Andrea Klinger: “‘Us against Them’ in the Name of the French Nation”
‘Us against Them’ in the Name of the French Nation:
Discursive Practices of Affective Polarization during the 2017 and 2022 Election Campaigns and the Temptation of Sentimentality as a Challenge to Liberal Democracy
Against the backdrop of an ongoing third wave of autocratization undoing progress in global democracy over the past 30 years, we are facing an increasing political polarization worldwide. While a certain degree of ideological polarization is necessary for a functioning party competition, data has shown that “[o]nce polarization reaches ‘toxic’ levels, polarization and autocratization can form a mutually reinforcing, vicious cycle.”1 Political polarization becomes pernicious when levels of polarization are high and it pervades society to shape it – political identity then becomes a social identity.
Against this background, affective polarization plays a crucial role. This form of political polarization is considered a dangerous phenomenon for liberal democracy leading people to neglect democratic principles in favor of other priorities and to perceive out-groups as an existential threat to their way of life. Affective polarization is also considered a result of strategic choices of political actors, especially at the level of political communication, and there is evidence that elite polarization is positively associated with trends in affective polarization.
Despite the knowledge of the relevance of emotions and affects for political communication, sentimentality as a conceptual approach including affective, emotional and rational dynamics is still understudied, particularly when it comes to the forms and functions of sentimentality as a rhetorical instrument of political leadership on a national level.
The research project thus provides a fine-grained analysis with regard to sentimental politics of order and belonging by examining the forms and functions of sentimental repertoires in election campaign rhetoric of selected main French politicians. By means of a discourse analysis, sentimental codes are first identified and analyzed against the background of an increasing political polarization and a strengthening of the political fringes in France. Subsequently, the identified forms and functions of sentimentality are examined as a potential explanatory approach for affective polarization tendencies, which are considered a consequence of an exclusionary top-down sentimental leadership and a major explanatory factor for the ongoing erosion of liberal democracy worldwide.
1 Boese, Vanessa A. et al. (2022): State of the World 2021: Autocratization Changing its Nature? In: Democratization 29 (6): 983–1013.