But history is also full of examples of important victories born of citizens’ emotional responses to the political realities around them: civil rights, the American Revolution, suffrage. And the desire to “protect” the public by rationalizing and intellectualizing politics may strip it of the very things that draw people to politics in the first place: passion, meaning, and connection.
People act when they feel. If we want people to participate, we’ll need to allow, and even encourage, them to connect to politics not just through their heads, but also through their hearts.
And it probably isn’t possible to take emotion out of the political process, even if we wanted to. Is thinking, as opposed to feeling, ever truly rational? Cognitive psychology tells us that, while thoughts can lead to emotional responses, our emotional responses also shape how and what we think. The relationship between the rational and the emotional is complicated and reciprocal.
For example: You favor gun control. You learn that a candidate opposes gun control (thought/belief) so you then dislike that candidate (emotional response). What a nice, rational process. But this also works the other way: You favor gun control. You dislike a candidate—for whatever reason (emotional response)—so you then assume that the candidate opposes gun control (thought/belief). We are sneaky beasts, always on a mission to protect our own egos and the integrity of our belief systems. When emotions are strong, we generally don’t let inconvenient new information rock the boat. In sum, we all practice Stephen Colbert’s principle of truthiness: We want to feel right in our gut, without letting facts get in the way of what we know is true.
So in terms of receiving messages, the integrity of rational, information-based politics is suspect. But what about the message-production side of the equation? Sadly, the story is not much better. We live in a mediated political environment that is so thoroughly professionalized, with crafted talking points and poll-driven frames, there is little reason to assume that “information” is more truthful or less vulnerable to emotional manipulation than so-called entertainment.
When interest groups and campaigns actively construct reality, those things that we would like to think are true or fixed—dare I say, facts—are still run through a meat grinder. Political players select and frame issues and events, and journalists—bound by their own professional and systemic constraints (objectivity, the nonstop news cycle, etc.)—produce a second reconstruction of those issues and events. Then, upon reaching its destination (a.k.a. the good citizen), this information gets mashed through a cognitive funhouse fueled by self-serving and ego-protective biases like selective attention and selective perception.
So much for the Mugwumps.
Increasingly, scholars of political entertainment are challenging the notion that this process is worth protecting from the bastardizing influences of emotion, humor, and fun; especially if rationalizing politics means leaving normal people alienated from the language and rituals of politics. As Princeton political scientist Markus Prior’s work has consistently demonstrated, the more outlets and channels people have to choose from, the greater the opportunity for politically disinterested people to drop out of politics altogether, leaving them uninformed and at home on Election Day.
The key is in finding ways to show citizens that politics is not separate from their lives. Politics is people. People are social, emotional, and playful. We want to connect with our world and with each other, and enjoy doing it.
If scholars and journalists insist on treating political issues and public policy as part of a separate, elite sphere, devoid of passion and play, citizens will see those issues and policy debates as irrelevant and alienating. But if we empower people with ways to identify and create their own emotional connections to the substantive political issues of the day, we might find that they are not so quick to drop out.
Stewart and Colbert provide a functional model that should encourage further innovation in the exploration and discussion of politics and public affairs. Not as a substitute for the arduous, time-consuming work of investigative journalism, of course. If Stewart and Colbert have taught us anything, it’s that we cannot survive on a diet of ideological punditry, goat holograms, and fear-mongering (or what Stewart has referred to as “the country’s 24-hour, political-pundit, perpetual-panic conflictinator”). So, yes, we need the meat of great public-service journalism. But there is still room, and a need, for creative new formats that encourage people to connect and play with the substance of politics in accessible and meaningful ways.