-ed:

“These people don’t think, believe or reckon. They “feel like.” Listen for this phrase and you’ll hear it everywhere, inside and outside politics. This reflex to hedge every statement as a feeling or a hunch is most common among millennials. But I hear it almost as often among Generation Xers and my own colleagues in academia. As in so many things, the young are early carriers of a broad cultural contagion.”

At its heart, a feeling cannot be contradicted or contested by argument because it is a personal experience, experienced wholly and solely by the person possessing it. It is an unassailable pathos that is valued above all else. This is a problem.

In many ways, it makes sense that we are seeing feelings further and further ingrained in political debate and conversation. America has long been a country that considers itself, correctly or not, exceptional. Many people have been told that they are “unique”, they are “special”, that if they work hard and are smart, kind, and honest, they can get ahead and live a “good” life.

The reality of a large number of people is something that falls far short of that bar though. There are things such as prison, drug addiction, student loans, police violence, and various other endemic characteristics of the US that seem to get in the way. No matter how “unique” someone is, they cannot escape the grasps of systemic racism in the US or the capitalist cultural undercurrent that drives so many people to forsake ideals they long believed in. Is it any wonder then that we talk more and more about feeling than actual policy? Is it a way to hold onto our uniqueness, in spite of all evidence to the contrary – that we are just people, like many people that have come before and after us?
In and of itself a reliance on feelings in political arguments may not seem like a problem, merely a natural extension of the human experience. That being said, democracy, as it is ideally envisioned, is supposed to be a platform by which we can reason through things objectively, arguing with facts and information around a topic or area.

Yes, today, we have moved far away from this ideal. Given the influence of money in politics, lobbying, pandering, and other issues, it is almost impossible to remember the last time something or someone was voted into law or office based on objective merits. Therefore, we argue based not on reason, but on rhetoric and emotion, something that is all too evident in the bombastic world of campaign politics, which are a different beast from governing politics.

We can see this play out in real time all around us today. People supporting Trump cannot seemingly be in dialogue with Black Lives Matter activists. Environmental advocates cannot communicate with climate change deniers. There is a real argument to be made that nothing can ever be truly objective, but if we continue to just scream at others, not talk to them, not debate on the merit of reason, then what can be done?

I was speaking with a friend and talking about Donald Trump and his rise to political prominence when she called him, as many have, racist. To argue about and assert this though does not actually change the opinions of those who support him. Lobbing emotionally charged words such as this at a man who is willing to cross lines that other politicians are not doesn’t turn away his supporters, but merely further entrenches them. Indeed, given his self-cultivated narrative as a counter culture icon who’s consistently smeared by the mainstream media, this plays right into his hand.

We can see something similar happening on the Democratic side as the primary season wears on. Sanders and Clintons supporters have devolved into a debate of feelings, not one of policy. To an extent, this has also happened amongst the candidates themselves. During earlier debates, where we saw them sparring on the merits of various policy differences, nowadays we see veiled insults, accusations, and a dearth of policy debate. This is played out on a much grander scale by their supports (largely on the ever accurate Internet). From the ever present insult of “$hillary” and accusations of corruption, to people not “believing” Sanders could accomplish his policy goals, feelings have come to dominate our recent political conversations.

Democracy is based on reason argument, and the need for a separation between emotion and logic, which, when conflated, can lead us down dangerous paths (perhaps the Trump candidacy being the most recent).

As Wharthon later notes:

“The phrase [I feel like] cripples our range of expression and flattens the complex role that emotions do play in our reasoning. It turns emotion into a cudgel that smashes the distinction — and even in our relativistic age, there remains a distinction — between evidence out in the world and internal sentiments known only to each of us.”

We can’t allow sentiments to dominate a democracy that wasn’t constructed for such. To recognize this may be one small step towards aligning ourselves with a political process we could be proud of.

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