Fear and Loathing in Today’s Politics

PierceJonathan J Pierce

In the past year, rioters have stormed the US Capitol building trying to overthrow a presidential election, protestors have marched against police brutality in support of Black Lives Matter, governments have spent trillions of dollars on bailing out the economy, people are protesting mask mandates and lockdowns, and white supremacy and anti-fascist movements are growing daily and seeking a revolution. This is all occurring while the world faces the largest public health crisis in over a century. People are angry and anxious about today’s politics. Can theories and frameworks of public policy explain the influence of emotions? My conclusion based on my recent research published in Policy & Politics is no.

Most research on emotions in public policy relies on the notion of ‘affect’. Affect is based on two concepts. Whether emotions are strong or weak, and whether they are positive or negative. This contrasts with categories of emotions such as anger and fear. Categories of emotions increase complexity, but also precision and clarity about the characteristics and varied effects of different emotions. My article, entitled Emotions and the Policy Process: Enthusiasm, Anger, and Fear, argues that scholars should use the constructivist theory of emotion. According to the theory of constructed emotion, emotions are constructed out of language and concepts to make meaning out of affect, thus turning affective states into emotional experiences and perceptions. Therefore, emotions are not juxtaposed with affect, but a more precise extension of strong or weak and positive or negative.

There are many other benefits to using this theory to study public policy. According to the theory of constructed emotions, emotions are not independent and discrete, but are categories with fuzzy boundaries and are often linked such as fear and anger. Therefore, research finding people experiencing multiple emotions simultaneously is valid. Also, emotions are not produced by a specific location of the brain or a single neural network. This means traditional social science methods of data collection such as interviews, surveys, and content analysis that can result in finding mixed emotions are valid for identifying and measuring emotions. 

Three commonly studied emotions in politics are enthusiasm, anger, and fear. My article discusses the characteristics of these emotions, as well as the effects they have on attention and information processing, risk perception, judgement and persuasion, and political participation and group behaviour. Applied to public policy research, these emotions have three primary influences: (i) they increase attention to public problems and policies, (ii) they persuade and influence judgements about target populations, and (iii) they act as a pathway to mobilisation and collective action. For example, anger about police brutality towards Black people can help explain the increase in attention to the problem, demands for defunding the police, and large-scale protests across North America and Europe. By turning to emotions, theories of public policy can help us understand what motivates how people think and behave about our political world today.  

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Pierce, Jonathan J. (2021) ‘Emotions and the policy process: enthusiasm, anger and fear’,  Policy & Politics, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/030557321X16304447582668

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Practical lessons from policy theories

Three habits of successful policy entrepreneurs [Open Access]

Narratives as tools for influencing policy change [Open Access]

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