THE EMOTIONAL LIFE OF POPULISM

 

By Eva Illouz

***

The Montréal Review, November 2023

***

THE EMOTIONAL LIFE OF POPULISM
How Fear, Disgust, Resentment, and Love Undermine Democracy
By Eva Illouz
(Polity Press, 2023)

***

In my book I argue that populist politics blends together four specific emotions – fear, disgust, resentment, and love – and makes these emotions dominant vectors of the political process. The mixture of these emotions forms the matrix of populism because they generate antagonism between social groups inside society and alienation from the institutions that safeguard democracy, and because they are, in many ways, oblivious to something we might call reality. More exactly: populism lives as much in reality (naming ills that have transformed working-class lives) as in the imagination. Fear provides compelling motivation to repeatedly name enemies as well as invent them, to view such enemies as fixed and unchanging, to shift politics from conflict resolution to a state of permanent vigilance to threats, even at the price of suspending the rule of law. Israel’s fear of its outer and inner enemies runs deeper in the state apparatus than other populist forms of fear (it has also a different history and geography), but it bears affinities with them, as they all express fear of a shifting balance of power between majority (racial, ethnic, religious) and minorities and has become existential, about the very existence of the nation. Trump, Orbán, Le Pen, Meloni, the Swedish Democrats, and Modi have focused on the minorities who allegedly threaten their nation. Disgust creates and maintains the dynamic of distancing between social groups through the fear of pollution and contamination: it helps separate ethnic or religious minorities and, by the logic of contamination, it also contributes towards separating the political groups who either support or oppose the minorities. Ressentiment is a key process in self-victimization; its rhetoric has become generalized, as all groups, majority and minority, invoke it to designate the relationship of the other to them; it redefines the political self in terms of its wounds. Trumpist voters or Israeli settlers are united in their common sense of self-victimization against left-wing elites. When all groups are victims of each other, it creates antagonism and changes ordinary notions of justice. It also creates fantasies of revenge. Finally, a particular form of exclusionary patriotism promises solidarity to the in-group at the expense of the others, who become redefined as superfluous or dangerous members of the nation. We should not underestimate the deep relationship that nationalism entertains today with religion and tradition. Trump’s white supremacists, Giorgia Meloni, Orbán – all claim that their countries and nations must defend their Christianity against atheists and non-Christians. They also call for a return to traditional family values and oppose gender politics and reforms that would bring equality to homosexuals. This is congruent with Israel’s defense of its ethnic and religious supremacy (with the difference, however, that Jews represent a tiny fraction of humanity and have only one country in which they are sovereign). All of these emotions, together, create large imaginary spaces impervious to the real; these spaces are filled by emotional projections and scenarios which become prone to a paranoid interpretation of social and political life. These emotional imaginary spaces energetically fuel conflict within society through unavenged wounds and enemies and aggrandize a supposedly primordial and authentic definition of the true people.

This book has proposed a grid to analyze Israeli populism, keeping in mind that populism must be understood in the plural mode: its expressions vary from country to country and do not always arise from the same reasons. Israel represents only one of its versions and inflections. However, beyond differences and variations, we may highlight what might be its core: it does not claim to subvert democracy (as does fascism) but seemingly wants to uphold it. Orbán’s illiberal democracy might be illiberal, but it is still democracy. Yet democracy is a political doctrine and regime which places at its epicenter fair institutions, not a leader and not a people. Thus, in invoking democracy, populism actually usurps its claim to be democratic. Populism is masculinist, and when it occasionally puts women at the forefront (Meloni or Le Pen), it is more as gender washing than as commitment to feminism. Most populists appeal to traditional family values and reject LGBTQ movements. This is stressed less by Netanyahu himself, but only because his religious political partners promote fiercely conservative messages.

Populism, in Israel and in other countries, is anti-cosmopolitan, anti-globalist, and anti-European. This deep suspicion of outside cultural forces goes hand in hand with an affirmation of one’s primordial cultural identity, which is antithetical to the supposed recourse to international law of “elites,” courts and norms. This is also the reason why religion and nationalism play a key role in the affirmation of this primordial cultural and ethnic identity. Finally, and most curiously, we may say that populism embodies a discourse of rebellion. The left no longer holds the center of the discourse of protest. Rebellion and transgression have shifted to the right.

This book has suggested that such political views are cast into deep stories which activate four key emotions and that a sociology of affects and emotions may be a useful grid to understand the mechanism through which populist leaders make sense of the malaise experienced by many social groups through narratives which spread anti-democratic ideas and hold their grip on their followers. This grid can and should be modulated in different countries and is not, obviously, the only explanation of populism. Rather, it is only one way of understanding its complex and changing forms.

On the basis of the Israeli case, there is one dimension of populism I find most distinctive, namely the fact that leaders from the extreme right have successfully severed the traditional relationship of the left with the working classes and have cast it as representing the elites. If there is one process which the Israeli case illustrates most cogently, it is exactly this: the conflation of a left-wing agenda (based on universalism, human rights, redistributive justice, and cultural pluralism) with “elitism” and with the idea that the elites no longer care (or never cared) for their own people. Many elements converge and coalesce around this new perception of the left: the fact that the working classes and some of the middle classes have been dismantled by global capitalism; the new geographical and cultural sharp divide between large cities and small towns, rural areas, or what is bluntly called in Israel the “periphery,” with the former having mostly benefited from globalization and the latter having been hurt or destroyed by it; the increasing chasm between groups attached to the traditional family and a left demanding change in the realm of reproduction, sexuality, and gender relations at a speed that other social groups cannot follow; the weakening and fragmentation of the left (in Israel and worldwide), as well as its division between a traditional and so-called progressive left – all of these constitute the social basis for the new structure of feeling that has helped the populist right recast the social democratic left as a new elite, which speaks a foreign language and represents the interests and points of view of agents inimical to the nation. Israel, Hungary, Poland, and Trump’s America have offered cogent and powerful examples of this process. Israel offers a particularly crisp case study because the overt class and ethnic struggles between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim overlap to a great extent with the struggles between the left and right and help explain how Mizrahi working-class voters have consistently subscribed to the agenda of the right for the last three decades. Israel’s relatively new techno-capitalist elites are deeply involved in the globalization of the economy and relatively uninvolved in mending the large socio-economic gap between them and the working class, which in turn only fuels the deepening political chasm capitalized on by the populist right.

The political affects and emotions analyzed in this book do not explain populism so much as aspire to provide a thick description of the ways in which voters grasp their social world and build their political identities around affects which are all the more powerful in that they are also moral. Indeed, a key insight concerning populism is that it appeals to moral affects, defined as strong responses to moral violations, such as how we define good or bad behavior, good or bad people, how worthy our group is, and how we protect it. Populist leaders know to recode problems to be solved by experts (for example, how much immigration should or should not be encouraged for the economy) into moral ones (how much immigrants threaten our way of life). Trump, Orbán, Le Pen, or Netanyahu have done this very successfully. The progressive left has also entirely recoded social problems into moral struggles and economic policy into identity, a fact that explains why the political terrain has become so polarized and why it is now played on the terrain of morality. Moral emotions such as fear, disgust, ressentiment, and love for the group create a morality of exclusion and self-celebration.

***

Eva Illouz is Directrice d’Etudes at the EHESS in Paris and Rose Isaac Chair of Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Reprinted with permission from The Emotional Life of Populism: How Fear, Disgust, Resentment, and Love Undermine Democracy by Eva Illouz. Published by Polity Press © 2023. All rights reserved.

***

MORE FROM EVA ILLOUZ

THE END OF LOVE

The Montréal Review, October 2021

***

 

 

The Montréal Review © All rights reserved. ISSN 1920-2911