Voting as Therapy: How a Vote Can Help Cultivate Political Trustworthiness

During the recent General Election #trust was trending on social media.

Whether it came from the twitter feeds of party leaders, back benchers or the voting public, warnings of untrustworthiness were rife. The general sense was that: The Conservatives can’t be trusted with the NHS; Labour can’t be trusted with the economy; The Liberal Democrats can’t be trusted with promises; and the SNP can’t be trusted with the union. However, as the votes come in, a different story is being written.

It now looks as though the Conservatives will skate by with a majority government. Could this mean that, against all predictions, the voting public really do trust David Cameron and the Conservatives – if only marginally more than other politicians? Perhaps. But the matter is really not so simple.

To say that the voting public ‘trust’ the politicians they vote for can be understood in at least a few ways.

First, it should be acknowledged – as has been done routinely during the General Election – that a vote for a given party can exist as a protest vote or as a choice for what is taken to be the ‘least bad party’. Because many with the power to vote may believe more strongly in the democratic process than in the parties on offer, a vote does not always represent a claim of trust. Still, some votes, presumably, do hold more meaning when it comes to trust.

Second, if the result of the general election is taken to mean that the voting public, in some way at least, trust the Conservatives more than other parties, there are a few different ways we can understand that trust. Those who voted for the Tories may actually be confident about the trustworthiness of their local MPs and the party they represent more broadly. But it may also be the case that the British public has in the last 24 hrs employed what philosophers call therapeutic trust: trust that is given partially for the sake of helping cultivate trustworthiness in another. It is therapeutic trust that parents employ when they entrust their child with a pet. The parent gives the child ownership of the pet not because they think they are fully responsible already, but, rather, to teach them responsibility. So too, a vote in the General Election can be understood as a call to politicians to respond well to the responsibility given to them by the voting public.

It may be that in the General Election the British public has trusted the Conservatives more than other parties. But that does not mean that, in general, the public views conservative politicians as necessarily more trustworthy. What it certainly does mean is that, if election outcome predictions hold true, the Conservatives have been given another chance to cultivate and display trustworthiness not only to those who trusted their vote with them, but also to the rest of the public who now must rely on them to govern once again.