Social Media and the Political Theory of Passions

24 June 2022

“Combat de la rue de Rohan, le 29 juillet 1830”, huile sur toile (1831). Hippolyte Lecomte (1781-1857).


Of all the great political thinkers, few were as attentive to means of communication as Alexis de Tocqueville. One of the many things that amazed the young French diplomat during his trip to the United States was the importance of the press in nurturing the associations that gave life to the nascent American democracy. “Only a newspaper can put the same thought at the same time before a thousand readers,” he wrote nearly a decade after his travels in Democracy in America. As such, newspapers “maintain civilization” and are urgently needed to fend off anomy and individualism, which threaten democracy.


Tocqueville’s attention to the role newspapers played in fostering American democracy echoes contemporary debates around the impact of digital technology—and social media in particular—on politics. However, unlike in Tocqueville’s time, means of communication are today not seen as fostering democracy, but as harming it. A sign of the changing times, former US president Barack Obama recently joined the long list of personalities and pundits to denounce the nefarious influence of social media, telling an audience at Stanford University that social media are “one of the biggest reasons for democracies weakening,” trapping citizens in information silos and fostering mass polarization.


Whether or not social media are truly responsible for the polarization of politics remains up for grabs. While discussions of “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers” have become commonplace in commentary, research on the topic points to conflicting evidence, with some arguing that the echo chamber effect “may be overstated.”


However, one aspect on which both the punditry and academic research agree is that social media amplify passionate—or in today’s terms, “affective”—forms of expression. A team of researchers at New York University for instance finds that “the presence of moral-emotional language in political messages substantially increases their diffusion,” something that is doubtless also true of images, videos, and other digital content. In other words, the more affective the content, the higher its chances of becoming viral. This creates what media and communication theorist Zizi Papacharissi calls “affective publics”: networked publics united by emotions, for which storytelling plays a crucial role.


Could the affective affordances of social media be responsible for some of the recent backlash about their role in the democratic game? While this may prima facie seem like an odd assertion, a foray into political theory shows how a deep distrust of passions runs through our political imaginary.


Indeed, liberal, representative democracies were partly built on the precise idea of repressing popular passions and desires. In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton famously states that government is instituted “[b]ecause the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.” The role for the Republic the Federalists sought was—this time in Madison’s words in Federalist No. 10—to contain the “ruling passions” of the majority and guard against the “turbulence of the multitude,” itself full of “improper or wicked projects” such as “a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debt, for an equal division of property.”


For some, social media spur the popular desires the Founding Fathers sought to curtail, fueling polarization and extremism.


These passages are indicative of the role ascribed to passions in dominant strands of political thought—in particular political liberalism—which sees them as dangerous and destabilizing, associated with the unruly multitude. This trope extends back to Plato’s critique in the Republic of democracy as a space of unrestricted freedom, in which the traditional structures of authority dissolve—inevitably descending into tyranny.


Seen in this light, the fear of the politics of passions unleashed by social media should come as no surprise. This fear is now firmly entrenched in political corridors, the media, and in academic circles. At the nexus of these three fields, legal scholar and former White House official Cass Sunstein’s influential work #Republic is a paradigmatic example of the charge against digital technology. Social media, he writes, spur the popular desires the Founding Fathers sought to curtail, fueling polarization and extremism.


However, is the return of passions necessarily bad news, as voices such as Sunstein’s make it out to be?


Maybe not! While liberalism has indeed been characterized by its “irrational passion for dispassionate rationality,” as Philip Rieff puts it, this is not the case of all political thought, far from it. The current situation reminds us powerfully of the role that anger, fear, or empathy play—and have always played—in politics. A true democratic thought, one could argue, should seek not to repress these passions but rather to channel them.


Going back to Rousseau, for whom pity was the root of social life, or to Machiavelli, for whom politics was fueled by the opposition between the umori of the grandees and that of the people, a strand of political thought sees passions not as destructive, but instead as constitutive of political life and even fruitful if channeled appropriately. This is what leads Chantal Mouffe to write that “the prime task of democratic politics is not to eliminate passions nor to relegate them to the private sphere in order to render rational consensus possible, but to mobilise those passions toward the promotion of democratic designs.” (See also: a Tocqueville 21 interview of Chantal Mouffe in 2021.)


Mouffe’s call to integrate passions into the way we think democracy provides refreshing avenues for the study of digital technology and democracy. Instead of viewing passions as intrinsically negative and harmful, we are led to consider instead their democratic potential, provided they are channelled in the right way. Given social media’s affective affordances, and the way there are increasingly embedded into all aspects of our lives, one can expect passions to regain their place as an essential component of democratic theory.


Once the seeds of such passion are sown into humankind, Tocqueville believes, it becomes hard, if not impossible to stop the wheel from spinning.


There is, however, nothing new about the role of passions in democratic practices. Political rhetoric has always been about pathos more than about logos, and it is normal for leaders to attempt to evoke feelings and emotions when they compete for electoral power. However, the distaste for passions that plagues political theory makes it harder to appreciate what passions can be most beneficial, and detrimental to democracy. Instead of questioning whether hatred has its place in democracy, or attempting to understand how empathy could change the way we act collectively, we are faced with a blanket rejection of passions by most of democratic theory.


This is in many ways also the case of Tocqueville, who also feared passions. American democracy, he writes, is permanently under threat from the “tyranny of the majority,” which arises when “the predominant party in the nation may be carried away by its passions.” Of such passions, one in particular—which Tocqueville views with a mixture of excitement and fear—pervades the whole of democratic thought: the passion for equality. Once the seeds of such passion are sown into humankind, Tocqueville believes, it becomes hard, if not impossible to stop the wheel from spinning: “for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that, they still call for equality in slavery.”


Tocqueville, however, in a departure from the Federalists, recognized that reining in this passion was futile: “All men and all powers seeking to cope with this irresistible passion will be overthrown and destroyed by it.” In other words, and despite attempts to restrain this passion, it is the very condition of the democratic subject to yearn for increasing equality.


In doing so, the French thinker saw that while passions—and in particular the passion for equality—could have destructive consequences, they were also part and parcel of the democratic condition, and could never be completely eradicated. Heeding to his warning, we might, instead of attempting to repress the unruly, conflictual and affective forms of political expression on social media, also see them as an expression of the democratic condition.


“Democratic ages,” as Tocqueville wrote, are after all “times of experiment, innovation and adventure.” An adventure that leads us to rethink the role of passions and see them not merely as destructive, but also as indissociable from democracy—and arguably from politics tout court.


Image Credits: Painting by Hippolyte Lecomte, musée Carnavalet (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

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