How to explain the intensity of contemporary discontent with politics

Gerry Stoker

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

Politics is not an activity that shows the best side of the human character. Its leading players often engage in lying, subterfuge, dissembling, bribing, currying favour and intrigue. As a result anyone who engages in politics as Michael Walzer points out faces the dilemma of dirty hands: you cannot do anything without losing your innocence. To get things done requires a willingness to do the necessary to win the day.

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 over centuries has shown. Indeed as a more recent cultural expression suggests it’s possible for millions to enjoy in TV’s House of Cards the brilliant Kevin Spacey doing his diabolical worst to get his way in an imaginary version of American politics. Indeed real politicians are admired for their capacity to get things done and do the necessary to win elections, policy votes or other political struggles.  

So the question is why do 21st century citizens in contemporary democracies appear to be so disdainful of politics? Here are some quotations from a Mass Observation directive sent out in 2014- as part of our research for the ESRC- asking a range of respondents to comment on some well-known UK politicians.

David Cameron is characterised as a ‘sleazeball’, ‘multimillionaire posh boy’ and ‘emotionally unknowable careerist’; he is also criticised for having ‘chubby cheeks’, or a ‘shiny buffed up face’.

Ed Miliband is described as ‘weird’, ‘feeble’, ‘too wet’ and a ‘dweeb’ or a ‘creep’; one respondent explains that ‘he is wiry and gangly and doesn't exude honesty or truth’, another compares him to a ‘sixth form debating team captain promoted beyond his capabilities.’

George Osborne is ‘pompous’ and a ‘smirking public school bully’; if he wasn’t a politician ‘he would probably be a small time banker swindling old ladies out of their life savings’.

Nick Clegg is a ‘poodle’, a ‘bully’s sidekick’, he is ‘very slippery’ and ‘reneges on promises and plans’.

These comments are caustically damning but also bitterly personal in their sense of betrayal and alienation. Yet they are not out of tune with the everyday way in which politicians are talked about. So why are we not just shrugging our collective shoulders and saying to each: well what can you expect after all there only doing their jobs in line with the rules of political life in our contemporary democracy?

The search for an answer can start with a further insight from Michael Walzer which is built around the idea that although we expect bad behaviour from politicians we want to them to be held to account for that behaviour. Politicians because they claim to act of our behalf and rule over us have to be held to perhaps 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 therefore are putting themselves above us- are let off the hook entirely for their behaviour. 

There are three options open to the guilty politician to assuage their culpability with us but none is easy for them to deliver in contemporary circumstances. The thin value that can be got of each of these forms of apology in today’s world might explain the intensity of the negativity towards politics that many of its citizens vigorously display.

So let’s go through each of the accountability displays- identified by Walzer- and show how they struggle to deliver for today’s politics. The first derives from Machiavelli and can be summed up as: you are forgiven if you win for your team. The ends justify the means; indeed demand it, according to the logic of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Partisan dealignment has made that solution more difficult to deliver in contemporary politics. In the 2015 British General Election around two thirds of voters supported losing candidates and a third of population failed to vote at all. The Conservatives won the support of just 25 per cent of registered voters.  In the 1940s or 50s over 9 in 10 of voters would have been backing either Labour or Conservative in closely fought high turnout contests and would be pleased with victory or satisfied with a well fought fight by the politicians that  they identified with. Success for your party in the context of fragmenting voting patterns and the absurdities of a first past the post electoral system has become a balm to sooth political misbehaviour with restricted impact. You can forgive the whoppers, wobbles and compromises if your guy wins but only a few of us have that option.

A second form of apology-following on from Weber’s idea of politics as a vocation- is 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 engaging in such activities but today’s relentless 24 hour media coverage exaggerates the need for constant bullishness and  boasting  and seems to leave little space for introspection or thoughtful reflection from our politicians. It may be that they do mull over their misdeeds but there appears to only extremely limited opportunities for the public to observe that. 

A third form of apology for doing the necessary in the world of politics involves politicians taking responsibility for their sins by doing penance and being punished. As Walzer admits it’s difficult to imagine a practical mechanism to deliver this moral judgement; not least since it far from clear who legitimately could sit in judgement and hand out punishment. The modern form of politics of course with its lucrative books deals, non-executive directorships, positions on quangos or   well-rewarded lecture circuits appears to offer post political career only actions in the opposite direction. Some citizens may want to former PM Blair in the dock for his decisions over Iraq but they are not likely to get their wish.

Dirty hands-doing bad things to achieve potentially justifiable aims – is a perennial feature of politics. We despise politicians now because compared to the past there are only weak mechanisms by which we can hold them to account for their misdeeds. Few of us can share a win with them. The continuous campaign characteristic of modern politics means we cannot observe them feeling the pain of their misdeeds.  And post career rewards rather than punishment appear to have become the norm for the modern politician. We know in our hearts that politicians must behave badly to get the job done but we are made more uncomfortable with politics today but of our incapacity to see some form of moral judgement in play in temper that inevitability. 

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