Pantomime Politics

“They said they would put down a vote of no confidence. Then said they wouldn’t. Then said they would, then they did it but wasn’t effective. I know it’s the Christmas season and the pantomime season, but what do we see from the Labour front bench and the RT honourable gentleman? He’s going to put a confidence vote. Oh yes he is! Oh no he isn’t!” – Theresa May

The State of the Commons

Theresa May’s rhetorical flourish is hardly unusual for Britain’s House of Commons. Many debates within the legislature are like a pantomime with members of parliament attempting to roast each other, whilst there are roars of cheers and boos. On Youtube there are many clips of MPs acting rather silly, including a ‘thug life!’ video of David Cameron’s banter in parliament with over a million views. It seems worrying that as politicians are more concerned with getting media hits, parliamentary debate focuses less on scrutinising legislation and changing the minds of MPs and more on one upping the opponent.

Whilst other legislatures around the world may have similar issues, it seems to me to be especially severe in Britain. Perhaps the Commons’ raucous is simply an evolved culture, stemming from our politicians’ private school playgrounds, or perhaps it is because the executive branch of government sits in parliament (just imagine how entertaining it would be if Trump sat in the senate debating Bernie Sanders).

Sam Bowman, ex-executive director of the Adam Smith Institute, suggests we stop cameras recording debate in the House of Commons. Without politicians being filmed and watched online by the public, they will have less of an incentive to show off to win voters and fire up their supporters. This should encourage politicians to focus more on the official purpose of parliamentary debate to scrutinise legislation and win support for or against the motions. An obvious concern is that if citizens cannot watch these debates from their own homes, voters may be less informed and less able to hold politicians to account for their actions. However if voters really care about legislation they can still read the minutes of the debates or go and see them within the Commons. As voters predominantly watch the more entertaining films of the Commons, it should be clear that they are not watching debates to learn about potential legislation.

The Unofficial Purpose of Politics

There is clearly something to Sam Bowman’s proposal, but we should first better understand the motivations that cause the pantomime of parliament and politics before we try and change it. Robin Hanson in his book ‘The Elephant in the Brain’ claims that with regards to our social behaviours and institutions we like to provide an official line for their purpose that sounds good to ourselves and others when they hear it. However we have hidden motivations that better explain our behaviour and institutions that we not only hide from others to protect our reputations, but that we also have evolved to hide from ourselves such that if we are not even conscious of our true motivations others cannot get us to admit to them. Take the example of charity. The official line for why we give to charity is to help those who are not so well off. This motivation is real to some extent, but it is not the whole story. Charity is often given at a whim without any consideration for how a given donation can do the most help. The institution of charity does seem wholly irrational if it is simply for helping people in unfortunate circumstances. Upon honest reflection we know why this is. It is because we have other motives to show off how kind, generous (and even rich) we are by donating to charities at a whim. As such, there is a logic as to why charities are not optimised for helping the needy but instead fund inefficient administration or create eye catching but ultimately useless projects.

The official purpose of politics is to create just governance and the official purpose of the legislature is to create just legislation. But we can better understand people’s real motivations in politics if we understand politics as an entertainment industry. Politicians want votes to achieve prestige, popularity, money and yes, they probably also want to do good. A single voter has a negligible impact on the events of politics so ensuring just governance is a very weak motivation. So what motivates voters? When we take interest in politics, vote and talk about politics, we are mostly just expressing ourselves (virtue signalling in the current jargon). You support LGBT issues and the environment to signal your compassion. You support building the wall because you want to show off that you are a proudly loyal patriot to the group and not to mention disagreeable enough to enjoy aggravating others. And of course people publicly support more free market policies to show off their big brains, understanding of basic economics and ability with ‘facts and logic’. To do these things we keep up with politics, even when it has no direct effect on us, to be able to show off our morals, diligent news reading and quick wit in discussing politics. Not to mention that politics also scratches a tribalistic itch. In the same way sports allows us to support our team through thick and thin, even though we have no connection to the team, nations and political parties allow us to practice our natural instincts and desires to be tribalistic.

Politics can be thought of as an entertainment industry that is a beautiful mix of team sports, a drama series and reality TV. As already said, it’s a team sport in the way we spectate our parties and nations competing, we identify with the teams, are loyal to them and make their wins and losses our own. It’s a drama full of colourful characters we love and hate. These characters have interesting traits and flaws that in response to events create a fascinating narrative, whereby politicians develop themselves and their relationships with other characters, political factions and us, the audience. There are major and minor characters that come and go as seasons go by, but often comeback with surprise appearances to shake up the story. Politics is a reality TV show because the audience have the gripping illusion of choice and yet real control. Like on Big Brother or the X factor, we learn to love and hate characters making us desire to pay (taxes) for the right to vote for characters we like; but more importantly, against the characters we hate. Nonetheless the actors on these shows, on the camera, act silly, brave, kind etc. to get our attention and support or at least notoriety. Even though one vote makes no difference, the play is a puppet show with characters responding to our every whim.

Rupert Murdoch not only understood the hidden motivations behind our interest in politics and the news, but also showed how they can be exploited for immense personal gain. Most of what we like to read has no effect on us, but is generally entertaining. As I believe Murdoch once said “News is what makes people say ‘wow!’” Now is it any surprise that during the midterms Fox News was busy playing videos of their viewers’ pets and the Sun newspaper had for years scantily clad women on the infamous page 3?

Do hidden motivations support filming?

Politics is an entertainment industry. Politics is a pantomime, and not just for Christmas. Now that we have a better idea of the hidden motivations that drive politics perhaps you are more in agreement with Sam Bowman that we need to stop televising debates in the House of Commons to keep politicians from showing off and focus more on just governance. On the topic of hidden motivation, I suspect Sam Bowman also had a hidden motivation behind his policy, but he might be more than open about. Sam thinks of himself as a rather technocratic neoliberal who wants government run by experts considering the costs and benefits of policies to ensure government makes us more prosperous and free. I think he has a much broader motivation to make politics boring. If politics is not controlled by concerns of entertaining people, wiser technocrats can have a greater control of policy. If politics was not about entertainment, the dangerous populist characters we love to hate would get fewer votes, Russia would struggle to fuel unstable narratives in our politics and politicians would generally have a greater incentive to act sensibly.

With regards to stopping televising of debates, however, the psychology of formal debates prevents scrutiny from occurring regardless. Formal debates are good for changing the mind of the audience, but they are terrible for changing the minds of participants. In any debate of ‘rational’ people, assuming only one side can be right and that their arguments are superior, we should often expect the other side to admit they were wrong. This never happens. No one has ever seen a debate in which a participant changes side. We take part in formal debates because we have firmly committed to our view and then, once we say it, feel greater attachment to our opinion. This bias is worse in politics in which we are committed to the tribe’s viewpoint. Politicians are then incentivised to stick to the party line to win favour within their tribe and prove their loyalty. This goes so far that politicians are often willing to repeat the obvious lies of their leaders, damaging their reputation outside the tribe to prove their loyalty and make their careers dependent on staying within the tribe.

The above reasons explain why parliamentary debates are unlikely to ever be internally useful to the legislature in deciding issues, regardless of whether debates are being filmed. In less partisan issues for which MPs do not have views they are already committed to, a debate maybe useful for developing their understanding and opinion. Such debates probably include technical bi-partisan issues and ‘surprise’ issues for which the ideologies of the parties have no clear response. In these sorts of debates turning off the camera wouldn’t be very useful, as no one watches technical debates anyway. For surprise issues MPs have for once a real chance of changing the opinions of others and there is no clear other tribe to attack, making incentives to one up others very weak.

Hidden Motivations, Hidden Benefits

So whilst turning off the cameras probably isn’t very useful for achieving our official aims, the hidden motivations behind the pantomime might also have a hidden use. As we have said a single voter has almost no control over policy and thus has no real interest in the boring details of policies. Instead voters care about supporting the characters they think are the good guys. By voting for politicians with good characters to represent us, we can be more confident that they will have the right morals and knowledge that will be transferred into good policy. When we watch Commons debates we are interested in the character of the politicians. In debates on the burning down of Grenfell tower, do they show the right amount of compassion to show they are caring but neither hysterical nor Machiavellian? When asked about policy, are they cool and confident that they are doing well, yet not smug and arrogant? When ministers speak, does the party show competence? When the leader speaks does the party show loyalty and confidence in the cheers a good leader demands? Is the leader a bully, one we can trust to crush the other team and opponents to the nation ? When we watch debates and decide our opinions we rarely look at the arguments. We look at the quality of the debaters as that is often a much better guide to whether they are trustworthy people we would like to associate with, to make policy and to lead us.

Sam’s idea of putting a stop to filming the Commons is certainly interesting and has some merits, but the real purpose of parliamentary debate is not scrutinising bills. We want to see our politicians perform a play so we can judge their character and ability, not have politicians debate legislation they have already made up their mind about. Nevertheless, I would be interested to see more research on the effects of filming legislatures and whether legislatures that have less drama are any more effective.

Our democracies are never perfect, but our ideas to change it are often impossible to implement and can have unintended consequences because of the human nature and the hidden motives we ignore. Instead of seeking utopia we should try to understand and work with what we have. Perhaps we should not try to take the pantomime out of politics; besides, it’s good fun.

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