Worst impulses of populism won’t be quelled by numbers and data

Ireland is vulnerable to the populist wave cresting over Europe. As Remainers learned in the UK, expecting cool logic to triumph over emotion is a mistake

In 2016, Michael Gove – then secretary of state in the British Justice department – declared Britain “sick of experts”. It set the tone for the ensuing years of Brexit discourse. On one side were the cool-headed rationalists: not swayed by the heightened emotion of the Brexiteers; guided solely by economic logic; finding the Leave campaign naturally abhorrent. On the other side were the hysterical Leavers: swivel-eyed loons happy to ditch any commitment to sensible policy at the altar of loosely defined sovereignty; disinterested in the fair warnings of economic forecasts; motivated by a feeling that it was all going to work out.

It was a comforting salve to Remainers to believe that apathetic rationality was always on their side, no matter that the hot-headed Leavers won in the end. But this disposition speaks to the heart of their failure: the reason-emotion binary is as common as it is foolish. But ever since the Enlightenment, Europe has championed rationality over feeling in its politics, as though the concepts were separable, as though leaders and voters alike could be drawn into discrete camps: the expert versus the layman, the reasonable versus the hysterical, the right versus the wrong.

The contemptuous elitism aside, this is a rather dangerous disposition. There are lessons from Brexit for Ireland, as the country is worn thin at the seams over the last year of anti-migrant protests and recent flashpoints in Dublin city centre. Ireland is not the most divided it has ever been – that would be a ludicrous suggestion for an island only recently beset by war and only recently in possession of a fragile peace. But, like everywhere, Ireland is vulnerable to the populist wave cresting over Europe, to the increasing factionalism general to the Continent.

Weathering that storm requires careful positioning, particularly in an election year. First, we ought to eschew the idea that to be a centrist, pro-single market, pro-immigration voter elevates you to the realm of unassailable objectivity. The inverse is important too: ridding anyone of the notion that to be the opposite signifies an emotionally rife disposition shorn of facts and logic. This was the mistake in the Brexit discourse: organising the world into those who were enlightened and those who were duped by feeling. To speak across the divide requires one foundational principle: the constant reminder that perhaps your ideological opponent has a point, no matter how ugly it may appear to you.


The problem with dismissing opponents as emotional and unthinking is simple: it suggests that feelings are irrelevant to politics; that all decisions driven by emotion are irrational; that emotion is not a powerful electoral force. It is patently clear that adopting such a position is self-defeating: Remainers lost the Brexit campaign because they focused entirely on so-called fact-driven rational economic forecasts at the expense of any feeling whatsoever. Meanwhile, Leavers won the spiritual campaign of nostalgia, sovereignty, patriotism and stories. In the great debate between religion and atheism, the human instinct for mysticism is hard to quell.

We saw this Remainer-folly in Ireland too. I am even less convinced about the economic argument for Brexit now than I was in, say, 2018. But it is obvious that people vote for changes to the status quo for reasons other than pure economic formula. Filtering all electoral politics through a tight lens of data – with no narrative, or appeal to emotion – seems to forget this basic fact. And if we look to Britain, we can see that has profound consequences.

In the face of tidal waves of populism it seems the wrong response is to retreat into corners of indignant self-righteousness

Nonetheless, politicians who cast themselves as enlightened by reason are seen to be sensible and trustworthy; those who appeal exclusively to feeling seen as dangerous and volatile. We still see it in the great misogyny behind the accusation that women are too emotional to lead, as though they cannot access objectivity, sense, ideas. I am sceptical that women’s emotional state is any more or less anathema to government than men’s, of course. But I also wonder: perhaps emotion isn’t a detriment to good leadership, just as it is not a hindrance to good voting.

The mistake at the heart of the binary is an ancient one too. The Roman Senate was divided into similarly drawn camps. The Optimates were the aristocrat fiscal conservatives, the vanguards of status-quo politics, with years of inherited political expertise. The Populares, meanwhile, were the interlopers: uninterested in contemporary customs and lacking the conservative instinct to preserve them. They were the men of the people, prone to emotional extremes. In the denouement of the Roman Republic, need I tell you which side won in the end?

In the face of tidal waves of populism it seems the wrong response is to retreat into corners of indignant self-righteousness; to believe that the worst impulses of politics can be quelled solely with an appeal to the numbers and data. Whether good or not, we saw in Brexit that people vote with their hearts just as much as with their heads. Stories matter too. Partisanship isn’t mollified and assuaged by denying that reality.