The victory of President-Elect Obama has generated public weeping. Lots of people captured on television have had tears running down their cheeks, and sometimes their voices have broken as they try to respond to an interviewer. It is a very disturbing phenomenon. The rational choice of the individual voter is essential to the working of democracy.
Tearfulness signifies instead the emotionalization of politics. Rather than calculate, the weepers have surrendered to feelings. And feelings are catching. A huge literature is devoted to analysing how individuals turn into crowds, and how beliefs and values change in the process, so that the crowd comes to behave collectively in ways that each individual member of it might not. This is not to imply that the tears on this occasion are the prelude to some nasty kind of mob ideology – on the contrary, it is a very human reaction. The weepers had listened to Obama’s promises of change and hope, and their wish to believe in what he was saying overcame any doubts and reservations they might have had, and so the tears flowed as they will do whenever emotions get the better of reason.
The trouble is that reality reasserts itself pretty soon in this world, and emotion is not the tool to deal with it. The return of reason comes at a cost, however. Those who couldn’t help weeping at Obama’s election displayed expectations of a very high order, and if in future they are ever disappointed with him they will also be disappointed with themselves.