Negativity Towards Politics: a By-Product of a Failure in Moral Accounting?

Gerry Stoker

Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton and the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis

Many politicians believe that their world is one of high accountability; after all they put themselves up for election and can find themselves unceremoniously dumped by voters.  Also on a daily basis their actions and words are the focus of attention in traditional and new media. Yet  our survey of Australian citizens in 2014 revealed  as  second top in a list of dislikes  about the way democracy works the sense that  ‘politicians can’t be held to account for broken promises’ ( Power of One Voice). Why do politicians not win praise for their formal accountability?

One explanation might be the difference between the formal accountability of democracies and the moral accounting we use as citizens in our daily lives. We are more engaged by the idea of moral accounting: good actions must be repaid and bad punished. The moral books must be balanced and when they are not then a social system is in trouble.  Politics is not exempt from this moral universe.  The problem with today’s politics is a lack of moral accounting schemas that convince from the perspective of citizens.

This issue is amplified because politics is an activity inherently in need of a lot of moral redemption. 

As citizens and observers of politics we have for long understood this negative feature of politics. The idea that moral lapses are characteristic of those that engage in politics is commonplace, as literature and history has suggested over centuries. Indeed as a more recent cultural expression, House of Cards, suggests it is possible for millions of television viewers to enjoy the brilliant Kevin Spacey doing his diabolical worst to get his way in an imaginary version of American politics. Indeed real politicians are often admired for their capacity to get things done and to do the necessary to win elections, legislative votes or other political battles.

So why do 21st century citizens in contemporary democracies appear to be so disdainful of politics? The key is the centrality of the embedded idea of moral accounting in the unconscious ways we think about politics. Because they claim to act of our behalf and rule over us politicians have to be held to higher standards and justify themselves. We know pragmatically that politics requires misdeeds, but it upsets our moral universe that those who claim to decide for us- who are therefore putting themselves above us- seem to be let off the hook for their conduct. We expect bad behaviour from politicians but also want to them to be held to account for that behaviour but we are not satisfied with the accounting mechanisms that are available. 

As George Lakoff‘s Moral Politics argues citizens draw on shared metaphors to understand and judge politics. There are, Lakoff argues, standard ways in which the idea of moral accounting can be delivered in human societies. To balance the moral books  with respect to misdeeds  you can engage in reciprocation (look I know it was bad but look what you got out of it); restitution (look I know it was bad but I am sorry and I am showing it) or retribution (look I know it was bad but I am paying for it now).

The problem is as our research has shown none of the moral accounting options- reciprocation, restitution, and retribution- come easily to hand in today’s political system and as a result politicians struggle to assuage their culpability with us. The mechanisms of moral accounting fail to deliver for today’s politics and that in turn lies at the heart of the intensity of today’s political disillusionment.

Politics knows the value of reciprocation. Politics can  be dodgy but if it delivers for you then maybe it’s OK. The ends justify the means; and those that share in the spoils are satisfied as Machiavelli argued. In our 2014 survey we asked Australians about what the liked about democracy alongside what they disliked. Sure enough two of top three “likes” across all groups were not about how politics is done but about what it has delivered; yet are our results also show that the sense that politics has delivered was much stronger in the older rather than younger generations.  Among the oldest generation 52 and 41 percent admired democracy because it delivered respectively stable governance and quality public services but among the younger generation only 25 per cent felt drawn to democracy for what it has delivered on those two counts.  Although by no means conclusive this evidence suggests that people’s sense that politics is morally redeemed by what it delivers may be on the decline.

Let us now focus on second form of moral accounting- restitution- where the politician visibly and clearly wrestles with their conscience; showing the strain that getting their hands dirty has put on them. Maybe politicians in the past had more chance  of being imagined as engaging in such activities but today’s relentless 24 hour media coverage exaggerates the need for constant bullishness and spinning  and seems to leave little space for introspection or thoughtful reflection from our politicians. It may be that politicians do mull over their misdeeds but there appears to be only limited opportunities for the public to observe that.

The third form of moral accounting involves politicians taking responsibility for their sins by doing penance and being punished. We can, as noted earlier, as voters remove politicians from their position but the after-life of the politician appears to have few downsides that we as citizens can easily observe. In the modern era many politicians appear to experience a post-political life boon- far removed from the idea of moral retribution- given the expansion of non-elected governance positions and lobby opportunities. There is clearly some evidence of a tough time being had by some but the focus of attention is in  the modern form of politics  is on its lucrative books deals, non-executive directorships , corporate consulting gigs, positions on quangos and well-rewarded lecture circuits. All these options appear to offer post- political career deserts only in the opposite direction to any punishment we might feel should be handed out. 

We know in our hearts that politicians must behave badly to get the job done but we are made more uncomfortable with politics today because of our incapacity to see some form of moral judgement in play to temper that inevitability.  Decreasing numbers of us think that politics delivers for us and are so enabled to judge that politicians achieved good even while doing bad things. The continuous campaign characteristic of modern politics means we cannot observe our political leaders feeling the pain or regretting of their misdeeds very often. And post- career rewards rather than penance appear to have become the norm for the modern politician. As citizens we know that politics cannot be wholly moral but we still think about it in moral terms.   We are cognitively inclined to judge and we need the books to balance but the standard mechanisms of moral accounting are considerably less effective today.  

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