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The triumph of emotion over reason: Global politics

By Peter McMahon - posted Wednesday, 3 November 2004


The current US Presidential election and the recent national election in Australia reflect some basic changes in our increasingly global society. There is a growing confusion over the core practices and values of modern society which have made politics much more volatile, and ultimately threatens the democratic process itself.

John Howard was recently re-elected Prime Minister of Australia despite unprecedented concerns over the honesty of his government and himself, most notably in relation to the unpopular and illegal war in Iraq. President George W Bush may well be re-elected according to the polls, despite an abysmal economic record and leading the US and its allies into an illegal war in Iraq that has probably exacerbated the threat of global terrorism. In particular Bush, against all logic, has managed to question the strong military leadership credentials of his opponent (a decorated Vietnam veteran) while painting himself (a man who avoided Vietnam and may have gone AWOL from the National Guard) as just such a strong leader. And finally, Tony Blair, despite also being caught up in the lies about the war in Iraq, has just re-established his leadership of the governing British Labour Party, which is expected to win the next national election.

Clearly, given the obvious failings of these leaders as honest men, their ongoing electoral popularity says something profound about modern society and the political process.

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The roots of this change go back to that epochal event, the Enlightenment, when reason replaced tradition as the core driving principle of society. The Enlightenment shaped modern European and then American society, enabling them to dominate the world.

The basic issue at the heart of the Enlightenment was on what principles should society be run: reason, or blind obedience to some primal authority? In practice, the primal authority was the Christian God, supposedly embodied in the church, and reason meant discourse, debate, and discussion. In essence, humans decided that they would decide the nature of society, and indeed, of reality itself, through investigation of the material world by experiment and through talking things out. The development of more rigorous forms of increasingly scientific experiment and rational argument became the main goals for serious men and increasingly women over the next two centuries.

The power of this way of living was reflected in the growth of science, science-based technology and technology-based industrialisation, a development also driven by that companion of rational thought, capitalism. The evident material success of this social system impressed everyone.

Following the Enlightenment politics - the process of negotiating power, sometimes characterised as “who gets what” - was all about discourse. This discourse was made up of two basic parts: reliable information and basic rules of logic. The spread of mass democracy that really took hold in the 19th century and has since travelled around the world was dependent on these two elements.

The creation of various institutional forms to enable sustained information gathering and debate, such as schools and universities, political parties, trade unions, business associations, lobby groups and the press, was important in shaping a coherent political process. So was the rise of literacy, since it was increasingly the case that most important information was conveyed though the written word. Even the lowest classes could increasingly read the newspapers and other publications that were flourishing. Democracy became a viable way of running a society, even one as complex as international, mass industrial society.

The rise of rational discourse, related institutions and techno-science undermined the old structures of social control, especially religion. Instead society was increasingly rational, democratic and humanist.

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Cut to the present. Literacy is in decline, largely due to the rise of electronic information technology, religion (of the least rational kind; that is, fundamentalist) is on the rise, and almost all the basic assumptions of Enlightenment society have been challenged. Post-modernism - an intellectual fashion in the academic world generated from the left - claimed that nothing was true, and the rightist patriarchal power systems, such as fundamentalist religion, regrouped and struck back, effectively utilising those essential electronic media, TV and radio (because they elicit emotional, not rational, response).

In essence, these attacks on Enlightenment society from both right and left undermined faith in both core requirements for meaningful discourse - information and logic. In doing so they challenged the basic mechanism of modern politics - compromise. Instead they asserted emotionally appealing absolutes, like good and evil, or alternatively the validity of any and all viewpoints.

Electorates, then, have either polarised according to increasingly irrational absolutist beliefs, or lost faith in the political process altogether. One result has been the rise of overtly Christian political parties (and in the US, the virtual take over of the Republican Party by evangelical Christians) and a new willingness by politicians to flaunt their religious faith.

Amongst those keen trend followers, politicians, there were those who realised that the electorate no longer expected accurate information or honest debate. They were aided and abetted in this degradation of politics by a mass media totally focused on profit over public service. As that supreme demagogue Adolf Hitler showed, if the populace is no longer able to make rational judgement, the emotionally-loaded “Big Lie” repeated ad nauseam in the pervasive mass media, works as well as or better than rationally derived, coherent policy.

So this is the new politics. Can it work, given the world we live in? Well, no, it can’t. The fact is that global society is increasingly complex and must be managed rationally if it is not to disintegrate. Specifically, the material affluence at the core of modern society relies on sophisticated logic and deep scientific understanding. Furthermore, the challenges ahead, especially the emerging environmental crisis, demand even more careful application of methodical reason.

So our current “Big Lie” politics, with its appeal to emotion over reason, is either a temporary aberration, or a catastrophic diversion from the necessary processes of effective governance. 

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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