Politics in the age of populism

Here’s my speech notes from last night’s Fabians Society panel in Wellington, comprising myself, Rob Egan and Bryce Edwards. A lot of it you will have read before if you’re a regular! As always I didn’t deliver this verbatim, but any rumours of a fellow Piko Consulting director having Facebook Lived my presentation are terrible lies and must not be countenanced.

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Mike asked us to talk about the implications of the recent elections in the United States, the UK and France on our own little general election in September, and whether we’re in an age of populism. I’m going to pull the old trick of immediately finding fault with the question, because I don’t know what populism is. It’s a word that gets applied to a certain style of politics, in a derogatory, if admiring manner. It describes politicians who are brash, loud, take cheap shots, and don’t do politics properly. It’s an elitist label for politics that appeal to people’s baser instincts and aren’t well-grounded or properly thought through.

Donald Trump is populist because he raves about immigrants and Muslims and building walls, and we all feel a bit smug because we’re not stupid and thoughtless like those people who vote for him. Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t really described as populist at all, because if anything his fault was being too thoughtful and unassuming and right up to the exit polls predicting a hung Parliament we all know he was completely unelectable. I admit I don’t know a lot about French politics, but Macron was running against a bona fide fascist in a run-off presidential system which has a tendency to throw up extremists every now and then. Who knows what that means.

I’m less interested in whether we’re in an age of populism and more what it says about us that we want to describe this time as an age of populism. Others call it a period of transition, and there’s an excellent volume published by Bridget Williams Books and edited by Morgan Godfery called The Interregnum, which I confess I haven’t read yet because I’m a terrible person. We are certainly in a time thanks to technology where people can get right in a politician’s face, and politicians can talk to voters directly without being interpreted or framed by the media. It would be generous to say that this is an age of populism because politicians are forced to engage more with real people.

But we also use “populism” as a nice way to say “extremism”, and that’s very dangerous. We’re accepting the idea that rightwing, authoritarian extremism like Trump’s or Le Pen’s is a valid expression of people’s core ideals and instincts – those people who aren’t serious and thoughtful about politics, like us. And the logic follows that in order to win, to be popular, we too have to pander to those instincts, even though we tell ourselves it’s just what we have to do to get into power to fix the mess neoliberalism has made of the world.

That worries me. Because if we jump in without really understanding what’s going on, we will be selling our souls and committing political suicide at the same time.

A good example, because it’s a consistent issue across all these elections, including ours, is immigration. Trump promised to build a wall. Le Pen was blatantly xenophobic. The Leave campaign in the UK played on it. We’re told this was the reason for those campaigns’ varying, worrying levels of success. And, to be blunt, our own centre-left parties, if not promising to build a wall, have made pretty populist statements about the need to cut migrant numbers, and the danger of unbridled immigration on our country.

And if it works, why not? Well, firstly because racism is gross. But secondly because it doesn’t.

I’ve talked at the Fabians before about values and framing, which is what all the cool kids are doing in progressive political communications. Essentially, if you take map fundamental human values – Common Cause in Australia has a really good one – on one side you’ve got intrinsic values like universalism, benevolence, equality. And on the other, extrinsic values like power, wealth, self-indulgence. I don’t need to guess which motivates the people in this room, right? But the short version is all of us hold all of those values to a greater or lesser extent, and all of them can be triggered in us. What authoritarians like Donald Trump do is tap into values like security and social order – which are literally the opposite of the ones that drive progressives and collectivists. They hype up people’s anxieties and fears and then tell them the answer is in those values, in being insular and xenophobic and antagonistic.

That’s why anti-immigration rhetoric didn’t work for Ed Miliband in the 2015 UK general election. Because Labour aren’t meant to be narrow-minded and insecure and jealous. It cuts against our values, and people see that, so even if we say exactly what they want to hear, it rings hollow. Corbyn in 2017, in contrast, tapped into those core progressive values of benevolence and social justice and universalism – for the many, not the few – and said the solutions to our anxieties can be found in caring for one another.

It was authentic. And authenticity, as any number of articles about Bill English putting tinned spaghetti on pizza will tell you, is everything.

The question I ponder when polls show people are anxious about immigration is, what’s behind it? Immigration in of itself is just the movement of people across borders. Are they worried about wages? Job losses? Housing pressure? Rents? Traffic? Crime? A loss of our national identity? All those things immigrants get blamed for.

What Corbyn did as well as play strongly to progressive values, is offer solutions to all those underlying anxieties which feed anti-migrant sentiment. You don’t need to fear newcomers if housing and transport and industry and pay and corporate greed are getting sorted. You don’t need to fear losing your identity if your identity is founded on community and collectivism.

We have to campaign on our values not just because they are good but because they are powerful. They are popular, if not populist. We’ve just hobbled ourselves by letting the right push their values into the mainstream and trying to mimic them. What Corbyn’s near-win can show us is that there’s a way to be popular and keep our integrity intact – because integrity is a much better vote-winner, in the short and long terms, than jumping on whichever bandwagon is rolling past.

What progressive political parties in New Zealand need to do – or needed to have done, because let’s face it we’ve got two and a half months until the election – is present a clear alternative, not just to National but to the status quo. I’m sure Labour and the Greens think they are. But I don’t think people – outside circles like these, of political nerds who actually read the policy – are seeing that. If there is one thing to learn from populism, or whatever we want to call it, it’s that a consistent, bold message, which upsets the status quo and hits people right in the values, is what succeeds.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s in the old wisdom that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. And this government is teetering. Looking dishonest on housing and Pike River, heartless on mental health and the abuse of children in state care, lacking in ideas and bereft of their magical charisma leprechaun, John Key. It could be anyone’s to win, and probably Winston’s to decide. But for 2020 and beyond, the game is going to be completely changed, and we know from history that the right will adapt very quickly, so we’re going to have to be even quicker.

We can fight this horrible darkness

Something a bit more inspiring for your Monday: images from the weekend’s airport protests across the United States, where hundreds of ordinary people turned out to voice their opposition to the Trump administration’s brutal, unfair immigration ban:

refugee-airport-protest

More at The Guardian; further reporting from Al Jazeera. Unfortunately some organisations like Uber chose to be on the wrong side of the resistance – and their subsequent backdown shows they know it.

Together, we can resist this. Ordinary people coming together and making a scene and standing up to the powerful and donating what time and resources and spoons we can and remembering to look out for each other. Love trumps hate. Trite but true.

Migration, taps and growing pains

I keep promising to review Anat Shenker-Osorio’s book Don’t Buy It. I’m getting there, I promise. My copy is almost more Post-It Note than paper at the moment.

But there’s a chapter in which she discusses different ways to frame talking about the economy and the country, and one example cropped up almost word-for-word in New Zealand politics yesterday, so I thought I’d give a sneak preview:

Little says Labour would cap migration

Labour leader Andrew Little says ethnic restaurants should be employing New Zealand Indians and Chinese chefs instead of bringing in staff from overseas.

“At times when our economy is creaking, we need to be able to turn down the tap a bit,” Mr Little said.

“Immigration is positive for any country. But there are times also when our country’s going through some growing pains … and it is right to say ‘let’s just turn the tap down a bit’.”

It’s interesting to think about how Andrew Little is using language. What’s the subtext? People who migrate to New Zealand are a flow of water, a natural thing, but a bad thing if too much of it happens, you end up with extra Chinese and Indian chefs all over the floor. And we’re at risk of that happening, apparently, because we’re “creaking” under the pressure of all this water.

The “growing pains” phrase grabbed my attention, because it’s one Shenker-Osorio specifically addresses (not that I can find the relevant quote in amongst the forest of Post-Its):

Once we’re primed to understand the economy as most aptly akin to a body, periods of good and bad health are natural and therefore expected. Moreover, we know most conditions a body experiences go away unaided. So by applying body language, we’re telling audiences to expect that periods of prosperity and recession are normal and emphatically don’t require government intervention.

This is kind of bad news for a party whose foundational principles are all about the ability of the government to intervene, to stop ordinary people getting smashed under the wheels of capitalism.

I don’t think New Zealand is undergoing “growing pains”. I think we have a government focused on  short-term business profits, neglecting the important social services which keep people happy and healthy, and stripping back the rights which keep people healthy, safe, and unexploited at work. There’s nothing natural about that, and it’s clearly not going away by itself if the Opposition stops scratching it.

Beyond the narrative metaphor-building nerdery, though, there are two more tiny problems with this rhetoric,.

The first is that it’s racist dogwhistling gutter trash.

The second is even if that doesn’t bother you, there are no votes in racist dogwhistling gutter trash as long as Winston Peters breathes.

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After drafting this, Labour put out a response to the general commentary. There’s a whole other post’s worth of stuff to say, but it’s late, I’m tired, and all I can say is this: there’s a reason people find it entirely plausible that Labour would engage in race-baiting rhetoric. And it’s not the media’s fault.

Good old-fashioned Kiwi values

[Content warning: contains links to and quotes from violent and anti-Muslim hate speech.]

David Farrar has some … interesting ideas about how to tighten up immigration policy in the wake of the Sydney “siege”.

I think countries such as Australia, and NZ, need to have much more stringent immigration criteria – I don’t mean banning people on the basis of their religion, but asking prospective migrants a detailed set of questions to ascertain if they hold extreme views, and would be happy living in a secular country.

When pushed on exactly how this process would work:

His ideas are obviously silly flamebait designed to feed the residents of his “cleaned up” comments section who enjoy saying things like “I hope that when they shoot the hostage takers they bury them wrapped in a pig skin and fill the hole in with dead dogs and pig shit” and literally threatening to shoot people who downvote their comments.

But he does highlight some interesting aspects of the “values” discussion.

People love to talk about values, left and right. It’s a call to a shared set of ideals which we’re assured are What Built Our Great Community. It’s a signal to display our solidarity against whatever external forces or threats the person talking about them is trying to warn us about.

It’s also a bit of a load of crap.

Take a look at one of the so-called values which David Farrar assures us “95%” of New Zealanders would ascribe to:

The progressive response is an instinctive “lolwut?” followed by joking (wishing) we could apply that “get in line or go home” approach to people we’re stuck with, like Colin Craig or Bob McCoskrie. A more academic response might note that:

… or critique the idea of getting extremists to tick a box saying “I promise I am not an extremist” only works in towns called Christmas.

But I suggest that we take David Farrar at his word and acknowledge that he has a tiny point: the vast majority of people probably would say “yes, I agree men and women should be equal under the law”.

Case closed, right? Voila, values.

Except it’s really, really vague, and that’s the whole point of this kind of values talk. It’s actually totally meaningless; like Bella Swan, it’s an empty vessel for the readers and viewers to pour their own assumptions into.

Anyone will agree with a bland proposition like that. It’s what comes after that divides us.

“I agree men and women should be equal under the law – that’s why we must stop women’s scholarships to university!”

“I agree men and women should be equal under the law – so we should cut funding to women’s organisations like Rape Crisis!”

“I agree men and women should be equal under the law – but we have to remember men and women are very different!”

And there are people out there who honestly do believe that they support “equality” between men and women. It’s just the kind of equality which involves keeping up the sexist traditions of the past which rob women of any real power or agency.

The key thing is this: talk of “values” is the domain of religious zealots and warmongers. The pretence that us “normal” people (white, English-speaking, heterosexual cis men) are united in a “normal” worldview (capitalist, individual, xenophobic) is pushed by the powerful to reinforce their power. In the wake of events like Sydney it’s used to push even more draconian, illiberal laws which only generate more conflict.

David Farrar can dress it up as a reasonable, moderate, proportionate response as much as he likes, but look to his commenters: there’s the true face of “Kiwi values”.