Why do people hate politicians?
On the day that I begin writing this post, Rishi Sunak is replacing Liz Truss as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Liz Truss is an extremely unpopular politician, one of the most disliked PMs in the history of the country. Below, you can see the words most commonly used when asked about Liz Truss - most frequent are ‘incompetent’, ‘useless’, and ‘untrustworthy’.
Or at least those are the words that J.L Partners claim are the most popular words to describe Truss. In fact, I suspect they remove words that are rather more colourful, and not considered appropriate to publish.
And while it’s true that Liz Truss is particularly disliked, very few politicians are actually popular with the public. The incoming Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pretty bad favourability ratings, with YouGov finding that 64% of respondents disapprove of him, with 36% of respondents approving. That being said, his net favourability of -28 is actually better than the other candidates, with Penny Mourdant at -33 and Boris Johnson at -40.
In contrast, the leader of the Labour Party (who are doing extremely well in the polls at the moment) is doing significantly better at -5. But if -5 is the best the House of Commons can muster, it seems like people aren’t particularly fond of these guys.
How about politicians in general? Maybe senior politicians are hated (with their flaws being apparent), but most people think that MPs in general aren’t so bad. As you might expect, this isn’t the case. When asked to say how much they trust MPs between 1 (‘No trust at all’) and 7 (‘A great deal of trust’), only 0.4% of respondents give a score of 7, compared to 31% of respondents giving a score of 1 (see below - from the British Election Study, wave 23, May 2022).
These aren’t cherry-picked stats, every data point I found during a scan across sources showed that people hate politicians. I could also get up some of the data for other countries, but is there really any point? I doubt many of you think that the UK is particularly rare in having people who hate politicians. It’s true that we’ve had a number of scandals that might make our MPs especially unpopular, and a series of Prime Ministers who have been pretty much hated by the public, but still - you probably don’t need much convincing that politicians are disliked basically everywhere.
But if you do need convincing, I can tell you that the trust data from the European Social Survey for the people in Europe looks pretty similar to the data in the UK. When European citizens across countries are asked how much they trust politicians between 0 and 10, 18% of respondents give a 0 and 0.9% give a 10. Data in other countries usually looks pretty similar too. (That being said, this post is mostly about why people dislike politicians in the UK, although I imagine a lot of this is relevant to other countries too.)
There are loads of reasons that make sense. Politicians are all but obligated to lie or bend the truth, corruption scandals are fairly common almost everywhere, and politicians breaking promises is, well, not unheard of. There are also demand-side explanations - maybe people are just ignorant about what politicians actually do or the extent to which their behaviour is self-interested rather than public-spirited.
Dr. James Weinberg’s book Who Enters Politics and Why? (which he kindly sent to me for free - thank you James!) is both an interesting and useful book in its own right, and also points to some interesting literature on why people dislike politicians.
One interesting paper he mentions is by Stoker et al. (2016), who set up 14 focus groups of ordinary members of the public, and asked for the words that came to mind immediately when they thought about politics1. Of the 209 words that people came up with, 132 were negative - often with a focus on lying or corruption (see the table below). Very few positive words were used.
The groups then engaged in detailed discussion about politicians, with group members explaining exactly why their associations were so negative. But as the discussions went on and members reflected on their reasons for the negativity around politics, they became much more likely to say that the mechanisms of politics and the need for compromise meant that a lot of the criticism of politicians is actually unreasonable (that isn’t to say that they dropped all their criticism, they just became more forgiving than the word association results would make them seem).
The authors of the study think about this in terms of Kahneman’s System 1 (fast thinking) and System 2 (slow thinking). When people are asked for their immediate responses, they’re overwhelmingly negative, but when asked to think a bit more about why politicians behave in the way that they do, they become more forgiving. They also point to the fact that some of the complaints are just objectively untrue - one member of the focus group said that he didn’t like that politicians were paid huge sums of money, and wrongly claimed that MPs are paid a salary of £200,000 per year (in fact, it’s less than half of that).
Matthew Flinders’ book Defending Politics essentially argues that people are dumb and expect too much of politicians:
“We live in countries where a peaceful transition of power is the norm; where poverty is now understood in relative as opposed to absolute terms; where we are not short of choice (in relation to political opinions, consumer goods, etc.); and where the political system is responsive to public opinion. Democracy delivers because democracies do not go to war with each other. Their leaders don’t want it and their people won’t allow it.”
The book was written in 2012 and makes some useful points - people (probably) overestimate how many politicians take bribes, they think politicians (and democratic institutions) screw things up more than they actually do, and underestimate how well things are going. The media focuses on the politicians who mess up and, for obvious reasons, there aren’t loads of news stories about politicians diligently carrying out work in their local area.
Looking back at the book ten years later, the defence of the politicians of the time seems prescient, but the defence of the institutions seems less so. But the point that people probably want a load of stuff from politicians that is impossible seems pretty plausible, and the failures of populists that came into power in the 2010s is good evidence for lots of the stuff he says.
I’ve also seen some other evidence showing that people really tend to have warped perceptions of the politicians’ behaviour. Thomson et al. (2017) show that most promises made by politicians who get into government are actually kept. They look at 20,000 pledges made in 57 countries, and find that 60% of pledges are at least partially fulfilled.
The UK has the highest rate of fulfilled pledges - 86% of promises were at least partially kept! In general, countries with FPTP and single-party governments seem to have politicians who are more likely to keep their promises, presumably because pledges don’t get abandoned during coalition negotiations.
And as a quick digression, looking through the British Election Study data, it does look as though people who pay more attention to politics are significantly more trusting of politicians (see the figure below). This isn’t extremely strong evidence for the ‘people who hate politicians aren’t really paying attention’ thesis because a) people who pay a lot of attention aren't that much more trusting of politicians and b) you would sort of expect people who are extremely untrusting of politicians to pay less attention to politics.
But still, it does update me a bit towards thinking that maybe people who hate politicians just aren’t really paying attention.
With all that being said, I’m pretty sure that hating politicians isn’t only a result of ignorance.
Going back to the study on promises for a second (the one showing that 60% of promises are at least partially fulfilled), part of me thinks that a small majority of pledges being at least partially fulfilled isn’t particularly impressive. But more interesting than that is the finding in Mellon et al. (2021) - they make the sensible point that to do this sort of analysis properly, you should probably weight the promises by how much the public actually thought of them as central to the party’s offering.
And when they do this for the 2017 UK General Election, they find that the percentage of promises kept by the governing Conservative party decreases by 21 percentage points, which is ‘1.3 standard deviations of typical promise-completion rates found in comparative studies’ (a lot!).
This is only one election, and it isn’t really a typical one, but my hunch here would be that when you weight promises by how much people actually care about them, rates of promise-keeping might consistently be a lot lower. So, when people say that they don’t trust politicians, the reply ‘well they do keep their promises, actually’ is lacking.
Another thing worth discussing is the fact that politicians are just really, really different to ordinary people. A classic paper here is Carnes (2012), which looks at the United States Congress and finds that the median individual net worth of a member of Congress has a net worth six times higher than that of the median American, and also finds that the social background of the member of Congress was predictive of how they would vote - representatives from working-class backgrounds were more likely to vote for left-wing economic policies that were popular among the public.
In the UK, the story is similar and well-known - 29 per cent of MPs are privately educated (or were in 2017, and it hasn’t changed much since then), compared to about 7% of the UK population.
Politicians in the UK (and many other places, although I’m only going to look at the UK data for now), are much more socially liberal than the public, but more right-wing on economics than voters. This means that voters are generally aligned with Labour MPs on economic issues and Tory MPs on social issues - but this means that most people think MPs from both parties are out of touch in one way or another. Some examples:
50% of people in the UK support capital punishment, which is true of exactly zero Labour MPs, and only 21% of Tory MPs.
73% of voters think that ‘there is one law for the rich and one for the poor’, which aligns quite nicely with the percentage of Labour MPs who think that (71%), but is only true of 5% of Conservative MPs.
Tom Grady’s paper Careerists Versus Coal-Miners is also fascinating. He looks at the increase of MPs who have never been anything other than a politician. The finding here is that there are now many fewer MPs who had been in working-class jobs prior to entering parliament (see below), and that those MPs were more likely to pursue popular left-wing economic policies than the careerist MPs who replaced them. Putting thoughts on economic policy to one side, it does seem likely that getting rid of working-class MPs and replacing them with career politicians who are more right-wing on economics is likely to make people hate politicians more.
So, MPs in the UK are extremely different from ordinary people. They’re richer and better educated, and have views that aren’t representative of the population. When people say that politicians are out of touch, they’re right.
And although I’ve written that people tend to overestimate how corrupt politicians are, how much they lie, and how often they break their promises, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that there is just loads of lying and corruption in politics. As I’m mostly focusing on the UK here, a brief history of famous lies and bad behaviour might be useful here (this is off the top of my head):
Partygate, the Dodgy Dossier, the expenses scandal, Nick Clegg breaking his key promise on scrapping tuition fees after making a video called ‘say goodbye to broken promises’, the Tory sleaze row, the very recent Suella Braverman security breach, Keir Starmer’s sudden u-turn on his leadership election promises. There are many, many more scandals.
So, what’s the answer? Why do people hate politicians so much?
I think what’s going on here, at least in the UK, is that there is a lot of corruption, promise-breaking, and lies in politics and politicians are very different to ordinary people (in both opinions and demographic make-up). But people think that politicians are even more corrupt and likely to lie than they actually are.
That’s kind of a sad thought - people hate politicians because politicians are very bad, but also because people are very ignorant. Let me know in the comments what you reckon!
There are obvious limitations to focus groups - these groups weren’t perfectly representative of the UK population, there are problems with dominant members of the group having an outsized influence on the findings, results can vary depending on the quality of the facilitator, and so on. But still, the finding here is interesting and makes sense.