Traditionally, citizens in democracies are perceived as rational actors who base their thinking and decision-making on logical arguments. Yet, the idea that voters are also driven by their feelings and emotions became more prominent in recent years. This development is largely due to growing populist movements around the world that allegedly appeal to the feelings in voters. This gave rise to concerns about Western democracies entering the “post-truth era of politics” in which emotions matter more than facts. Yet, do politicians actually make use of emotions in political discourse? In his doctoral thesis, Tobias Widmann argues that emotional rhetoric is an important and prominent part of political discourse and political competition.
To measure emotional appeals in political communication, he firstly created novel text analysis tools that automatically detect emotional appeals in political text. These machine learning algorithms learn to understand emotional rhetoric based on thousands of sentences that have been classified by people as either emotional or not. Once trained, these models can then be applied to large sets of political text data, such as social media posts or parliamentary debates. Combined with qualitative analysis of text and different research designs, Widmann is able to investigate which emotions politicians appeal to and what causes them to ‘go emotional’.
The findings point towards a variety of influential factors. Importantly, the thesis shows that politicians not only appeal to general feelings, like positive or negative mood, but instead use rhetoric associated with distinct emotions. For instance, populist parties make significantly more use of negative emotions, especially anger and fear, compared to established political actors. It also becomes evident that the communication channel and politicians’ status level impacts the usage of emotional appeals. For instance, politicians use significantly higher levels of anger and disgust on twitter in order to attack political opponents. Similarly, political leaders also use different emotions than party backbenchers. Populist leaders increase appeals to negative and positive emotions compared to backbenchers, whereas party leaders of mainstream parties increase appeals to joy and pride in order to frame their own track record in positive light.
Other results point towards the strategic usage of emotions. The entering of radical right parties into parliaments, for instance, causes the remaining politicians to distance themselves from the radical right rhetorically. To do so, they increase appeals to positive emotions (as a contrast to the negative discourse of radical populist parties) and try to mobilize electoral support by relying predominantly on hope and enthusiasm.
All in all, Widmann’s thesis shows how actors not only rely on logical arguments in their communication but also on strategic emotional appeals. These findings are important because previous research in political psychology found that emotional appeals expressed by politicians can carry over to their audience. Thereby, they can influence important political processes. Emotions have been found to shape the way citizens form their political attitudes, whether they participate in politics or not, and which party they vote for. Emotions could therefore open up ways for politicians to persuade the public and secure electoral advantages.
Read more about Widmann's thesis in CADMUS.
Tobias Widmann is a political scientist working on political behavior, political communication, and political psychology. He is particularly interested in how political actors communicate with the public and the consequences thereof. In September 2021, Tobias began as a Post-doc at the Political Science Department at Aarhus University, Denmark.