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Government and politics

‘The dialogue between citizens and their governments – that’s what I care about’

Dr Kesi Mahendran (Open University) recently took up the role of Chair of the BPS Political Psychology Section, which she co-founded. Having previously worked in the Scottish Government, Mahendran later moved back into academia to explore the dialogue between citizens and governments, and recently established the Public Dialogue Psychology Collaboratory. Ella Rhodes spoke with her about her work and hopes for the future of the Section.

16 June 2022

How did you end up researching political psychology?

I used to work in government, and that made me very alive to the political process. Before this I did my PhD in social psychology: specifically, I was a participatory action researcher. I even wrote in my proposal that I wanted to create change within the lifetime of the PhD and had no ambition to disseminate the findings of the PhD. I went into organisations concerned with youth unemployment. We redesigned the service and then successfully applied for the European Social Fund funding – a pretty good outcome of that PhD. I worked with the local government, the management of that organisation and the young people – it was really immersive ethnographic work. After that I realised that psychologists had a contribution to make to that kind of work.

I then started working in the Scottish Government, which was a new devolved administration, in around 2003. For the first four years I was very driven by action and the potential to change things. At that time it was still the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown style government where everything was very evidence-based – that was the mantra. We were all trying to promote this evidence-based decision making that was less ideological. It does feel like a different era now… we've reached a point of high levels of partisanship and polarisation within decision-making. Later I got a promotion to international relations and then became a senior analyst, and I really enjoyed it. 

But I think one of the things which made me become a political psychologist was when I started working on the public's relationship with the European Union on a project we called Building a Bridge Between Europe and its Citizens – a collaboration between the European Commission and the Scottish Government. That project was really key for me. 

[At this point in our interview Kesi asks me what the three key EU institutions are. To my shame I can only remember two – the European Commission and the European Parliament. Kesi reminds me of the third – the European Council.] 

Yours was a completely normal response. And others would say 'look, people don't understand the European Union'. But they would just ask citizens what I call corridor questions – If you walk along corridors of power you know the answer to them, but nobody else does! It started to fascinate me. There was a sense they were asking people the wrong question and putting people on the spot – like I just did to you! If I was a Eurocrat in Brussels and I really wanted to understand what you want from me, asking you a whole bunch of questions about your cognitive knowledge of the European Union isn't going to get me there. They were going about it in the wrong way, and I thought we could probably do it better. 

There was an opportunity in the Centre of Citizenship, Identities and Governance at the Open University… they wanted a psychologist who could go into the psychology department but also into this research centre, and I just thought that's what I'm into – citizenship identities and governance. So I just applied for it and then got it. If I was to sum up my work in one sentence, it would be the dialogue between citizens and their governments – that's what I care about. 

Could you tell me about some of the areas of politics you examine in your own work and in the Political Psychology Section?

I don't think the dialogue between citizens and government has been studied sufficiently, and there are a number of reasons why that's the case. The public, in the eyes of decision-makers, are 'flattened down'… they're often understood in the form of very rigid metrics, or in the form of public opinion and survey data. At the same time the perception of the state and political actors is the up in the sky. Our understanding of the state is there's us and then there's the government. That's not always the case… in some countries people think of the state as part of the 'we'. 

One of the key jobs of the Political Psychology Section is this de-reification of the state. To show it is quite accessible, that you can make change in the state. When I worked in the government we listened to people who came in the door much more than you might imagine. The government is full of human beings, which is something we need to remember… they don't always think like human beings, but politicians are human beings. So that's been a part of the work that we've done.

On the public side, even just talking about individuals as citizens orients the conversation slightly differently. We need to make that perception of the public richer and more multi-dimensional, with the same happening with the government and other political actors. I'm also interested in the dialogue process. When it comes to quite polarised hot political topics, we don't understand our roles within those lenses. That's where the polarisation comes from. A lot of the work we do is on how to deal with polarisation in conversations. People would say that Britain has a problem with polarised dialogue at the moment. Within the Public Dialogue Psychology Collaboratory we don't focus on this idea of coming together in the middle. I think that's fine, it's a very diplomatic solution, but politics is a partisan business. The solution to polarisation is not that we all vote for the same party – that would be a worrying turn of events! Politics is oppositional and what we're proposing within PDPC is that we need to be able to sustain oppositional thinking and sustain oppositional dialogue, without feeling the desire to destroy the other or close down the other or silence or overrule the other. 

I'm part of the DEMOS Horizon-Europe project where I'm on the advisory board which looked at the relationship between the democratic capacity of people and political efficacy. There's an interesting relationship between how you do politics and democracy… when you think you can make a difference, compared to when you think 'what's the point?' Where I was brought up, there was something scrawled on the wall that said 'whoever you vote for the government wins'. You were kind of socialised into taking a disenchanted view of politics… that was definitely the culture that I was brought up in. Whereas within my home, I had a really politicised childhood, and you had to have a view on politics if you were an alive human being – but I'm sure that that's not always the case. 

Could you tell me more about the Section and its members?

What we're articulating is a quite innovative form of political psychology, a little bit different to the existing societies. We've got quite a mix in our Section. We've got people who are working on the de-reification of the government, or looking at politicians, their values, how those values match the public's values, the mental health of politicians, female leadership, the flack that female politicians get for being in the public eye. There's lots of work on leadership, and people working on compassion in politics. There are practitioners – a set of people who are running organisations which are at ground level, and academic psychologists within universities as well. Something I really enjoy about the section is its eclecticism. 

What are some key areas where political psychologists can have an impact in the world of politics?

One of the biggest changes in politics recently has been the move from representative democracy to direct democracy – it's an enormous change in the state of politics. At one time, if you wanted to get things done you would have either gone on the streets to protest or you would have gone to your MP or councillor. But now the fact of direct democracy, and that there are means of direct democracy, is really reshaping politics. Now you can get something moving if you get enough traction and before you know it, everybody wants to know who Ella Rhodes is. They say 'oh I know Ella Rhodes, she's completely partisan', then you have to defend yourself, and now it's almost like you're a politician. Citizens are shaping their profiles on social media as if they were politicians. 

Referenda are also key in direct democracy. We've had one big referendum recently – the 2016 UK-EU referendum. But in many ways we were clumsily inept at handling that. Referenda by definition are divisive, because you can nearly always just take one of two choices. What I think is interesting, having worked in this area, is that we didn't really know how to do referenda very well. We like the idea of the people making decisions, but at the same time we don't particularly have the capacities for making those decisions… for no other reason than that we're simply unused to this kind of decision-making which is inherently divisive. 

There is an example where a referendum wasn't particularly divisive, and that was the Good Friday Agreement. This was a constitutional referendum that was handled extremely well and we should probably be learning from it a lot more. It's almost an ideal example, partly because it was so tough in the first place… they had to do so much work before the referendum so that everybody knew what they were voting on, which is why it's described as a constitutional referendum. A constitutional referendum is when you and I both receive a big chunky document before we make a vote and it sets out everything, and there were smaller versions created for less engaged public so that when everybody voted in that referendum they knew exactly what they were voting for. The results were 71.1 per cent in favour in Northern Ireland, and 94.4 per cent in favour in the Republic of Ireland. That sounds altogether more legitimate than 52-48. People should have been given the EU withdrawal agreement that they could then vote on. 

Political psychologists play a really important role in areas where government capacity to do democracy meets public capacity to do democracy. It's much, much more than behavioural indicators. There's no doubt that behavioural indicators are the easiest way to get a capture on that, i.e. voting, but in the Section one of the strands we have is on narrative political psychology. A lot of our politics is the story we tell. Those stories we tell about ourselves, those stories that we tell about the world influence.

I often think about this – social psychologist Serge Moscovici said the key thing is the public's ability to hear each other. And that's what's really challenging – we have a model of what we think the rest of the public think, it's quite often wrong. Either we think we're ahead of the public, we're in an avant garde position, or we think we speak on behalf of the public, so we're in this advocating position. We have all these versions of the public, but very often I think our version of the public is that they're not very smart and they're easily duped… but I'm not! 

One of the things that keeps Political Psychology very exciting, is that it's interdisciplinary. It only really works if you can bring together political scientists with psychologists. It's in that interface that it thrives. When you go to the conferences it's that mix that really makes it come alive. In terms of recognition we need to be careful, though. At the moment if you're a political scientist and you suddenly get into public opinion, or populism, you can just declare yourself to be political psychologist, which is really problematic we think. Sometimes you can get a culture clash at conferences when you're listening to someone who clearly has no psychology training whatsoever, they've just moved into it, and there's no requirement for them to have ethical training in particular. 

Our ambition obviously is to safeguard and build up accreditation, but I wouldn't like anything that puts off really creative people who come from disadvantaged or marginalised backgrounds so it becomes this really high hurdle. But there does need to be a means where there's a reflective, ethical training. 

There's a real taste for political psychology, there's an appetite for it, which is great. It's interesting that the main questions I get asked from the media are either about political apathy or about how do we meet in the middle – and my answers are really unhelpful. One is we shouldn't meet in the middle, it's just let's try not to kill each other. The other is that there's hardly any evidence for political apathy really… we haven't got a problem with political apathy, we've got a problem with this unruly political engagement. We're all politicians now, and yet we're not accountable to anyone and that's a whole conversation in itself. 

Democratic accountability is another concept that is really key for getting working pathways through democracy. We need to hold ourselves and each other to account and we need to know how to hold our government to account, rather than getting into these unbounded slanging matches and polarised behaviour.

Photo credit: Steve Clayton