Psychology of Democracy – What has the pandemic taught us? Report from the conference
By Ashley Weinberg
This year’s Psychology of Democracy conference – which has been held biannually at the University of Salford since 2015 – encouraged speakers to consider our experiences of democracy during the pandemic. This was the first time the event was held online and it certainly added to the international flavour, with speakers from Italy and India as well as the UK and delegates from a number of European and Asian countries.
It was no surprise to see key questions threading through the day’s panels: How (well) have political leaders responded around the world? How important has trust in politicians become? What has the pandemic told us about ourselves as citizens? How much has mental health become a political issue in our everyday lives?
Prefaced by a politician’s insights from Professor Ian Stewart (University of Bolton) – a former MP for Eccles and the inaugural directly-elected executive Mayor of Salford – both morning and afternoon panels produced lively debate and online comments. Professor Gian Vittorio Caprara (La Sapienza University, Rome) spoke about the pandemic providing ‘A stress test for democracy and a challenge for psychology’ and expounded on the desire for all citizens to play our part in responding to a common goal and in the spirit of citizenship. This theme was underlined by leading poet Professor Rukmini Bhaya Nair (Indian Institute of Technology Delhi), who examined the political utility of strategies used by Prime Minister Modi to win power in India, which have proved empty rhetoric in facing the pandemic. In, ‘Good days are ahead’: political slogans, pandemic disillusion and public disenchantment’, Professor Nair illustrated the pain of her country currently gripped by the new outbreak as she bear’s witness to the suffering and the sudden invisibility of India’s leadership. Resulting discussion emphasised the need for more research into the cultural dimensions that shape citizens’ experience and expectations of democracy. In addition, the intriguing question was posed: ‘Can we truly argue that Britain is a full democracy, or has the political discourse built the illusion of democracy through its use of political discourse?’
Both of these powerful opening talks stimulated considerable comment on how well politicians and democratic processes can deliver what is needed and so it was particularly fitting that the following two talks took delegates ‘behind the scenes’, examining the psychological processes of politicians. Professor Jo Silvester (University of Loughborough) focused on ‘Political Work and Covid-19: Challenges and Opportunities’, and explained how the ‘job’ of a politician shares characteristics with others, but is also specialised in terms of the required skillset and qualities. Jo pointed out the conditions under which politicians operate makes for an embattled status, which of itself provides as much of a challenge as the processes in seeking to bring about change. Dr James Weinberg (University of Sheffield) took this theme further, considering ‘Risky decision-making in political office: Politicians’ perceptions of trust and pandemic policy choices’. James’ analysis of data gathered first-hand, from local politicians as well as MPs in a number of countries worldwide, illustrated the complex relationships between politicians’ perceptions of public trust and distrust and how this might impact on their own policy decision making. The ensuing discussion, which involved politicians in the audience, considered the role of perspectives when it comes to understanding the work of politicians. The human constraints on how much knowledge a politician can draw on were clear, as one delegate pointed out, ‘Sometimes politicians don’t know what they don’t know…[so it’s also a] matter of trust between politicians and officials [to inform them]’.
The afternoon panel turned to focus on ‘Mental health and Politics’, given the global recognition of the impact of the pandemic in psychological as well as physical consequences. This meant an opportunity to explore the topic from both research and practitioner viewpoints.
Dr Luca Bernardi (University of Liverpool) presented ‘A Cognitive theory of depression and political attitudes’ which gave a fascinating insight into both predisposing and environmental factors that might lead us to adopt differing political perspectives. Luca considered how our experience of mental health can affect the way ‘we perceive and engage with and in politics, as well as how we evaluate political objects and make political decisions.’ Moving to what this can mean in daily practice, Estelle Warhurst (MPs’ Staff Wellness Working Group) gave a moving presentation on ‘The pressures of working through Covid: The experience of a UK Parliamentary Staffer’. Estelle provided delegates with a fascinating and moving account of how MPs’ and their staff work to address the psychological needs of constituents, who often turn to them in their hour of greatest need. This has presented particular challenges leading to initiatives to help ensure MPs’ staff are well-equipped to provide and signpost appropriate support, but the pandemic has highlighted how fraught individual situations can be, as well as the toll this takes on staff in trying to help. Dr Ashley Weinberg (University of Salford) spoke about research into ‘The mental health of politicians’ and in agreeing with Estelle’s assessment of the pressures on political staff, considered steps Parliament and political parties could take to address the issues arising. The role of threats and abuse, both online and in-person, was highlighted as a particular cause for concern for all, as well as its implications for an effectively functioning democracy.
In concluding the talks, Dr Amra Rao (Chartered Clinical Psychologist, Psychological Horizons) considered, ‘The impact of the pandemic on mental health, democracy and inequalities in society’. Amra’s clear analysis of ‘psycho-social pandemics’ highlighted social inequalities and the role of structural racism within these, which promote – rather than alleviate – pain and suffering and feed distrust, which in turn leads to alarming levels of unmet psychological need. Each of these undermines democracy and so Amra examined how systemic level change can help address the issues by ‘building back democratically’: addressing gaps in health outcomes; promoting political equity and participation; engaging and strengthening communities; inviting contributions from psychology, social sciences, community and religious leaders and incorporating traditions. Amra pointed to the importance of taking action to ‘promote equality, reconciliation and public trust, to refresh policy thinking and to mitigate the economic damage’. In asking the conference how we might enhance democracy, but also recognise its failings, Amra suggested greater roles for incorporating values, as well as relevant research and technology.
The discussions that followed duly exemplified the importance of learning from the tragic lessons of the pandemic, rather than risk slipping back to ‘how things used to be’! We look forward to welcoming delegates in two years’ time to assess the progress that has been made.