Democrats, once more (again) with (the) feeling (already)

Pam, my wife, was watching the Democrats pursue the Florida-Michigan debate on Saturday, and she noticed something interesting.

Very often, she told me, people opened their remarks with,

"I am deeply troubled…" or

"I am deeply saddened…"

I’d always assume that the point of this remark (aka it’s metapragmatic burden) was to say, "I do not speak from party politics," "I do not speak from self interest," more generally, "I speak without prejudice."  The rhetorical strategy is clear: it allows the speaker to speak with greater authority because they do so, apparently, from a higher plain. 

In our culture at the present moment, claims to emotion are proof of good intentions, and a certain purity of motive.  We are more trustworthy when in the throes of an emotional event.  Speaking from the heart is a good thing.  And when we say we are "deeply saddened," dude, we are so deeply trustworthy that a political party would be entirely wrong not to embrace what we have to say. 

This is the traditional view…as it plays out in the present day.  And it plays out ever more robustly.  Sarah Moore has a new book about called Ribbon Culture.  I just saw the announcement on the Very Short List.  It is hard to tell at a distance, but it looks like Moore’s book goes right after our inclination to trust public action that comes from our private sentiments.  As VSL describes the book, Ribbon Culture is a study of

the rise of awareness campaigns in terms of a growing interest in
personal displays of compassion in a cultural climate where empathy has
become a by-word for authenticity.

Empathy as the by-word for authenticity.  Indeed.  Who do we want for President?  The person who can feel our pain.  In our culture, in this moment, emotion is the gold standard of public discourse.  Because, apparently, our emotions do not lie.  (I just have to say how odd this is from an anthropological point of view.  Only some cultures think this way, and there was a time in the history of our own culture when we most distinctly did not.  Any recipient of a Renaissance education, for instance, regarded the emotions as the very thing that put her ability to lead at risk.)

I was reading Zelizer this morning, and I wondered whether this argument could be taken another step forward.  Her Purchase of Intimacy is a great book.  It shows looks at the distinction our culture makes between the economic and the interpersonal, between things to do with commerce and things to do with intimacy.  Well, come to that, Purchase of Intimacy is about the intersection of anthropology and economics (and therefore high on my reading list). 

Of all the distinctions our culture cares about, the one between economics and emotions  is key.  It insisted, in the Victorian case, that the rules of the market place apply outside the home, but that the home itself will be shaped by a different set of impulses, social rules and cultural concepts.  Commerce outside.  Emotion inside.  These were seen to be mutually exclusive.  And we defend this distinction still.  We insist, as Zelizer puts it, "intimacy corrupts the economy, and the economy corrupts intimacy."  (And again, not every culture makes this distinction, and of the ones that do, none makes it in the same way.)

Having made this distinction between the economic and the emotional, we are vexed when the distinction is blurred.  There is a strong form of this blurring in the case of prostitution.  The physical and emotional intimacy of sex is now for sale.  There is a weak form of this blurring in the case of airline attendant who is called upon to manufacture emotions for commercial purposes (Hochschild).   

Naturally, these two domains are often brought together.  But we react with a Douglasian horror.  This confusion makes us deeply uncomfortable.  One of the good things about Zelizer’s book is that it insists that we can’t really make sense of our world until we see these categories as constantly engaging with one another.  I am less keen when she promises to "untangle[] [the] misunderstandings" that arise.  After all, those misunderstandings, that’s what we anthropologists call culture. 

(At dinner on Saturday night, the women quizzed me about what I do for a living.  When I said did the anthropology of contemporary culture, she looked at me sharply, and said, "Isn’t that what we call a sociologist?"  I said, "well, one way to see the difference between anthropology and sociology is to say that anthropologists see a culture from the inside out and the sociologists sees it from the outside in."  It is for a sociologist to untangle.  For the anthropologist, that tangle is called data.)

Anyhow, back to the Democratic event, I know wonder whether the distinction between the parties does not increasingly descend from the distinction between commerce and emotion that Zelizer documents so well.  This can’t always have been so.  I wonder if the parties are not separating in a kind of continental drift with this as their impulse.  It is does parse quite neatly.  Democrats are the party of feeling. They care about the world.  They feel its pain.  Republicans, by contrast, are hard hearted bastards who don’t or can’t care.  All that matters to them is commerce. 

But strategically, isn’t this a problem?   Can the Democrats afford to take this position.  It is all very well to claim the emotional domain, but does this leave them open to the charge that they can feel the issues but not manage them?  In the final hour, American voters, those swing voters in the middle, they don’t care so much about charisma and the promise of change, as they do about trust.  Being the party of feeling how can it not indeed feel good.  It looks like the side of virtue. ( And for all I know, it is the side of virtue.)  But strategically, it is an expensive place to be.  It lays claim to authenticity but sacrifices, perhaps, the claim to competence on which every election finally depends.


Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo.  Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 1983. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kelso, Ruth. 1929. The doctrine of the English gentleman in the sixteenth century with a bibliographical list of treatises on the gentleman and related subjects published in Europe to 1625. University of Illinois Studies in Language and Literature. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Moore, Sarah.  2008.  Ribbon Culture: Charity Compassion and Public Awareness.  London: Palgrave Macmillan.  here.

Zelizer, Viviana.  2005.  Purchase of Intimacy.  Princeton: Princeton University Press. here.


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10 thoughts on “Democrats, once more (again) with (the) feeling (already)

  1. srp

    You should check out Alan Fiske’s relationship matrix theory. He describes how people think about relationships in one of four categories–communal sharing, authority, equality matching, or market pricing–even though real relationships usually mix these aspects. He and his various coworkers have done some interesting empirical tests and drawn out some implications for political and cultural conflict.

  2. Peter

    “I know wonder whether the distinction between the parties does not increasingly descend from the distinction between commerce and emotion that Zelizer documents so well. This can’t always have been so. I wonder if the parties are not separating in a kind of continental drift with this as their impulse. It is does parse quite neatly. Democrats are the party of feeling. They care about the world. They feel its pain. Republicans, by contrast, are hard hearted bastards who don’t or can’t care. All that matters to them is commerce.”

    I would say that this difference in US politics goes back at least to the Hoover versus FDR campaign of 1932. From his earlier public career organizing humanitarian relief efforts during and after World War I, it is probable that Herbert Hoover could empathize with the best of them. But his ideological blinders (always opposed to Government intervention or regulation) and his 19th-century public rectitude (formal and uncomfortable in public, refusing for example to make radio broadcasts or to address Congress, even for the annual State of the Union) made it easy for the Democrats to portray him as unsympathetic to the plight of ordinary people suffereing from the Great Depression. Roosevelt, having been afflicted as an adult by polio, was more sympathetic to people hurt by circumstances beyond their control.

    For a good account of this campaign, see: Donald A. Ritchie [2008]: “Electing FDR: The New Deal Campaign of 1932” (University Press of Kansas).

  3. Alan Brewer

    American politics is messier than all the tangles an anthropologist calls “data.”

    Certainly this is true of individual campaigns, even those on the grand scale of presidential politics. The best political consultants will admit that election outcomes are truly outside their control, as much as they want to be puppet masters. (And who exactly are the puppets? The candidates? Or the voters? Or both?)

    Why did Obama’s historical moment trump Clinton’s? It is not only because Hillary Clinton failed to proclaim her historical moment, and therefore, claim it publicly. That was a strategic error in her campaign. But why did she make that mistake? Obama had no hesitation to proclaim his moment and transform it it into a historical moment for America. The reason why, in my opinion, is to be found in the difference between the civil rights movement and the equal rights movement for women. The equal rights movement — the womens’ movement — has always moved in the overlapping territory of emotion and commerce. And we have seen now in Hillary Clinton’s historic campaign the personal and political price that confusion has exacted.

    Is there a further historical context for your thoughtful proposition that the Democrats are the “party of emotion” while the Republicans are the “party of commerce?” I think there is and you can find it in the speech making by politicians. (I’m not sure I would go so far back as 1932, though Peter makes a sound case. I think we need to look in the age of television and mass marketing, post-Eisenhower, whose television commercials are worth watching today.)

    What would you make of Bobby Kennedy’s speech to the City Club of Cleveland on April 5, 1968?

    He is simple and direct, declarative, questioning, and yes, deeply emotional. Bobby Kennedy (and Martin Luther King) invested their speeches with a subtext of deeply felt emotion at a time when America was still visibly and tensely uncomfortable with emotional displays.

    But listen to RFK begin … “This is a time of shame and sorrow. It is not a day for politics. I have saved this one opportunity, my only event of today, to speak briefly to you about the mindless menace of violence in America which again stains our land and every one of our lives.”


    How would Americans react to that today? Would they be uncomfortable with such directness? Do we prefer, as a culture, the coded and coddling language of practiced politicians? Is Barack Obama equally direct?

    A claim to competence can come from a display of emotion — that is by asking uncomfortable questions that everyone wants to ask. That is why Bobby Kennedy ignited crowds he spoke to and campaigned in. And that is why Barack Obama is igniting crowds today. Sometimes a display of emotion is a compelling argument of competency.

  4. LK

    and don’t forget to add “i am deeply embarrassed…” as the opening statement for politicans implicated in sex scandals.

  5. Peter

    Alan, Grant:

    Alan wrote: “A claim to competence can come from a display of emotion . . ”

    Argumentation theorists talk about epideictic arguments, arguments whose validity and acceptability (to a particular audience) depend on their form. The classic example given (due to William Rehg, a philosopher at St Louis University) is that of a doctor advising an ill patient on his or her future possible treatment options. If the doctor presents the patient’s choices in a clear, coherent and structured way, the patient is likely to be more confident about the doctor’s competence and hence more likely to accept the doctor’s claims and arguments as valid, than if the doctor presents the patient’s choices in a muddled, roundabout or unstructured way. In other words, the patient may assess the logical content of the doctor’s argument according to its rhetorical form, and this process of assessment-of-content-by-form is a perfectly rational reasoning process for the patient to undertake. (Much of traditional argumentation theory was devoted to finding fault in the everyday reasoning processes of ordinary people, but this particular reasoning process deserves no such disparagement.)

    I think that arguments or statements which use emotions to indicate authenticity are further examples of epideictic arguments (one I had not considered before, so thank you!), and it would be quite rational for a listener to also assess the validity of the content of these arguments on the basis of their emotional form.

  6. jkh

    sharp comment, alan. very interesting thoughts grant.
    ‘Purchase of Intimacy’ seems like an interesting read because the two poles economics and emotions deserve a close examination today.

    i guess it is safe to say that emotions and empathy have strongly made their way into our economical system. – evaluating the gratification potential of a future investment has never been purely rational. and in a dynamic world it gets ever less so – it gets more risky and also more irrational and thus more ’emotional’. the identification of potential – of any potential – is always a bet on a by definition uncertain future. – you have to see or feel the sweet promise (or not).
    so as markets get more complex and dynamic economy opens itself stronger for for emotional factors.

    in consumer markets it is the same thing since a long time. consumers chose with their emotions – is this offer for me? / is this offer like me? – and empathy has become the key element in consumers’ purchase processes. – as a reaction to this people like grant or designstudios like ideo get their seat on the corporate table. corporations know they cannot without playing the emotional game – the empathy game (also of course in financial communication).

    now in our ‘flat world’ what is the number one skill a personal assistant sitting in bangalore and organizing the day of a young new york entrepreneur via internet and phone need – besides full command of the english language? – empathy, of course. – it is empathy that enables him to navigate his client through a culture he does not know in a country he has never set foot on.

    so as a general rule we can say: the more complex and dynamic our world gets, the more empathy gets intertwined with everything else.

    and it is not only that economics and emotions are an interesting pair of words to think about today. also the ‘known’ vs. the ‘unknown’is pretty damn intersting to look at.
    we find that in our world today we are surrounded by the unknown. the unknown (technology that we do not understand, cultures that are not ours, cause and effect relations that are too complex to understand or explain while being on a global speed trip) has become our natural habitat and it leaves us little other chance than to increasingly use – and rely on – our empathy.

    and then of course – coming back to politics – the hardliner with the emphasis on economics tends to rely on proof (that is the then known) rather than finding ways of dealing with the permanent and multidimensional presence the unknown.

    the world is changing. the american democrats’ position is much more in tune with our daily lives where the unknown can less and less be ignored or kept out, but has long become our natural habitat. – the space in which we move and interact. the place where we shop, where we find joy, hope, friends – and last but not least: the place where we find ourselves.

  7. Peter

    jkh —

    You speak of “emotional” and “rational” methods of decision-making as if these two approaches were opposites of one another. On the contrary, no decision can be considered truly rational if it ignores emotional aspects, as Antonia Damasio has argued very well — see his book: “Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain” (Putnam Publishing, 1994).

    Even venture capitalists know that it is their personal gut feelings (about the marketplace, about the technology, about the management team) which are more important to a potential investment decision than any allegedly scientific or objective factors.

  8. jkh

    hi peter, thanks for pointing that out.

    i am aware of the dangers in stereotypes, still i love to use them…

    after all our world largely consist of opposites and the tension between them (doesn’t it?)

    thanks for feedback

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