Emotions Before Paradigms: Elite Anxiety and Populist Resentment from the Asian to Subprime Crises

Millennium: Journal of International Studies

Author/s (editor/s):

Wesley Widmaier

Publication year:


Publication type:

Journal article

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Wesley Widmaier, ‘Emotions Before Paradigms: Elite Anxiety and Populist Resentment from the Asian to Subprime Crises’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 9(1) 2010: 127‒44.

Emotional forces shape not only market tendencies to ‘manias, panics and crashes’, but also policy debates as they predispose agents to definitions of state and societal interests. Nevertheless, IR scholars often downplay emotional influences, casting them as secondary to coalitional or cognitive forces. In this article, I address these limitations by disaggregating intersubjective understandings into popularly resonant traditions of thought and elite-based paradigmatic frameworks. Drawing on the insights of Reinhold Niebuhr and Richard Hofstadter, I then argue that elite anxieties regarding populism can engender the ‘technocratic repression’ of emotion from paradigmatic debates in ways that paradoxically render policy less stable and pragmatic. Firstly, such repression obscures the emotional bases of market trends and engenders overconfidence in the ability of monetary fine-tuning to restrain manias and to contain panics. Secondly, in isolating paradigmatic debate from everyday language, technocratic repression frustrates deliberation and can exacerbate populist resentments, requiring the construction of crises to advance change. Shifting to an empirical focus, I suggest that tendencies to technocratic repression in the 1990s and early 21st century engendered overconfidence in monetary fine-tuning. In the post-subprime context, the key question is the extent to which this bias in favour of monetary policy has been reversed, or whether constructions of the subprime crisis have legitimated a revived regulatory stress. In sum, this analysis highlights the reality of emotion as an influence on the international political economy.

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