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

By Jonathan Moss, Nick Clarke, Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker. Jonathan Moss is Senior Research Assistant for Geography at the University of Southampton, Nick Clarke is Associate Professor in Human Geography at the University of Southampton, Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter) and Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). Their project ‘Popular Understandings of Politics in Britain, 1937-2014’ is funded by the ESRC.


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.

2 thoughts on “Negativity Towards Politics: A By-Product of a Failure in Moral Accounting?

  1. Without doubt the vast majority of our politicians are without morals, though there are a few exceptions. Unfortunately relatively few. I fundamentally disagree with the authors accusation that “politicians must behave badly to get the job done” and object to their attempts to justify this. I agree that politicians do behave badly, but not that this is in anyway necessary.

    A major contributor to political disengagement and negative views of our politicians is the perception that they do not represent our ideas/ideals, nor are they listening to those they were elected to serve. In 2003 for example, an estimated 1million people marched the streets of Britain in protest at our governments plans to take us to war in Iraq, but the government did not listen and lead us into what we now know was an illegal war. There have been many anti NHS privatisation and anti-cuts demonstrations and a few weeks ago an estimated 250,000 people marched the streets of London in protest. Our governments response was for our chancellor to renounce the next day his plans to cut a further £12billion from the welfare budget.

    At our most recent general election, exactly one third of those eligible to vote felt so disconnected and unrepresented by modern British politics that they were unable to choose a candidate to represent them and decided to express their feelings by not casting their vote. The results of the election has given us a majority government that was elected by just 24.7% of the electorate. Despite their promises, successive governments have proven themselves both unwilling and unable to provide the reform we need, not only to our electoral system, but our entire political system.

    Our system of politics is geared towards favouring the interests of the rich and multi national corporations, ignoring the needs of the vast majority of those it is supposed to serve and leaving public services ion which many depend, chronically underfunded. In 2014, an estimated £122billion is tax revenue went unpaid, through tax avoidance. evasion and straight forward non payment, while our public sector series have been annihilated.

    Thanks to the decisions of our government to bail out RBS & Lloyds in 2008, at a cost to the UK tax payer that could reach £1.161trillion, we now own a 22% shareholding in Lloyds and 81% shareholding in RBS, yet not a single one of us can attend any shareholding meetings, nor do we have any say over the running of either bank. Having been bailed out, then receiving £375billion worth of quantative easing, the banks were allowed to continue with business as usual, with only minor suggestions of reform. The bankers who at least contributed to the financial crash in 2008, are still claiming their over inflated salaries and large bonuses and there is absolutely nothing any of us can do about it, despite our shareholdings.

    Our chancellor recently announced he plans to selloff our shareholding in RBS, but what he did not tell us is that at current share prices, when inflation and interest payments have been accounted for, the selloff will be at a loss of £32.4billion to the UK taxpayer. Nor did he mention that the 19% shareholding in Lloyds already sold was at a £500million loss to the UK taxpayer when interest payments and inflation are accounted for.

    Then we have all the MP’s & lords scandals including over claiming on expenses, theft of public money, fraud, cash for access, cash for questions, cash for peerages and allegations of a westminster paedophile ring and cover ups surrounding those allegations, to name a few.

    None of the above is “necessary to get the job done” as the authors so candidly put it. In point of fact, much of it is criminal and for their actions the perpetrators should be serving very lengthy prison sentences, rather than holding positions of privilege and power within our society.

    These are some of the reasons a new grassroots, pro real democracy, non partisan group of UK residents who believe our political system is fundamentally broken and in dire need of radical reform has been setup. The name of that group is Redesigning Democracy UK.

    The groups purpose is to provide a platform for members to come together to discuss, debate, design and build a better, fairer, more democratic UK society, where everyone will have an equal chance to prosper. Redesigning Democracy UK meetings are held online as webinars on a monthly basis and group membership is open to anyone who is UK resident and wants to be a part of designing and building a UK society that is truly democratic.

    We are already working on our website and in the meantime anyone who wants to join us can do so by sending an email to redesigndemocracy@yahoo.co.uk

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