Politics in the last decade has been characterised by the continual disrespect shown to political norms. Politicians, in their headlong rush to score electoral points, have abused and misused the institutions and rules that govern our democracies. They have wrung out the normative power we had placed in our government and reduced it all to meaningless rituals. And so, we wonder, why is there no decency left in politics anymore?
I hold that a political action has two aspects of power. Any action has functional power in that it accomplishes a certain task. An election has the functional power of, well, electing an MP and putting them in Parliament. The other aspect is that of normative power, wherein the action establishes and/or affirms certain norms of political behaviour in the status quo. So, the normative power of an election is to affirm the continual commitment of the status quo towards representative democracy. Each election is an iteration of faith in democratic norms; their regularity establishes them as something that is normal in the system. Alternatively, something like a no-confidence vote holds normative power by expressing irregularity. Its rarity makes it a symbol denouncing the normatively irregular actions of the government. It marks the actions of the government as not acceptable and abnormal within the status quo. Political actions hold power by virtue of being performed. The performers of these political actions, who are mainly politicians, control the ability of signalling normative power, and the affirmation or breaking of political norms.
To misuse, overuse, or underuse political actions can rob them of their normative power. In a banana republic, where elections are held irregularly and at the whim of political elites, holding an election will not convey as strongly to the people the reaffirmation of democratic ideals. Similarly, in a country where a no-confidence vote is tabled every week, no matter the political situation, people will view it as a partisan tool intended to show blind opposition to the government, and will not see it as signifying normative irregularity.
Such misuse has been prevalent across the world for some time now. The most recent and obvious case is the impeachment proceedings against Joe Biden. The normative power that impeachment holds arises from it being an exceedingly rare action. For the 250 years since American independence, it was used only a handful of times, as an absolute last-resort measure. In the last few years, this has been turned on its head. The first impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump still retained much normative power since it remained a rare action, and with actual purpose. The impeachment failed, due to a lack of numbers. The second inquiry, however, struck a massive blow to its normative power. The Democrats went into it knowing that the numbers had not changed, and that success was out of reach. Yet they went into it all the same, to score political points. The first impeachment inquiry was started with the explicit intention of removing a normatively irregular president from power. The second was started so Democrats could show Trump the finger. By this misuse, it devalued impeachment as a whole. From holding significant normative power, it has now devolved to a trick politicians can use to score political points on partisan lines. When impeachment proceedings begin against Joe Biden, they will further devalue the process as a political sham.
Nor is this plague of indecency restricted to the USA. An old example of political actions being misused are PMQs. Normatively, they should represent the ideal that a Prime Minister is merely first among equals; that they can be called to account by anyone. The use of PMQs should be to ask important questions and speak truth to power. Rather, it has become a place of high political theatre, an opportunity for party leaders to advance their partisan agendas. Not much normative power remains in PMQs. Another, more recent example, has been the devaluation of party rebellion and the replacement of PMs. The Tories have gone through five PMs in seven years. When a PM is forced to step down, it should serve as a stinging rebuke to that PM’s tenure and policies. It should mark that period as normatively irregular. Yet the revolving door of PMs and frequent rebellion has ironically made it so that each tenure is considered less irregular than the last. A ‘musical chairs’ of PMs becomes normalised. If Rishi Sunak is booted out of office tomorrow and replaced, few will see his tenure as being highly irregular or unacceptable. How can it, when all the others were removed the same way?
In a democratic polity, society must be able to trust in the system and the government. Setting norms and affirming them is vital to building that trust and creating appropriate expectations among the public. A political system that correctly uses political actions utilises their normative powers to build this very same trust. A system that misuses political actions will destroy those normative powers, and hence trust. When politicians use impeachment as a partisan tool, they look self-serving and disrespectful of political norms. Their words ring hollow, and their actions seem petty; drawing suspicion, not trust. The functioning of government itself is brought into doubt. Things like PMQs become merely performative actions, conducted by both parties in the hope of invoking non-existent normative powers.
Is it any wonder that trust in government has fallen to record lows across developed democracies? Political actions have become meaningless rituals. The public feels that governments are unresponsive to their concerns, because all the actions that should hold normative power have been made impotent. Perceptions of corruption have soared, because politicians have wrung out whatever use they can make of normative actions for their partisan use. Once a norm is breached, the race to the bottom is inevitable; neither side is willing to take the high ground and respect the norm, for fear that they will lose out on scoring political points.
A few actions still retain some normative power. The defection of an MP, for instance, holds significant normative power. When a single MP defected from the Conservatives to Labour over Partygate, it sent shockwaves through the system. The action had the functional power of changing the strength of the parties in Parliament by 1. It had the normative power of being a striking denunciation of Boris Johnson’s behaviour, and a strong symbol to the people of the corruption present in his government. It is through the maintenance of these norms, and by respecting the proper use of political actions, that normative power can be protected.
It is imperative that political actors protect the normative power that remains. Such powers are still crucial signals to the public about the health of our democracy, about the trust worth putting in our government. Where the norms have been breached, it is necessary for parties to build those norms again, so people can put their faith back in decent behaviour and meaningful actions. Otherwise, normative politics will become ritualised, a farce conducted by political elites in a failed attempt to convince everyone that they are still trustworthy and decent.
Image Source: Jess Taylor/CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr