Politics and Passions

Ethical Perspectives 7 (2):146-150 (2000)
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The development of the new means of communication and the overwhelming presence of the media in all realms of life represent a challenge for democratic politics. In this presentation I want to argue that such a challenge can only be grasped and met by discarding the rationalist perspective dominant in liberal democratic political thought. Indeed, such a perspective impedes us from acknowledging the nature of the political struggle and the centrality of symbols in the construction of political identities.As the recent growth of right-wing populist movements testifies, new political identities are currently being created and there is no doubt that the media are playing an important role in their diffusion. It would be a serious mistake however to present the media as the main culprit, and to see such movements as a consequence of `media politics'. The success of those movements would not be possible without a political rhetoric that managed to mobilize a wide range of signifiers. Had it not been able to articulate those signifiers into a chain of equivalence against the existing order, right-wing populism could not have made such important inroads in several European countries.From a theoretical point of view, what this reveals is the utter irrelevance of the rationalist approach to politics and the importance of the so-called `post-modern approach'. It shows that, despite what authors like Habermas pretend, the critique of Enlightenment rationalism does not constitute a threat to the modern democratic project. On the contrary, it is only by taking account of such a critique that it is possible to defend and deepen democratic institutions. If there is anything that endangers democracy nowadays, it is precisely the rationalist approach, because it is blind to the nature of the political and denies the central role that passions play in the field of politics. Only by drawing out all the implications of the critique of essentialism will it be possible to understand the process of construction of collective political identities and their discursive mode of articulation



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