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The Second Job of Citizenry

datePosted on 06:00, February 1st, 2009 by Anita

During last year’s election campaign I was struck by just how few people actually care; the cynicism and distrust of politicians, no-one expects honesty. More and more often I hear people talking about just not bothering — “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, it’s always a politician who wins.” The reality is that if you don’t vote the politicians win too.

Overseas negative and attack campaigning to suppress the vote is a common tactic. It may not be possible to persuade your opposition’s supporters to vote for you, but you might be able to put them off voting altogether. In our context, National may not be able to get many working class women to vote for them, but if they can stop them voting at all, that’s nearly as good.

In a fascinating public lecture Therese Arseneau talks about what she learned from the use of consultants in US elections

their aim is to actually to suppress the vote. The aim of negative campaigning was to keep particular people away from the polls.

A study of US Senate races shows just how effective this tactic is at suppressing not only the targeted voters but the electorate as a whole. They found that in largely negative races turnouts were 4.5 percentage points lowers than in ones that were largely positive. In New Zealand a 4.5 percentage point drop is about 130,000 people.

Both major parties publicly stated they ran positive campaigns, yet the tenor was negative all the way. This is true of political parties, the media, the net and the whispering campaigns.

There has always been some negativity from the two main political parties, but volumes seems to have increased over the last two campaigns. From the National Party we see the increase in the build up to the 2005 election, with the Crosby/Textor strategy of targeting Helen Clark — arrogant, out of touch, childless — along with divisive rhetoric against traditionally Labour supporting segments of society. Labour’s negativity showed in some of the 2005 campaign — for example their anti-National mocked-up eviction notices. This time we saw attacks on Key, which didn’t looked well co-ordinated or thought through, but sure were negative.

The media run negative messages with enthusiasm, cover negative and attack politics, and put a negative spin on potentially neutral topics. Perhaps they’re simply following the scripts given to them, or perhaps it is easier to write negative — but either way their constant negative framing is turning people off.

The net… ‘nuff said.

The question, I guess, is whether it matters. If one or more of the political parties decides to use negative and attack tactics, to deliberately or accidentally lower the turnout, does it matter?

In terms of New Zealand as a representative democracy, but our turnout rate is not uniform across the country — traditionally Māori, Pacific Island peoples and the young have the lowest turnout rates. Lowering the turnout rate will only further marginalise those communities, weakening their representation and voice.

Even more importantly, participating in an election is not an isolated act: it is part of being a member of a community, a society, a country. It is the act of someone who knows that they matter, that they have power, that they can create change. If we allow and encourage politics to be run and discussed along negative lines we will allow powerlessness to flourish in the most needy parts of our society.

I was born to two immigrants
Who knew why they were here
They were happy to pay taxes
For the schools and roads
Happy to be here
They took it seriously
The second job of citizenry
My mother went campaigning door to door
And holding to her hand was me

I was just a girl in a room full of women
Licking stamps and laughing
I remember the feeling of community brewing
Of democracy happening

Ani Difranco — Paradigm

categoryPosted in Democracy | printPrint

14 Responses to “The Second Job of Citizenry”

  1. Lee - MWT on February 1st, 2009 at 07:31

    Oh I thought that people who cared about democracy in New Zealand were usually dismissed as nutters, conspirators, ‘hater and wreckers’ ‘rorters’ ‘pricks’ etc, or even worse, ‘Right-wing Christians’ when they were merely doing their duty as citizens. How the times have a-changed!

    captcha= ‘Him budget’ yeah – in yer dreams!

  2. jcuknz on February 1st, 2009 at 07:52

    People who are influenced by the tactics you complain about had best not vote if they are so mindless. Why do you repeat the accusations about Helen, I for one know they are true, but it didn’t influence my vote which went to ACT simply becuase Sir Roger had rejoined the fold. He has some rough edges for sure but I’m sure John Key will control those. Sir Roger offers a different form of common sense socialism which the Labour, Green, Alliance have sadly lost sight of.

  3. imperial zeppelin on February 1st, 2009 at 09:11

    Maybe the Social Democratic model of governance has had its day and just doesn’t have very much positivity to offer any more.

    It used to present itself as a better alternative to the Communist Regimes…a persistent and negative undercurrent to SD that encouraged participation. (And not incidentally, encouraged concessionary policies to be developed.)

    That’s gone now. What’s left that might convince voters their futures would be best if wedded to this particular structure of governance?

  4. SPC on February 1st, 2009 at 13:11

    The problem is not social democracy – but the disadvantage the left has in electoral politics.

    Unless the left governs taking the well being of the underclass into account (closing the gaps) they will not get a full turnout (the “underclass poor” will lose interest in voting as they have in the USA – despite some upturn in 2008). But governing in this way puts their centrist support at risk – because of the way (negative portrayal of targeted help for some, and calling this a hand out culture diminishing the incentive to work hard because the focus is not on rewarding those who succeed) the political right will seek to marginalise the social democratic government over this.

    Randolph Churchill accurately noted the Tories had nothing to fear from democracy – because the upper class/elite could use the “aspiration” of the middle class to divide them from the poor/lower classes.

  5. Tom Semmens on February 1st, 2009 at 13:55

    There is certainly a requirement to renew participation in our democracy. But let’s be real here. Political parties themselves are well aware of the disadvantages of broad-based mass membership politics. In terms of fund-raising and policy formation, it is much easier to act as an elite cadre party that relies on a recognised “brand” (and pays lip service to mass participation democracy) than it is to genuinely create, maintain and nurture a mass movement organization. All Elites loath the mob, since the unpredictability of relying on the common weal creates a problem for the process driven, institutional mindsets of these political and bureaucratic elites.

    So how can we renew participatory democracy if our political and governing elites are hostile to the idea? First of all, you CAN still join political party’s community and business organizations and trade unions and work to change them from within. Secondly, it is important to ensure that people feel empowered at the local level. My view is that change has to come via media reform – we need to move the media away from its gutted, sensationalized, and centralized model to a more community based profession driven by news values rather than the needs of accountants and off-shore shareholders. Nothing empowers people more than community radio, local newspapers and regional TV news/stations and a variety of media owners to ensure multiple points of view are vigorously presented and argued. To me, it is an absolute disgrace that the profession which has the presumption to call itself the “fourth estate” is subject to no rules other than those of the market.

  6. Ari on February 1st, 2009 at 16:15

    It would also help if the newspapers covered more policy than just bleeding tax policy. While it might be important to people making a bank or planning their retirement, the price of cheese is more likely to influence my budget.

    Convince them of that and they don’t need to run attack stories.

  7. jcuknz on February 1st, 2009 at 19:43

    Helen Clark did a brilliant job of holding things together but her ‘team’ were a clueless bunch starting with the curfuffull with that woman with long earrings and scarcely a month went by without something … quite an achievement for a small group over nine years … then ineffectual ministers being shuffled from portfolio to portfolio. What probably helped was the incompetance and disorganisation of National, to judge by contributions to Kiwiblog and Yes Minister[?] they are a pretty vile lot in my books.

  8. Phil Sage (sagenz) on February 1st, 2009 at 22:38

    Not voting is a choice. Thus you can argue that negative campaigning is a legitimate tactic to ensure the desired outcome. Once you accept that it becomes kind of pointless to try to ban it or work against it. Better to understand it.

    Newspapers want to sell newspapers. Sensation sells. Get over it.

    John Key won because he balanced his personal behaviour much better against the crude and obvious negativity of Labour and Clark. So the more optimistic approach won.

  9. Lynn Prentice on February 2nd, 2009 at 08:54

    While the left weren’t remarkably effective at the negative campaigning last time. I’m sure that they will improve in opposition. The orchestrated whisper campaigns were a tactic that the Nat’s resumed in 2003-8 (and Act actively embraced). It is something that hasn’t been seen a lot since Muldoon. It is unacceptable behaviour.

    Now I’m afraid they will have to take the consequences. That is having the same tactics being used on them because otherwise I suspect they will be incapable of understanding why it is a bad idea – ie training a puppy where not to pee. This is unfortunate as it will further destroy the trust levels in politicians that was so painfully regained after the 1980’s and 1990’s. But that is the result of letting short-term political mechanics like Crosby Textor mount dog-whistle campaigns.

    BTW: jcuknz – Whatever you’ve ‘seen’ about Helen is something that I haven’t in 18 years of working on her local campaigns. You are are a fool who prefers to believe what you wish rather than examine reality. I’d suggest that you give up on either the faith or the substances that distort your life.

  10. Anita on February 2nd, 2009 at 09:22

    SPC writes,

    Unless the left governs taking the well being of the underclass into account (closing the gaps) they will not get a full turnout (the “underclass poor” will lose interest in voting as they have in the USA – despite some upturn in 2008). But governing in this way puts their centrist support at risk – because of the way (negative portrayal of targeted help for some, and calling this a hand out culture diminishing the incentive to work hard because the focus is not on rewarding those who succeed) the political right will seek to marginalise the social democratic government over this.

    Do you think that MMP allows a solution to this dilemma? I can imagine a situation where we have two parties on the left. One harder left and more more centre-left. It would require the two to not squabble over votes in their overlap, and the media to wrap their heads around agree-to-disagree arrangements, but it seems possible to me.

  11. Francois on February 2nd, 2009 at 12:52

    Ever heard of the Alliance party?

  12. Anita on February 2nd, 2009 at 13:02


    Yep, and they were part of the reason I asked the question. So far the NZ left hasn’t managed to sustain a left and centre-left split (unlike the right which manages hard right and right-centre). Why haven’t we managed it? Is it simply that the Alliance was the wrong vehicle? In it’s early days it illustrated my concerns about representational democracy – to vote for the green/workers-rights bits of the Alliance I had to vote for Jim Anderton’s hard line on drugs.

    BTW the Alliance and the Christian Right are the two best examples of why we should lower the MMP threshold. They’re both genuine constituencies which can’t cross 5% (partly because people like me don’t vote Alliance because we don’t want to waste the vote because we think they won’t cross 5%, circular eh!) and shouldn’t have to rely on finding a personality with a seat attached.

  13. Francois on February 2nd, 2009 at 17:34

    Well, most of the problems associated with Alliance was the leadership issue. J Anderton was just too paranoid to hold the Alliance together.

    And we can’t forget how close Laila Harre came to winning Waitakere in 2002. I think that the political scene in New Zealand would have changed dramatically with that single event causing enough butterflies to win Labour a Fourth Term.

  14. Anita on February 3rd, 2009 at 07:27

    Lynn Prentice writes,

    While the left weren’t remarkably effective at the negative campaigning last time. I’m sure that they will improve in opposition. The orchestrated whisper campaigns were a tactic that the Nat’s resumed in 2003-8 (and Act actively embraced). […] It is unacceptable behaviour.

    Now I’m afraid they will have to take the consequences. That is having the same tactics being used on them because otherwise I suspect they will be incapable of understanding why it is a bad idea – ie training a puppy where not to pee. This is unfortunate as it will further destroy the trust levels in politicians that was so painfully regained after the 1980’s and 1990’s.

    Are you saying that it’s ok for Labour to run the kind of whispering campaign that National ran because it will teach National a lesson?

    If that does happen, how/when does it stop? Someone has to step away from the tactic first – why can’t it be the left now?

    I would love to see Labour (and allies) naming the game – not only staying away from whispering campaigns but making sure they’re seen for what they are and the right can’t get away with them again.

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