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Why shame in politics matters

Boris Johnson is not Donald Trump, but they both abused the public’s trust and unrepentantly continued in office.

By Emily Tamkin

To be an American following the UK news this week was a bit like being at the end of a choose your own adventure book and hoping that those picking up the book after you, for their own sake, choose different adventures.

Boris Johnson is not Donald Trump. The UK’s crises are not the US’s. The two countries have different cultures and systems. Johnson drawing out a resignation is not ideal, but Trump repeatedly lied about the results of the election; reportedly pressured various officials to overturn the election results; encouraged an angry mob to come to Washington DC on the 6 January; and allegedly said that maybe his vice-president, Mike Pence, should indeed be hanged by his supporters. Those supporters went on to storm the US Capitol building. I understand that the state of British politics is not ideal right now, but there is a difference between “not ideal” and “oh no, an angry mob is storming parliament”.

Still, watching it all unfold, I did have one thought, over and over again, as Johnson refused to resign as his colleagues turned on him one by one: shame is important in politics.

I thought this often during the years of Trump’s presidency, as one ludicrous tweet after another was fired off. Or as foreign dignitaries stayed in hotels which were owned by the president. Or as Trump told blatant lies and those around him repeated them.

I thought about shame when Republicans, having refused to give Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland a hearing, rushed Trump’s nominee Amy Coney Barrett through with days to go before the 2020 election. The hypocrisy, we yelled. “Fairness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder,” the Republican senator Mitt Romney said in a statement at the time. Could they do that? Of course they could. Didn’t they feel ashamed? Of course not. They won.

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[See also: Will the right-wing Supreme Court hurt Republicans in the midterms?]

I thought about shame during Trump’s first impeachment, when he appeared to try to bully President Volodymyr Zelensky into opening an investigation in Ukraine into the Biden family for his own political benefit. I thought about it during his second impeachment, as some Republican senators denied legitimate election results and his party declined to convict him. I think about it when election officials are intimidated, and as we wonder whether we’ll continue to have free and fair elections or if gerrymandering and lies will end our democracy.

I complain about Democratic politicians who seem more concerned with norms than they are with results. But I understand that norms do matter in a democracy. There’s the written constitution, with its articles and amendments, and the unwritten rules, such as accepting the reality of defeat. A democracy, we are learning in real time, needs both.

Shame means that when you’re caught doing ill, you step down. Reflect on what you did. Try to do better. Public office is a service, and if you’re not serving the public, you should wonder what you’re doing there. When you abuse public trust, you should feel shame.

When a country’s politicians stop feeling shame, it is very difficult, and perhaps impossible, to encourage them to feel it again.

[See also: Boris Johnson must go now, not in three months]

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