All You Need Is Love?

Love is priceless, but is it enough to sustain a democracy if an authoritarian comes to power?

Yes, the holiday season is already over, and no, this is not yet another article about Love Actually. Instead, it is an article about politics, symbols, and the role of emotions. And about a book written by one of the most eminent political philosophers of our time, Martha C. Nussbaum.

In Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (2015), Nussbaum argues that to date, liberal political philosophy has had very little to say about the “psychology of the decent society”. While liberals usually emphasize the role of impartiality, equality before the law, individual rights and interests, they seem to miss the fact that any liberal democracy that wants to ensure its stability over time needs to cultivate certain emotions among its citizens. And these emotions, according to Nussbaum, are all tied to love in a constitutive way. In Nussbaum’s view, dispassionate affirmation of certain principles even when it is accompanied by respect or sympathy is simply too little to sustain a decent social cooperation. The public culture, she says, “cannot be tepid and passionless” if good principles and institutions are to survive. It needs love. And only love.

Now, Nussbaum’s claim may well be somewhat too simplistic. As, for example, one critic points out, while Nussbaum insists that in “the absence of love directed at one’s fellow citizens and the nation as a whole” a fair system of taxation will not sustain itself, it is very plausible that a combination of motives other than love can do the trick too. Some of us are just lazy or busy to resist, others are too afraid of ending up in jail and so on. So it may well be that love is not always necessary. And it also may well be that it is not all that we need. But some love - or at least some positive emotional engagement - toward our shared values and toward our fellow citizens certainly helps in maintaining healthy social cooperation.

National symbols are powerful symbols of identification, symbols that permeate our everyday lives. We have national flags hanging on the walls of public institutions, the national anthem is played before football matches and on days of commemoration, and you get letters from the authorities with the coat of arms in the letterhead. National symbols are meant to help people feel connected to something bigger than their own circle of relatives and friends.

Authoritarians sometimes tell you that only those who support them are worthy of wearing the national symbols. In other times, they tell you that those who wear the national symbols are showing their support toward the only party that represents the nation - theirs. In both cases, they want their potential supporters to feel that the only way to be a real member of the national community is through supporting them. And those who do not support them are not part of the nation. They are traitors.

But the real traitors are the authoritarians. By eroding the emotional attachment between fellow citizens, they erode the basis of cooperation. This results in declining trust in each other, in our institutions, and, at the end of the day, a poorer and sadder society for us to live in.

Do not let them do it. Wear your national symbols with pride. It will not make you a supporter of them. And it will not make you a supporter of short-sighted nationalism. It will simply show your commitment to the best interest of your people, as you see it.