by Gordon Lynch
In 2011, the Yale sociologist Jeffrey Alexander published a book, ‘The Performance of Politics’, in which he argued that moral symbolism plays a crucial role in shaping democratic political processes.
Political communication, Alexander claimed, was based on fundamental distinctions between the ‘sacred’ values that were taken to define a society’s identity and ethos and ‘profane’ outsiders perceived as dangerous, polluting threats. Electoral success required politicians to convince voters that they were on the positive side of this moral binary and that their opponents were tainted by the ‘profane’.
Whilst many other social and economic factors weigh on how electorates view politicians, Alexander’s analysis provides a valuable perspective on certain moments in political life. The current crisis enfolding the Labour Party is such a case. Although it is less than three months since his election, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has become increasingly defined through such moral binaries.
One of the most damaging for him amongst many voters is the sense that he does not stand in patriotic solidarity with Britain, generated unfairly by a relentless communications campaign by his media and political critics. But another ‘profane’ trait, identified by Alexander’s analysis of political communication, is the perception of a politician favouring particularist loyalties rather than the wider public good.
His appointment to key posts of individuals such as John McDonnell, Andrew Fisher and Seaumus Milne, who are highly divisive in terms of public and party opinion but ideologically close to Corbyn, has for many people demonstrated this undesirable quality.
When individuals close to Corbyn act in incompetent or uncivil ways but are allowed to continue in their roles, this sense of personal loyalty and ideological factionalism trumping public responsibility deepens.