Feeling Political

Emotions and Institutions since 1789

CHRISTO AND JEANNE-CLAUDE: Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin 1971-95

Should emotions have a say in political issues? And if so, how far should their influence extend? Would it not be better to leave them out altogether? These questions are at the heart of contemporary public debates over the rise of populism and what might be called a lingering ‘Trumpism’. While the outgoing US President’s governing style is often criticized as one of excessive emotionalization, Angela Merkel’s approach is lauded as analytical. This comparison, setting emotion against reason, draws upon a long-standing dichotomy that has accompanied modern politics since the late eighteenth century. Yet the simplicity of the distinction is itself suspicious. Historically, it speaks of elitism and power. Politics, so it was once argued, should be reserved for rational educated men and kept away from women, people of colour, who were considered overly emotional and the lower classes. The Trump-Merkel juxtaposition still carries those overtones, even though it, funnily, turns the gender tables.

"Feeling Political"

What does it mean to ‘feel political’? In this book, we combine empirical case-studies with a foray into methods in the history of emotions. We explore examples from Western politics from around 1800 to the present in order to show that participatory politics thoroughly depends on emotions being mobilized, shared, communicated, reassembled and negotiated. Whether political participation occurs through social and political movements, clubs and associations, or parliaments and the media, political awareness and involvement hinges on being emotionally invested in something larger than oneself. This feeling is apparent in liberal democracies as well as in fascist and socialist systems; it applies to citizens and voters as well as to public servants and office holders; it occurs at the local, regional and national level and on the international stage; it permeates society in times of peace and conflict. If there is anything common to all these political realms, it is emphatically not a historical progression from passion to coolheadedness, with the occasional ‘backward’ emotional eruption as an exception to prove the rule. The discernible pattern is that the more people have been able, or indeed compelled to partake in politics, the more emotions come into play.


While it is crucial to recognize the centrality of emotions in participatory politics, merely understanding how emotions come to be shaped and communicated is not enough. What we have to bring in is the role of institutions. These can be formal structures such as parliaments, judiciaries, and other governing bodies. They can also be more informal associations such as singing clubs, sports teams, and worship groups, and can even encompass family and friendships. Feeling political does not come about at an individual or singular level. Rather, it relies on collectively mobilized and shared attitudes and inclinations that are moulded and templated by institutions of different kinds.


Institutional settings create emotional templates that activate and direct people toward specific causes and concerns. The visual, verbal, audible, and spatial mechanisms and media through which institutions operate convey emotional expectations, incentives, rules and constraints that have an impact on those who belong and hold membership, whether voluntary or mandatory. As individuals assert themselves as subjects of an institution (and thus deserving of certain rights and beholden to certain responsibilities), emotion becomes central to the existence, the very ‘life’ of the institution itself. By prescribing, communicating, adapting and embodying emotions, institutions encourage and prompt individuals to define themselves as political beings and participate in diverse forms of politics.

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