The Hysterical Style in Western Politics
If one thing distinguishes present politics, it is the hysterical style. By this I mean the unceasing deployment of falsely urgent affective appeals by the press and politicians to manipulate the public attitude and mobilise support for specific programmes.
All major events according to the hysterical style unfold in much the same way: Very suddenly, it is brought to your attention that a Very Bad Thing is happening, which is somehow also Your Responsibility, and for which there is A Solution – if only we could muster the necessary Will and Determination and Faith in Democracy. Generally there can only be one such hysterical narrative at a time; for weeks or months or even years it must be at the centre of every important discussion. Above all you are called upon to feel a specific way about this Very Bad Thing and to demonstrate your feeling with some specific performative action, whether that is attending a protest or wearing a mask. Sooner or later – and whether or not anything has been accomplished against this Very Bad Thing – the hysteria subsides, making way for the next Very Bad Thing. In the hysterical style, politics are never normal; we are always on the verge of some grave catastrophe, always being called upon to emote in new ways and demonstrate this emoting in new political rituals. It is an exhausting way to live.
Media hysteria is as old as the printing press, but never before has the hysterical style so dominated Western politics. In Germany, I would trace the present era of hyper-hystericisation to the migrant crisis of 2015. The prior year had seen an upsurge in migration to Germany, and in response the rise of the populist anti-Islam movement known as Pegida. In her New Years speech on 31 December, Angela Merkel demanded more “openness to refugees,” who she said would be “a gain for all of us.” In 2015 mig
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