When emotions dictate your politics, one of two things will happen. One, people will ignore your opinions because your claims aren’t supported by facts and no one cares about your feelings. Two, those emotions become part of a larger movement in which everyone speaks the same language and perceives the same opinions as facts. The latter has frightening ramifications because of how politicians can exploit those emotions.
It was impossible not to have a visceral reaction while watching the Twin Towers fall in 2001. Americans were willing to do anything to prevent a similar tragedy in the future. Unfortunately, politicians who wanted to bypass the Constitution and civil liberties took advantage of these emotions.
Americans allowed their government to take any action necessary to “combat terrorists” through the Patriot Act. The U.S. government used this blank check to create the most invasive surveillance state in the history of democratic nations – an opinion shared by even a lead author of the Patriot Act himself. Additionally, the Bush administration rode the emotional post-9/11 wave all the way to its illegal invasion of Iraq. Not even prominent media outlets were immune to the consequences of emotion-driven politics, not hesitating to abandon their roles as watchdogs and fact-checkers.
Today, only the hawkish neoconservatives in Washington will argue against the fact that the Iraq War was the product of a massive misinformation campaign built on the public’s emotional blindness to the realities on the ground.
The New York Times has a fantastic new podcast series, “Caliphate,” which tells the story of a Canadian man who became a fighter for the Islamic State. He talks about the combination of relentless U.S. bombings in the Middle East and Islamic State recruiters’ violent interpretation of Islam. This journey’s chronicle reinforces what should be common knowledge by now: The Islamic State uses intense emotional rhetoric to appeal to disaffected young men who are taught by recruiters to feel that “The West” assaults their religion and heritage.
Take another example: When a young Syrian kid sees his hard-working family killed by a missile with the U.S. flag emblazoned on its side, his next actions probably won’t involve a comprehensive analysis of the illegal U.S. war on terror. It’s far more likely that their deaths will drive him to get revenge on the U.S. That’s where the Islamic State’s emotional manipulation comes into play. Though these are very extreme examples, they represent the disastrous results that arise when politics are driven by emotion rather than fact.
I don’t care if you “feel” that Medicare for all will be too expensive. The reality is that it will save taxpayer dollars. It doesn’t matter if you “feel” that undocumented immigrants are leeches who waste government resources. They present a net positive to the economy. It’s irrelevant if you “feel” that climate change isn’t caused by humans. The science proves that it is. Those political opinions are not driven by facts, but by emotions that stifle healthcare reform, immigration policy and measures to stop the human-caused damage to the planet.
I am not suggesting that politics and emotions should be completely separate. Emotions do have a place in politics. The problem comes when an honest analysis of the facts is secondary.
I admit that I have been guilty of this. After the Sandy Hook shooting, I counted myself among those calling for the banning of guns. But after I reviewed the facts surrounding the gun control debate, including the constitutionality and practicality of my position, I changed my views accordingly.
Your place on the political spectrum is irrelevant, as is your level of political efficacy. Consciously forcing emotions to take a backseat will not only give your own views more credibility, but it will also help avoid large-scale political disasters in the future.