Negativity towards politics may be a by-product of a failure in ‘moral accounting’

Politics and politicians are unpopular, with low turnout marking recent election cycles, and hostility following our representatives around every corner. Many theories have been advanced as to why this might be the case, but here Southampton University’s Will Jennings, Gerry Stoker, Jonathan Moss, and Nick Clarke argue that it could be to do with failure in appreciating the moral complexities of the practice of politics – a failure of what they term ‘moral accounting’. 

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. So why do 21st century citizens in contemporary democracies appear to be so disdainful of politics and far from appreciative of their politicians?

Here are some quotations from responses to a Mass Observation directive sent out in 2014 – as part of our ESRC research project – asking its panel of volunteer diarists to comment on several leading British politicians.

David Cameron is characterised by mass observers 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 not just negative but caustically damning and also bitterly personal in their sense of betrayal. Why given that the politicians are plainly more formally accountable than many others in our society do they attract such a strong sense of moral and personal antagonism? One explanation might be the difference between the formal accountability of democracies and the moral accounting we use as citizens in our daily lives.

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).We are energised 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. Politics is not an activity that always shows the best side of the human character. Its leading players often engage in deception, subterfuge, dissembling, pork barrelling, currying favour and intrigue. Consequently, anyone who engages in politics, as Michael Walzer points out, faces the dilemma of dirty hands. 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 has suggested over centuries. Indeed as a more recent cultural expression, House of Cards (based of course on the original British version, written by Michael Dobbs at the height of sleaze under the Major government) 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.

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 moral books are not balanced so formal answerability may be delivered but not moral accountability. 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 can be satisfied as Machiavelli argued. 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 1950s 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 campaign 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 reduced impact. You can forgive the whoppers, wobbles and compromises if your party wins but only a few of us have that option.

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.

This post originally appeared on the University of Southampton’s Politics Upside Down blog and is reposted with permission. It gives the views of the author, and not the position of Democratic Audit UK, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before commenting. 


Dr Will Jennings
is Senior Lecturer at the University of Southampton. He is also Co-Director of the UK Policy Agendas Project, a Research Associate at the Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Vice-Convenor of the Executive Politics and Governance Specialist Group of the Political Studies Association.

Gerry Stoker is Professor of Politics and Governance at the University of Southampton. He was the founding chair of the New Local Government Network think-tank, and his book Why Politics Matters won the 2006 political book of the year award from the Political Studies Association. He has provided advice to various parts of UK government and is also an expert advisor to the Council of Europe on local government and participation issues.

Jonathan Moss is a Senior Research Assistant at the University of Southampton.

Nick Clarke is Associate Professor in Human Geography at the University of Southampton

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