In an article originally posted on The Huffington Post, James Weinberg argues that Donald Trump provides a powerful lesson in defying the norms of political behaviour
“Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Let history answer this question.” In his 1st Inaugural address as the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson picked up on a paradox of representative democracy that has haunted western liberal nations for the last two hundred years. Democracies need politicians, but they do not necessarily want them. The enduring contest between their public, political and private personas rarely crosses the mind of the cynical citizen or the tabloid journalist, but it may hold answers to why we have come to dislike politicians so much.
At the abstract level, the balance between democracy as a series of checks and balances (government for the people), and democracy as a political system responsive to the will of its citizens (government by the people) is finely tuned and apprehensively maintained. When the pendulum swings too far to the former, a crisis of legitimacy engenders anti-political sentiment as people become more disengaged and disenchanted with politics. When it swings too far to the latter, there is the risk of tyranny by the majority over the minority. There is the additional risk – as we are now witnessing – of a charismatic leader, in the Weberian sense of the word, such as Donald Trump. Trump provides an interesting and under-appreciated lesson about the role of personality in politics that is applicable here in the UK where the broken record about broken promises has become all too familiar in conversations about politics across the country.
In 2015 the Veracity Index showed that politicians in the UK had retained their primacy as the least trusted profession by the British public, falling behind estate agents, journalists and bankers (Ipsos Mori, 2016). The performance and ideals of the world’s most established democracies, the UK included, have been slowly diverging to produce a crisis of legitimacy that is securely fastened to the conduct, and not necessarily content, of modern politics. Already in 1991, commentators such as Todd Gitlin could talk of a ‘shrivelled politics of slogans, deceit and mystifying pageantry’. As with other anti-politician rhetoric, these statements are over-simplifications of the truth. But they are not over-simplifications of the sentiment.
In psychological studies of human behaviour, Construal Level Theory (CLT) has shown us that the strength of causation and correlation between an individual’s personality (their genetic traits and social values) and their actions or decisions is affected by time and specificity. When we mentally construe events or decisions in the distant future, we are likely to evaluate the central features of that event from an abstract perspective and to make evaluations or commitments based on our values and attitudes. However when we construe events in the near future that are rich in detail, our more abstract values and attitudes become subordinate to feasibility criteria. For example, volunteering in a refugee camp in a year’s time may be construed as an opportunity to act upon deep-seated convictions about social justice and a desire to help others. However, the unexpected invitation to help at a food bank tomorrow evening is likely to be construed in terms of time or travel requirements, as well as other potential commitments with family or friends.
Applying CLT to politics helps to demystify the rhetoric of deceit surrounding politicians and to humanise the process of politics as well. In most cases politicians will enter politics with honourable intentions and high expectations of what they can achieve. At the time of their election campaign, politicians are able to construe of their time in office from a distal and abstract perspective, and thus make commitments that are genuinely true to their personal beliefs and values. Once in office, politicians face competing demands on their time, energy and loyalty that are incomparable to most professional occupations. Whether it is a mounting pile of casework from constituents, a ministerial portfolio, scrutiny of a public bill, or the dangling carrot and stick of the party Whip, the feasibility constraints on politicians’ daily actions are many and exacting.
What is more, unlike the majority of people politicians are faced with feasibility constraints for their professional choices that transcend themselves to the collective public effect of their actions across a wide range of policy domains. In this context, the margins to align actions with personal values are narrow and fleeting. One may, without acting as an apologist for the Liberal Democrats, look back upon Nick Clegg’s ‘broken promise’ to scrap university tuition fees as a product of CLT. With pressures to balance the books and maintain political leverage as the junior partner in Britain’s first Coalition government for 36 years, the Liberal Democrats collectively construed the then imminent decision over Conservative proposals to raise tuitions fees from a feasibility standpoint. When Clegg and his colleagues made the promise to scrap fees in the campaign manifesto months prior, it was not meant to deceive but had been made as a distant and unlikely commitment based entirely on principle. In government the Liberal Democrats could not act on the popular will that had put them there.
Although the Presidential system in the United States affords more autonomy to Donald Trump than European party-based systems allow their politicians, his ability to defy CLT is astounding. It is possible that Trump’s lack of political socialisation prior to his election makes him immune or ignorant to many of the feasibility constraints in formal politics that gag the actions of the majority of politicians. He has kept his word, however abhorrent his campaign promises, and the effect of this on popular faith in politics and politicians will undoubtedly form the basis of much future academic research. If Trump is a warning about the cost of ignoring anti-political sentiments and particularly the cost of broken promises, then the UK must reconsider the institutional feasibility constraints placed upon our politicians and make a greater effort to understand the personal costs of elected office.
James is a Research Associate at the Crick Centre working on the ‘personal side of politics’. Currently a doctoral research student, his ESRC-funded PhD focuses on the value orientations of national politicians in the UK; the research hopes to illuminate the psychological imperatives associated with the job of representation and the personal dynamics of MPs’ roles, behaviours and legislative decisions. James has already completed a pilot study with 48 UK MPs.
Alongside his PhD James is currently leading on a new strand of research investigating the ways citizenship education can be reformed, both process and content, to tackle political apathy and reinvigorate democracy. James is the Chair of the Political Studies Association Early Career Network, which represents the interests of postgraduate students, post doctoral researchers and early career academics within the PSA. He is a member of the Study of Parliament Group and sits on the committee of the Hertford Society. Previously James has worked in secondary education as an English teacher in London. He completed his Masters in Political Science at the University of Manchester and his BA in History at the University of Oxford.
This post was originally posted on the Huffington Post and is reprinted with permission of the author.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series.