All the rage: The pandemic’s emotional politics

Liberals are often reluctant to use emotions in politics, but they should recognise that understanding the emotional structure underlying everyday politics can help in creating a convincing political message

Event hosted by the Chicago Torture Justice Center and Black Lives Matter Chicago. Rally, March & Car Caravan at the Cook County Department of Corrections, Chicago, Illinois, USA (13 June 2020).

“I’m as mad as hell and I am not going to take this anymore” shouts the TV host and his viewers in Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film “Network”. In this gloomy but visionary picture, Lumet reveals the mechanisms that many mass media outlets and politicians use to spark outrage and radicalisation on a scale that makes it difficult to put the genie back in the bottle.

Prolonged covid-19 lockdowns have created a kaleidoscope of feelings. These emotions have not only an individual character but also an important collective one. In nearly every great account of a past epidemic – from that of Thucydides, to those of Giovanni Boccaccio and Albert Camus – fear, distrust, and uncertainty have been the classic triad of collective emotions. In recent months, however, another emotion seems to have dominated public life. Anger – often in its more radical form, rage – seems likely to be crucial in months to come as a cause of political action and source of gratification.

In recent years, many pundits have tried to shift our attention to the problem of anger in public life. Recently, Pankaj Mishra explored “a particular climate of ideas, a structure of feeling and cognitive disposition, from the age of Rousseau to our own age of anger”. Anger is, however, in the code of Western culture right from its beginning. “Sing, Goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles” begins The Iliad. But it has been a long time since the outbursts of rage in political life were so passionate, so open, and so evenly divided as they are in many countries today.

One can point here to various outbursts of anger, from the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States and the United Kingdom to the demonstrations in defence of women’s rights in Poland, to the recent insurrection at the US Capitol. Though there are stark ideological differences between these movements, they all seem to have been strengthened by the same experience: months of frustration, emptiness, and the loss of the way of life that preceded the coronavirus crisis. It is striking how much members of Congress emphasised anger during their speeches on the second attempt to impeach former president Donald Trump.

An early lesson for 2021 is that the year will be shaped by pandemic anger.

Thus, an early lesson for 2021 is that the year will be shaped by pandemic anger. This may come as a disappointment to many, given their high hopes that this year would be better than 2020. Supporters of President Joe Biden, however, have reasons to feel some relief. Illiberal populists in central and eastern European countries are doing well but, as Cas Mudde and Jakub Wondreys have rightly pointed out, the November US presidential election proved that liberals also could win in times of plague. Some optimists in our country, Poland, have started to hope that Biden’s victory could be the beginning of a wider trend.


Amid the great wave of hope created by Biden’s victory in the election, those few who commented that Trumpism was not over yet were often dismissed as irritating Cassandras. And this should have come as no surprise. Psychologist Kate Sweeny argues that the main component of relief is a burst of endorphins, a feeling of happiness or even euphoria that the worst is over. It is an important mechanism from an evolutionary point of view, as it allows people to remember emergency situations and to learn how to act so that we avoid them in the future.

However, this mechanism can sometimes cause confusion. In early 2021, it is tempting to believe that the worst is behind us, since Trump lost the election and new hope has emerged in the form of covid-19 vaccines. The history of past pandemics, however, show that such moments of collective euphoria are an inevitable part of the global spread of a disease. After the second wave of the 1918-1920 Spanish Flu pandemic, there were signs of collective relaxation. Influenza came and went, just like smallpox or plague – and, after each wave, there was a lot of hope that it would not return. For example, despite the early successes of smallpox vaccines in nineteenth century Europe, the disease killed another 500,000 people in a last great comeback between 1870 and 1875, sparked by the Franco-Prussian War. This last outbreak came as a shock to many, and the reason for this was that first vaccinations did not necessarily confer lifelong immunity, which was not initially known.

Today, it is becoming increasingly apparent that 2021 will see a continuation of the crisis rather than an end to it. This concerns not only the coronavirus but also emotions in politics. Populists have not lost their ability to communicate with strong collective emotions.

The insurrection at the US Capitol is a good illustration of this. Addressing the public before his social media ban, Trump once again displayed his ability to catch what is happening in the emotional sphere and use it to light a bigger fire. His speeches have been saturated with words expressing sentiments such as distrust, suspicion, and anger, and with shows of understanding and excuses for those who are being radicalised. “We will never give up. We will never concede”; “I know your pain; I know you’re hurt”, he said – in an echo of Lumet’s movie. The next acts of this drama may well unfold in the coming months.

Courage, passion, engagement

The ancient Greeks believed that emotions are not produced in our individual psyches but come from the outside, like irresistible forces. While few people now believe that Athena sends them emotions as she did Achilles, the concept that feelings are invading us like invisible forces is still relevant today. It seems that only the gods have changed. Our emotions often come from social media. They build quickly, discharge, and disappear just as rapidly.

This poses a serious challenge for defenders of liberal democracy in 2021. Liberals are often reluctant to use emotions in politics, but they should recognise that understanding the emotional structure underlying everyday politics can help in creating a convincing political message.

Those who place their hopes in the second impeachment of Trump or another legal barrier to his political movement should ask themselves how exactly this solution should play out. Impeachment as a legal procedure seems a good idea if it preserves the rule of law. Fiery language does not have to invalidate reasonable arguments. However, if legal instruments are used solely to answer to rage with rage, this will not have positive consequences for the political community. Perhaps it is worth seeking some form of reconciliation with at least some of Trump’s supporters, if not with him? It is worth remembering that radical leaders such as illiberal populists use a strategy of radicalisation that can prompt their opponents to become more brutal. Unfortunately, the moderate centre does not usually win such duels. Events in Poland are a good example of this.

These emotional dynamics pose a challenge for the European Union. Deradicalising politics takes time. It requires long-term research, strategies, and procedures – all of which are among the EU’s areas of expertise. But it also requires courage, passion, and engagement. These qualities have been displayed by many leaders who have challenged the established social order, such as feminist activists chaining themselves to lampposts in England in the early decades of the twentieth century, civil rights marchers in the United States in the 1960s, and the peaceful revolutionaries of the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s. If 2021 is to be a good year for the EU, Europeans will need to think about what they can do to bring those virtues to the corridors of institutions in Brussels.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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