‘All Things to All People’: We Need to Understand the Personal Side of Politics

James Weinberg discusses how his research blends political science, psychology and a healthy dose of humanity to understand the personal side of politics.

The claim that people dislike politics, or dislike politicians even more so, appears to have been accepted in journalistic and academic literature. Even before the election of Donald Trump, the rise of populism across central Europe, and the UK expenses scandal in 2009, the late Anthony King commented that the biggest divide in British politics was ‘between Britain’s whole political class and the great majority of the British people’. However amidst the popular conceptions of politics as a dirty word arise a number of paradoxes: politicians operate in a ‘trap’ account of politics, fuelled by the mediatisation and marketisation of politics, in which they are expected to be both leaders and followers, principled and pragmatic, ordinary and exceptional. Almost 60 years after Sir Bernard Crick wrote his epochal In Defense of Politics, it is time for those of us who are not politicians to pick up the baton and acknowledge that political office is extraordinary for both its responsibilities and its burdens. A new study – being conducted at the Crick Centre (University of Sheffield) and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) – blends political science, psychology and a healthy dose of humanity to understand the personal side of politics. More than ever this research into the motivations and attitudes of politicians, and the frustrations and tribulations of elected office, is needed to challenge the narrative of disaffection and division that has come to dominate the public relationship between governed and governor.

As David Easton dramatically argued in 1965, the history of democracy is a long lesson in the downfall of political systems in which those with authority did not have the support or confidence of the governed. This anti-politics phenomenon is now well documented in Britain in popular and academic press: declining levels of partisanship, diminished voter turnout, poor performing governments and failures of accountability, and plummeting trust in political elites are all common research foci and even book titles. Yet the literature seeking to explain and understand the crisis of democracy focuses almost singularly on popular notions of what politics is and how it should work. In doing so it fails to engage with those who actually occupy political office.

However, if it is accepted that democratic government does require elites (used here as an indicator of expertise rather than preferential status), and that in turn disaffection rests on the conduct of representative politics and not in the concept of representative democracy itself, then it must be acknowledged that a step towards restoring faith in democracy lies in understanding both sides of the coin: politicians as humans as well as policy-makers. Politicians, as the subject of research, have been largely conspicuous by their absence from the academic debate about democratic renewal but we need to get past the telegenic and carefully constructed presentations of political personalities (personality as perception) to reconnect everyday people with the views and experiences of political actors about their everyday job (personality as functioning).

Two recent studies illustrate a) the problem at hand, and b) the potential benefit of research and writing that humanises rather than demonises politicians. In 2015 Sarah Birch and Nicholas Allen found a significant relationship between citizens’ confidence in politicians’ personality traits, such as honesty, and process dissatisfaction (i.e. the conduct of politics). As confidence in politicians’ personal qualities increased, so too the gap between citizens’ ideal process beliefs and their perceptions of the status quo decreased, and the likelihood of them endorsing or participating in formal politics increased. The democratic implications of this are immense, if and when we can close the gulf between politicians’ personality as perception and functioning. The catch: time-poor citizens are operating in an information- and opinion-rich environment that can supplement informed preferences and judgements about political elites using a surface-level facade of prejudices, castigations and hyperbolic intrigue. When Gerry Stoker asked citizens for instant opinions of politicians in research published last year, they produced 209 word associations, of which only 7 were positive. However the crucial point to take away is that in every case this trenchant negativity gave way to a more considered and appreciative critique of politics and politicians when the participants were able to engage in logical reflection during discussion groups.

The current study at the Crick Centre combines validated psychometric surveys of politicians’ values with interviews that get to the heart of how and why politicians navigate the experience of elected office. In its rigour and scope this research challenges the popular commentary on politicians that has made claims about careerist attitudes, self-serving behaviour and greed – characteristics that are psychological in nature – without the methodological tools to link cause with effect or to discriminate between individuals in any verified manner.


Image courtesy of UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor. Parliamentary copyright.

A pilot study of 48 MPs has already illuminated interesting trends across the House. At a group level the pilot showed that MPs score most highly for the values of Benevolence, Universalism and Self-direction; and score lowest for the values of Tradition, Power, Achievement and Hedonism. In lay terms this would imply, given the psychological derivations of these concepts, that MPs are extremely concerned about the welfare of those they know personally; have a high understanding and appreciation of, as well as a desire to protect, the welfare of all people and nature; and in addition exhibit high levels of independent thought and action. These results were sustained even after statistical corrections for social desirability bias in participants’ responses. It may be asserted that these three values are not only characteristics consonant with the functioning of representation but are also ones that the general public would condone, if not admire in their MPs. Within the group the pilot also revealed differences in personality according to gender and party. Female MPs were far more independent than their male colleagues, whilst dominant party ideologies were strong predictors of the ‘type’ of person they attracted. It is hoped that the main study, in which more than 100 parliamentarians have already participated since November last year, will add nuance to these findings and allow for additional behavioural analysis and ‘approaches’ to representation.

Additional to this, interviews conducted with a cross party sample of parliamentarians in the past week have shed an extraordinary insight on the pressures and costs of elected office. Participants talked of the extreme psychological and physical demands of the job, and in particular the resilience needed to weather the media spotlight and the politicking of the House. These interviews revealed a shared experience of mental health problems and dysfunctional personal lives that have resulted from both formal requirements of the job and the informal consequences of being held accountable for every personal and public decision to an acute degree. More than one member had experienced derogatory or at least negative press coverage that had transformed their professional image among colleagues, who for fear of survival had become more distant, and they had suffered severe anxiety or depression as a result. One member even talked of suicidal thoughts. This hidden narrative, the personal story of politics, is one that requires institutional redress and public understanding (as well as much greater academic attention) if we desire politicians who are healthy, happy and able to govern to the best of their ability, and in our best interests.

Representative democracy relies on a degree of trust between the people and the government, without which determinations of the changing ‘common good’ are open to claims of illegitimacy. In a rapidly changing and interconnected world, personality has become a central and growing feature of this relationship. To be a truly successful politician in a system so heavily scrutinised, one must appear ordinary but act with exceptional ability and resilience; yet in the face of continual mediatisation we risk a self-fulfilling prophecy in which MPs honestly believe they must deceive (others and themselves) in order to be trusted. The balance between perception and reality needs restoring.


James Weinberg is a Research Associate at the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield.

This piece was first published in The House Magazine, and is cross-posted with the permission of the author.

To write for the PSA Parliaments and Legislatures blog, please contact us on psa.parliaments@gmail.com


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