Why politics cannot rely on reason alone


In liberal democracies, we like to think that rationality is the governing principle of politics. Recent events – such as the Brexit vote – have seriously undermined this. We need to remember that emotion and the personality of public figures are significant – either for reactionary or progressive purposes.

Greta Thunberg by Streetsblog Denve
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Greta Thunberg by Streetsblog Denve

Is reason the primary democratic principle?

One of the first things that philosophy students at British universities are told is that if they have come looking for grand ideas, they are in the wrong place. Contrary to popular perception, philosophy is not about grand ideas; it is about logic, the careful application of rational argument to a set of problems. Logic is the yardstick by which everything should be measured. If no logical solution to a problem is possible then there can be no solution at all.

It seems similar in the public sphere. Nurtured in the institutions of liberal democracies, contemporary thinkers in the English-speaking world typically see politics as an exercise in public reasoning. Democracy is the best political system because it allows different arguments to be publicly debated. Usually, the most reasonable argument defeats inferior ones and goes on to inform public policy. In the few cases where this does not happen, it is because of inefficiencies in the mechanism rather than an inherent fault in the system.

The spread of this belief in reason – often only held subconsciously – partly explains the trauma experienced in recent years by many liberals under a wave of political instability. In Britain, the clearest manifestation of today’s transnational populist backlash is the Brexit vote. There has never been any doubt in the liberal mind that despite various teething problems of European integration, EU membership is self-evidently superior to non-membership. A second referendum on Britain’s membership would almost certainly yield the same result as the first in 1975, when two-thirds of voters opted to stay in. Indeed, some people (myself included) welcomed the 2016 re-run as an opportunity to puncture the inflated claims of Eurosceptics before a public audience.

Apparently irrationally, however, 52% of voters indicated their support for Leave, triggering a political crisis which shows no sign of abating. The reaction of many Remainers since then has been even more telling than their initial confidence in victory. Convinced that 17 million adults could not have rationally made such a poor decision, their attempts to thwart Brexit have largely taken the form of a public education campaign.

Plenty of evidence has been assembled to discredit the arguments for Brexit, from critiquing the creative use of statistics to exposing patently false claims about the legal competencies of the EU institutions. Extensive economic analysis has showcased the actual and potential damage to the UK economy of leaving the single market. The People’s Vote campaign was established to lobby for a third referendum, on the conviction that many newly-aware Leave voters would change their minds if given the chance. All these hopes were finally dashed in December 2019 when Boris Johnson won a sizable parliamentary majority with the slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’.

Time will tell if Brexit proves to be the economic and geopolitical disaster that Remainers expect. The point, however, is that most voters failed to follow the rational course of action – and then, given the chance to change direction, reaffirmed this irrationality with renewed vigour. If reason is the supreme principle in the public sphere, something has gone awry.

The role of emotion and personality

The problem is that dominant philosophical opinion is wrong: reason is not the only factor. Indeed, as thinkers as diverse as Max Horkheimer, Judith Butler and John Gray have argued, the obsession with rationality is a phenomenon peculiar to the modern West. The Ancient Greeks, for instance, took a different view. Reason (logos) was undoubtedly important in public debate, but it was not the only basis on which arguments were won or lost. The emotional effect of an argument (pathos) and the personality of its proponent (ethos) were at least as important.

Introducing these other elements makes modern liberals instantly suspicious. An argument that appeals to emotion rather than reason is surely just a bad argument which should be discounted for not abiding by the rules. Even worse, accepting that the personality of a speaker or writer is somehow relevant reeks of personal prejudice. Bringing personality back into the mix surely risks undermining all that work.

These objections are understandable, but they belong to a rational utopia, which simply does not exist. We cannot escape the fact that emotion shapes political decision-making at least as much as rationality. Similarly, the political force of personality is just as relevant to progressives as reactionaries. The leaders of struggles for gender or racial equality derive part of their authority from the authenticity of their personal experience. We (rightly) do not pay the same heed to a white man making the same arguments.

True, the balance between logos, pathos and ethos can vary substantially between different contexts. During periods of economic growth and prosperity, the apparent rationality of the status quo can withstand criticisms appealing to emotion, even those made by respected individuals and groups. However, when the status quo is disrupted – when something that, only recently, seemed eminently reasonable to most people now seems barely justifiable – the public sphere does not simply pick the next most reasonable alternative to dispassionately analyse. Instead, emotion and personality come into play more forcefully than before.

This is precisely what we have seen since the global financial crash. With recessions and austerity programmes affecting most of the world over the last decade, the ‘reasonableness’ of globalised neoliberal capitalism has come under serious assault in many countries. Perhaps the only surprising thing about this is that liberals have been caught so off-guard by the tremors ripping through political systems worldwide. As populist forces of the Right and Left have emerged as serious challengers, the liberal reaction has been to engage opponents in rational argument in defence of the existing system. If reason was truly predominant in liberal democracies, voters could never have made such irrational decisions as leaving the EU with no plan for the future, or electing Donald Trump as US president, or voting the far-Right into the German parliament.

A proper balance between logos, pathos and ethos

Returning to the Brexit debate, the overarching failure of the Remain campaign, both before and after the referendum, was undeniably in confining itself to rational argument and neglecting both the emotional element and the stature of its highest-profile proponents. The Leave campaign built a nationalistic narrative in which the UK, long oppressed by Brussels, could break free from its bondage and dominate the world stage once more. The Remainers could have countered with a powerful patriotic story of the European project as the next step after the country’s defeat of fascism in the 1940s, a hugely successful effort of peace-building and cooperation among former enemies. Instead, they did little but warn against the likely economic impact of Brexit. This failure was symbolised by the Remain campaign identifying with the European flag, while Leavers proudly flew the Union flag at every opportunity.

Similarly, Remainers paid far too little attention to the identity of those advocating for continued EU membership. A cross-party roster of establishment politicians told voters that, actually, they had it pretty good already. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage – the de facto leaders of the two wings of the Leave campaign – had spent years cultivating their public image as anti-establishment crusaders. Particularly telling in this regard was the notorious comment by Leave campaigner Michael Gove that the public had “had enough of experts”. This infuriated academics, scientists and professionals who were already inclined to vote Remain. They also struck a chord with the many people whose bitter experience of austerity had led them to despise the economists and bureaucrats responsible.

We have to wonder whether Brexit might have been averted if Remain had recognised and rectified these imbalances. As Julian Baggini noted when critiquing a (pre-Brexit) debate on foreign policy in the UK Parliament, British political discourse has a long way to go in striking a proper balance between logos, pathos and ethos. Nevertheless, this is already happening on one of the few political issues where progressives are on the offensive: climate action.

The lesson from climate action

If you ask most progressives why climate action is necessary, they will respond that the science is incontrovertible and that we have very little time left to prevent disaster. Yet most people have no nuanced grasp of climatology. Our ability to evaluate the evidence for anthropogenic climate change often relies on memories of school science lessons. In making the case for climate action, we are much more reliant on the personality the ethos, of people whose scientific expertise is beyond question. Even if we have not personally verified the existence of the greenhouse effect, we defer to the near-unanimous scientific consensus that industrial emissions from human activity are the primary cause of global warming.

Even this, however, is not enough. Climate change has been recognised as a problem for decades, yet action to combat it has been woefully insufficient. What has changed in the recent years is that the climate movement finally broke through with a real emotional case, the pathos, of humanity’s impact on the planet. Appeals to people’s duty to their grandchildren or to the mass extinction of non-human species depend on neither the rationality of climate science nor the expertise of scientific opinion. They rely instead on humans feeling deeply that something must be done to avert disaster. (Indeed, combining pathos and ethos, the cause has been helped by the immense moral authority of figures like Greta Thunberg.)

We are still not quite at the tipping point of sufficient climate action, but the great strides forward in recent years show what progressives can achieve when they combine logos, pathos and ethos effectively. The outcome does not have to be an aggressive and authoritarian populism. It is time we took these lessons and applied them to the other causes we care about most dearly.