If emotional intelligence is ‘the capacity to be aware of, control and express emotion in a way that handles relationships in a judicious and empathetic way’, then we are certainly in need of more emotional intelligence in Westminster. Indeed, practicing wisdom in the expression of emotion has strong biblical foundations. In Ecclesiastes 3 we read that there is ‘a time for everything… a time to weep, a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away…’ All things have their place in our common life, and so it is with joy, anger, mournfulness and passion in our politics.
Alhough they are often underestimated, it’s becoming increasingly clear that emotions are key in political decision making. Claire Ainsley, director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, puts it like this: ‘where political parties sometimes go wrong is in failing to tune into the emotions that run underneath the surface, but that are decisive in how our ‘political brain’ responds’, and we can see this in the furious emotions following the Brexit referendum result. In 2016 the word ‘post-truth’ also entered the narrative along with ‘emotional reasoning’ before that; both signalling the victory of emotion over reason. For political commentators, it meant the end of democracy as we know it and sparked debate about how to recapture the virtues of reason and rationality that our western political structures were founded on.
But what if emotion has a positive role to play in our political life?
I contend that we should not look back nostalgically for the lost glory-days of rationality, but rather strive to become emotionally intelligent in our political discourse. If we recognise the stronghold that emotional responses have on decision making and reasoning, then we may be able to engage in a dialogue across political aisles which is more productive and relationally focused. Pitting reason against emotion is woefully unhelpful as an approach to bridge building. However, emotional intelligence does not mean emotion without restraint, but rather keeping emotions in their proper place. For it states in 2 Timothy 1:7 ‘God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control’. In this context having emotional intelligence simply means to recognise and be self-aware of the key role emotions play in the political brain. We are told in Proverbs 29:11 ‘a fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back’. Balancing rationality and emotion are important to right relationships in everyday life, and so it should be in our politics.
Nonetheless, emotions and politics have a complicated history. Some politicians use emotional appeals to their advantage, while Drew Westen argues convincingly that the devaluation of emotional communication by the Democratic party is what has lost them ground in American politics. Certainly, Trump constantly appeals to emotion over rationality and the attraction of the populist movements across the world illustrates that when politicians aren’t seen as responsive and authentic, the public loses interest and trust declines. It’s a delicate balance, since the public may also punish politicians for extreme displays of emotion. In 1978, Margaret Thatcher was denounced as feeble when she admitted she sometimes cried after a difficult day, and an iconic image remains in the public mind of tears streaming down her face as she was driven away after her ousting from office; her humanity was evidenced in her very human reaction. The video of Nick Clegg apologising for the Liberal Democrat U-turn on tuition fees is another example of a political leader emotional in a moment of failure. It was met with scorn, mockery and derision from the general public who felt the party had been given their comeuppance.
A Guardian article from 2016 on the subject of politicians crying put it like this: ‘public crying is a loss of control… always a brief weakness, a disruption from within. As a result, it has often been considered a serious political error’. It portrays the human face of political life, a rare showing of weakness from a highly competitive group. Raw displays of emotion from a politician mark a departure from expected cultural norms. It may make the figure seem weaker or more authentic, either way it stands out to voters as unusual. However, if our aim is to see relationships in a more judicial and empathetic light then understanding those we disagree with as human beings is imperative to bridge divisions in our shared society. As it states in Proverbs 18:13 ‘if one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame’. Therefore, by listening better to those we disagree with, balancing reason and emotion, and striving to be more emotionally intelligent, we may understand the proper place to weep and to laugh in politics. Jesus wept, the psalmist often rages against God, and so we too can be courageous in the emotional part of our political brains for we are told (Rom 12:15) to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep’.
Hannah Eves is a participant on Jubilee Centre’s SAGE Graduate Programme. She graduated from the University of Nottingham with an MA in Governance and Political Development.