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The Power of Emotion in Modern Day Politics

We claim that when deciding on large political issues, we like to focus solely on the facts, the stats, and the truths. This is simply untrue. While the facts tend to be the main focus of our decision-making, our emotions influence us on a much larger, subconscious level than previously thought.

Campaign managers are fully aware of their emotional rhetoric when crusading their political agenda. In fact, Political Scientist Ted Brader recorded emotional appeals in over 1,400 political ads aired between 1999 and 2000 in his book Campaigns for Hearts and Minds: How Emotional Appeals in Political Ads Work. His data shows enthusiasm in 73% of ads, anger in 46% of ads, and fear appearing in 41% of ads. Each of these emotions are specific tools politicians use to cultivate the political climate necessary for whatever agenda they need to push forward.

Enthusiasm: a sentiment of intense involvement, interest, and/or approval. The use of enthusiasm in ads is an emotional play to increase voters’ confidence and trust in political candidates. This emotion requires the political candidate to have some proof of competency. Thus, it is necessary a hopeful voter has confidence in the candidate’s policies, record, or agenda. This rhetoric appears most frequently in the beginning of campaigns, as it is beneficial to win voters over opposing candidates.

It is not uncommon, later on in campaigns, to link sentiments of hope for the in-party candidate with feeling of fear of the out-party candidate and their respective policies. In fact, this was the exact rhetoric used in Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, in the “Hope and Change” mantra.

Fear: the feeling of deep discomfort triggered by a threat of danger, harm, or pain.

Psychological studies suggest that fear drives “systematic, deliberative, and in-depth thought processes”. Lucky for politicians, that means that when it comes to critically-debated topics, such as immigration or gun-reform, citizens are more likely to be perceptive and persuadable. The use of fear in campaigning is especially successful at getting citizens to abandon their partisan preference in favor of having protection from future, so-called “fear-inducing” events. Since fear is associated with an increase in awareness of threats, it in turn results in an increase of civilian political learning, thus motivating citizens to act in deliberation. These acts of deliberation include more attention on the now-preferred politician, donations to campaigns, and ultimately a favorable vote for the politician.

Anger: a strong feeling of antagonism and displeasure.

Anger is usually rooted in the feeling of betrayal when certain, assured outcomes do not materialize. Psychologists believe that anger suppresses clarity and seeking out accurate information. Since angry citizens tend to behave less altruistically, politicians have an appropriate platform to push forward their more extreme ideologies and risky policies.

The use of anger is traditionally used when politicians already have the loyalty needed to successfully continue with their campaigns. Political scientist Michael MacKuen found that the angrier a citizen gets, the more loyal to their political party they are. This loyalty manifests in many forms such as unlikeliness to agree to compromise between political parties, relying on previous political habits (in terms of voting), and engaging in pro-opposition speech.

This type of sentiment is usually promoted when discussing topics such as welfare – where those who receive governmental welfare and those opposed to the government spending tax-payer money on such benefits rarely see eye-to-eye.

In conclusion, the use of emotions in politics is clearly something we are all familiar with, but the extent in which it riddles our political discussion is much deeper than it seems on the surface. While political scientists around the world are familiar with research on the impact of emotion in politics, a new form of research is emerging, aided by the growing modern technological force, which will examine the increase in efficiency of emotions in politics.

With the help of the Internet and new algorithms, campaign professionals may be able to evaluate which emotional cards to employ on individual citizens. This can be accomplished with the use of new technologies such as eye tracking, facial recognition software, even galvanic skin conductance. Clearly the attention given to the study of emotions in politics is has grown exponentially, and we can only expect to see it grow faster from here on out. It seems that politicians aren’t just shaking hands and kissing babies anymore, they’re getting in bed with you too.




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