The Sunday Edition

Political philosopher Joseph Heath on the role emotion plays in politics

Michael talks to Joseph Heath, who teaches political philosophy at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto about the roles of fear and anger in politics.
Anger and fear played out in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Both remain palpable in American politics to this day. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Welcome to Part Three of The Swamp, a special series on The Sunday Edition leading up to the U.S. midterm elections. 

The 2016 U.S. presidential election is long over, and yet the anger remains.

It's palpable among the faithful attending rallies for Donald Trump, and among the anti-Trump protesters outside those rallies. 

The air bristles with anger in the conservative American heartland, and on the liberal east and west coasts.

People are angry about globalization, economic inequality and immigration. They are angry at elites and political correctness run amok. People are angry at Trump, and at people who voted for Trump. 

Trump fans and Trump detractors are so angry they can't even talk to each other.

Raw emotion has become a decisive feature of politics in the United States, and in many other parts of the world. 

Political philosopher Joseph Heath and author of Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring Sanity to our Politics, our Economy and our Lives examines the pitfalls of the politics of passion with The Sunday Edition host Michael Enright.

Here is part of their conversation. 

Have you ever seen it in your lifetime where the political climate is as toxic, as angry as it is now — or is it simply being amplified by media?

I don't have a living memory of the 1960s, but my impression is that the political climate in the United States was quite a bit angrier at that time. There was certainly more political violence.

If all your friends are angry, it's hard not to get caught up in that as well.- Joseph Heath

I think the big difference is that the public discourse was not as angry. That has a lot to do with the way people are now doing an end-run around the media (which traditionally kept a lid on more extreme expressions of emotion).

So there's a lot greater public expression of anger and resentment now. You just have to go on Twitter, and you can see toxicity right there.

Fear and anger and outrage — that tends to be the dominant emotional tone that gets reproduced on [platforms like Facebook and Twitter] on both the left and right.

Do you think people actually know what they're angry about, or are they just angry at anything or everything?

I tend to think [anger] is pretty diffuse.

It's not as though this important thing happened to me in my life, and that's driving my political anger. It tends to latch onto very symbolic affronts, but it's also easily displaced.

So if a politician were to say to someone, "What are you mad about?" and then the politician fixes that thing and then says, "Are you happy now?" No, people have just moved on to something else to be angry about.

It's fitting certain needs that people have emotionally, but also socially. It gets reproduced by the way people around are talking and what they sound like, because if all your friends are angry, it's hard not to get caught up in that as well.

What matters to voters abstractly is not necessarily what changes voter behaviour.- Joseph Heath

The anger seems to present itself in people voting for things that are clearly against their own interests.

[According to polls], the number-one thing Americans are angry about with their government is that the government only serves the interests of the rich and wealthy.

So then you elect Donald Trump, who enacts a huge tax cut. That's objectively not going to reduce the extent to which people are angry at government for serving the wealthy.

How much do politicians exploit the real fear and real anger of voters?

One of the things that politicians have figured out in the last maybe 20 years is that there are actually very few issues that move voters to change, to drive voter behaviour.

Believe it or not, nobody actually votes for the NDP because of its stance on health care. It's a package of things.

The problem with righteous anger is that everyone thinks their anger is righteous.- Joseph Heath

What matters to voters abstractly is not necessarily what changes voter behaviour. And so what political parties focus on are these very narrow issues that will actually drive voter behaviour. 

Is there ever a series of circumstances where anger, emotion, passion is appropriate in politics?

I'm just super nervous about anger [in politics], and especially when it's propagated through social media that can have a snowballing effect.

The problem with righteous anger is that everyone thinks their anger is righteous. So what we call righteous anger tends to be the anger we agree with, and un-righteous anger is the anger we don't agree with.

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview. Tune in to The Sunday Edition on October 21 for Part Four of The Swamp, a special series about the upcoming U.S. midterm elections.

In upcoming segments, Michael Enright will speak to presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin about her book Leadership: In Turbulent Times, and to journalist Rebecca Traister about her book Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.