Archive for ‘January, 2010’
Hat tipped to Paul McBeth for this one.
As one side engages in some tentative but hugely premature triumphalism, and the other side points the accusatory finger, a sleeping giant awakes. This man — our Nixon, in whom we apparently see ourselves as we really are — has rekindled the fire which once consumed the hearts and minds of the nation (and the knickers of untold women old enough to know better) and thrown himself with renewed fervour into the task of “getting his old job back”.
Thanks either to wicked humour or outright shamelessness on the part of Auckland University political science staff, Winston Peters has been granted the unlikeliest of springboards to launch his 2010 campaign to return to the Beehive in 2011: a lecture to (presumably first year) political science students on the MMP political system. Of course, if they’d wanted a serious lecture on the topic, any number of graduate (and even some of the more geeky undergraduate) students could have done it, but the choice of Winnie was inspired because, instead of just telling these young things the dry facts and functions of the system — let’s face it, they can learn that from a book or even wikipedia.* But here’s a chance for them to learn how the system works in actual fact, from someone who has used it to screw others and been screwed himself, and to learn all that from someone who, just coincidentally, is in a position to demonstrate that no matter how down and out a politician might seem, under MMP he’s only one voter in twenty away from the marble floors, dark wood and green leather benches which house our democratic institutions.
The speech itself is the saga of the heroic battlers who guided the noble, fragile MMP system through the minefields of bureaucracy, persevering despite the “inner cabal cherishing hidden agendas” intent upon bringing about its premature demise. Those heroic battlers were represented by New Zealand First, epitomising the “traditional values of New Zealand politics”; “capitalism with a kind, responsible face”; the “long established social contract of caring for the young and the old and those who were down on their luck through no fault of their own”; a strong, honest party which was forced into coalition with National, although even then the dirty hacks in the media failed to correctly report these facts.
It’s a wonderful story, a fabulous creation myth, and if you’ve listened to Winston’s speeches over the years, none of it will be foreign to you.
But the speech dwells upon the darker, more recent history of MMP, and particularly its perversion by the forces of separatism. This initially seems odd for a speech which praises MMP, but it makes perfect sense when you consider the wider narrative: you can’t rescue something which isn’t in trouble, and the wider narrative is, naturally enough, that Winston is here to rescue New Zealand from MMP and the separatists — blue and brown — who have overtaken it. This is done, in true Winstonian style, with a masterful play on words:
If you listen closely, you might almost be able to hear the sound of undergraduates giggling nervously, and more quietly but present nevertheless, the sound of confused and frustrated battlers who don’t see what they stand to gain out of any of the current political orthodoxy starting to think “you know, Winston wasn’t so bad after all.”
So, Winston is back. For the record, I still don’t think he’s got the winnings of an election in him without the endorsement of an existing player, and I think it’s better than even money that he would drag any endorser down with him. His credibility is shot to hell, and this is a naked attempt to reach out to a Labour party who have just begun to put a little historical distance between themselves and him, but it will be very tempting for a Labour party struggling to connect with the electorate. If we as a nation are very, very unfortunate, Labour’s failure to reinvent themselves and the illusory success among some of the usual suspects of the “blue collars, red necks” experiment last year — notably not repeated in this week’s speech — will cause them to reach out for the one thing they lack: a political leader who understands narrative, who possesses emotional intelligence and political cunning in spades, who knows how to let an audience know who he is and what he stands for, and make them trust him (sometimes despite all the facts), and who has a ready-made constituency of disgruntled battlers who feel (rightly or wrongly) that the system doesn’t work for them.
Please, let it not come to that.
* Incidentally, it may come as a surprise to some of you that these dry facts and procedural details were the reason I dropped out of PoliSci in my first year, and studied Film instead (before realising that it all came back to politics anyway).
It’s a sound speech full of bread-and-butter Labour appeals, not too heavy on the wonkish details, and it doesn’t spare anyone who oughtn’t be spared, targeting a range of elites: Finance company sharks, big business shysters, benefit fraudsters, nearsighted property developers, the honours list, public sector CEOs. Also obligatory references to education, justice and community systems failing young people, which ties into a small serve for the māori party (not named) about the Foreshore and Seabed Act and Tino Rangatiratanga flag, although wisely appealing to Kelvin Davis’ mana rather than Phil’s own, which shows that while he still doesn’t really get tino rangatiratanga, he at least realises that it’s a topic to be treated carefully. Also the absence of a direct attack on the māori party or its principals themselves is a good sign for future reconciliation; an indication that Sharples’ hints of recent weeks that the two parties retain much in common have been understood.
It speaks to the continuing narrative that the government is coasting on a gradually improving economy which has turned out to be much less dire than predicted — a good choice given the same chord has been struck by people like Matthew Hooton in the past week, and playing into Key’s “relaxed” persona. This narrative will stick.
It’s a solid speech, but not a great one. I didn’t hear it, perhaps you had to be there, but this is largely pedestrian stuff, and while “the many, not the few” is an excellent platform for any social democratic leader, this needed to be a speech which burned bright, not one which smouldered. The biggest reason it didn’t, for me, was because it wasn’t clear about who its audience was.
The collective noun of choice, something over which important battles have been fought in recent years, was generally “all new Zealanders”; sometimes “(hard)working New Zealanders” or “working families”. I’ve argued before that the first (“all New Zealanders”) is too broad except as a rhetorical device, and this was an opportunity for Labour to drive home it’s “the many, not the few” focus by telling us who it stands for, to clearly frame of who “we” are to Labour, and to oppose it to who is meant by National’s “we”. You can’t win 100% of the electorate, and you shouldn’t try: if your position isn’t pissing a fair chunk of the polity off (your ideological enemies) then it’s probably not doing much for your friends, either. Mealy-mouthedness is the bane of effective political engagement.
If Labour represents “all New Zealanders” then, by definition, it represents the few as well as the many, and you can’t base a political appeal on that. You can’t represent both the interests of the minimum-wage workers and the stuggling middle classes and the disenfranchised urban poor and the sharks and speculators and fat cats you claim are leeching off them: you need to distinguish one from the other and say: “we work for you, not for those guys”.
This is implicit through the speech, but it must be explicit, and must be repeated over and over, forged as a bond of identity with a Labour party from whom the electorate feels disconnected. All the good policy initiatives in the world won’t save Labour unless it reconnects and re-engages its base, and it can’t do that until it sorts out who its base is, and lets them know. This speech could have done that, but it didn’t.
I often find myself thinking of a saying which I’ve seen variously described as Arabian, African and Chinese, but which I’m pretty sure every culture has in its own version:
Michael Laws and the formerly-divided Wanganui District Council have unanimously condemned the adoption by media (TVNZ, Radio NZ and other outsiders) of the standard Māori pronunciation of “Fonganui”, while quietly endorsing the new “Whanganui” spelling as an official alternative. In an expression of the last phrase of the proverb above, the council also resolved to “work with local Māori leaders to draw up a guideline for national media and organisations as to how the city should be pronounced.”
Quite apart from being an almost unprecedented — and very welcome — indication of goodwill from Laws and his settler-majority council toward tangata whenua, this also marks a subtle shift away from the bombastic demagoguery of the h debate to a sort of diplomacy, perhaps a realisation that civil society solutions to complex political identity problems come about by education and negotiation; they require change by consent. This was the fundamental difference between the pro-h and anti-h arguments in the great h debate of oh-nine: the anti-h position was presriptive, insisting that it had to be a “Wanganui” for everyone with no tolerance for dissent. The pro-h position was about recognition, insisting that “Whanganui” be acknowledged as having preeminence, but not enforcing this usage in an absolute fashion.
But ultimately (although Laws and the council may not have gotten this point) pronunciation is a different question. Pronunciation and dialect in Māori remains an expression of a speaker’s rangatiratanga. Māori was, and to a large extent remains a dialectic language where howyou say something provides important context about who you are and what you’re saying — a concept somewhat unfamiliar to many Pākehā New Zealanders who are used to a reasonably homogeneous accent, but one which will be very familiar to anyone familiar with the USA or the UK. This is why you’ll hear Māori from elsewhere in the country pronouncing it “Fonganui” without much objection from Whanganui Māori, and why you’ll hear Whanganui Māori pronouncing “Whakatane” as “Wakatane”, as well as “wānau” or “ware” or “wakarongo mai”, and while it may draw sniggers from speakers of other dialects, it is generally recognised as a manifestation of Whanganuitanga to speak this way. For their part the Whanganui (and Taranaki*) Māori are proud of their dialect much as Texans or Geordies are. Tariana Turia, in speeches, has described just such situations, such as when visiting relatives from the Tongariro region, the children teased her for poor pronunciation. Far from being ashamed by this, it was a small source of pride for her and a matter of her own mana and Whanganuitanga, a recognition of the small differences between relations which throw the much more important commonalities into sharp relief.
All this is a somewhat roundabout way of saying that, while it’s wonderful that Laws and the council have seen the need to ally with their cousins and neighbours against the world, and moreover have (apparently) seen the need to do so in a diplomatic and non-coercive manner, this is a battle they simply may not win because there is an important distinction between standing on your own mana and trying to force others to adopt your ways, requiring them to sacrifice their own mana in doing so.
* Māori Language Commissioner Ruakere Hond is leading the campaign to promote the Taranaki dialect.
Controversy about the publication of SAS soldiers in action in Kabul last week, and the identification of one of them, has morphed into debate about the reasons why the NZDF is in Afghanistan. I have already outlined my views on the matter in previous posts here at KP, but the furore forced me to reflect again on the issue. That reflection was precipitated by the fact that criticism of the mission comes from both the political Left and the political Right. Some on the Left think that the venture is a US-led occupation driven by neo-imperialist ambition and corporate greed that violates the Afghans right to self-determination, and that the NZ involvement is a form of sucking up to the US in pursuit of a free trade agreement. Some on the Right believe that NZ has no strategic stake in the conflict and should leave the (enter derogatory term here) alone to sort out their own fate while NZ concentrates on issues closer to home. I believe that both sides have misread the situation.
To that end I have offered my summary views on the matter as this month’s Word from Afar column over at Scoop.
In some regards this is my favourite time of year: when the news starts again. It’s day two, and Sean Plunket’s already excoriating Gerry Brownlee for failing to ensure security of electricity supply to the upper North Island. Seems Gerry was expecting a few softballs to start with: he was woefully unprepared, said the circumstances were “clear to him” and his ultimate comeback was to whine that the public were only “seeing one side of the story”.
Well, yes. Those who suffered from the outage will give their side of the story. If you’re the Energy Minister, or a senior executive of Transpower or one of the other agencies responsible for maintaining those lines and enforcing the Public Works Act (over the objections of landowners) then it’s your job to get the other half of the story out there. You can’t expect your opponents to do it for you, and you’ve nobody to blame but yourselves if it doesn’t emerge.
Blame-shifting and complaining that “it’s not fair” aren’t the sole domain of the Left, after all. When they’re all you can do, it’s a sure sign you need to work on your act.
Posted on 16:37, January 21st, 2010 by Pablo
Former Cosmopolitan Magazine nude pinup boy Scott Brown’s victory in the special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat is a body blow to the Democrats and Obama administration, especially with regard to its attempts at healthcare reform. The pundits have already well dissected the reasons for the first GOP senatorial victory in Massachusetts since Edward Brooke’s tenure ended in 1979. Voter anger with the Washington “establishment,” the role of the Tea party movement, the arrogance and complacency of the Coakley campaign–all of these factors made for a decisive electoral shift that will have significant repercussions outside of the state in which the original tea party took place. That much is clear.
But what have the good people of Massachusetts got for their preference? For one thing, they have a rookie Senator who has no national-level experience at all and just ten years of legislative experience in a very liberal state. Nor does he have any executive experience. In fact, Barack Obama looks like an elder statesman in terms of previous experience when compared to the male model-turned politician. Moreover, Brown has been elected at a time of extraordinary anti-politician and anti-Washington sentiment that, even if born out of the mistakes of commission and omission of the Bush 43 administration, have seemingly been compounded by his successor. This has made for a highly volitile political climate that in turn has made extraordinarily attractive his vague populist appeals as a Washington “outsider,” something that traditionally resonates with a disgruntled electorate (and boy, are they disgruntled now!).
Why this matters is because of the arena in which he is about to enter. Much more so than in parliamentary systems (where party discipline and hierarchy often supersede the representational mandate, especially when List MPs are involved), elected officials representing states at the national level in the US Congress fulfill two roles: that of representatives and legislators. On the one hand, they represent the interests of their constituents, be it district (US House of Representatives) or state-wide (US Senate). This role is played up during electoral campaigns (hence Mr. Brown’s claim that he is a “Brown Republican” who will independently champion the interests of his state), and is much more important for US House representatives who are elected every two years. Senators, in contrast and by design, elected every six years and representing state-wide interests that can be quite heterogenous and often competing, tend to limit their appeals to the representative role to election season. Either way, that is only half of the equation.
Once in office, US congressmen and women become legislators. That means that they need to engage in the political bargaining and understanding of national-level issues as well as those that most immediately impact their individual constituencies. Sometimes these two levels of engagement–national and local–run against each other. The congressional legislator, by the nature of the US political process, must steer towards compromise rather than principle in most instances given the competing interests at play. Thus the legislator role often is at odds with the representative role, which is part of the reason why the Founding Fathers designed the two-chamber Congress (in order to allow the Senate to overcome the populist tendencies of House members).
This is where Scott Brown is about to be schooled. As a novice Senator he will be at the bottom of the congressional pecking order. His appointment to committees, which is determined by a mix of seniority, trade-offs and patronage, will depend largely on how he “gets along” with his fellow Senators (committee work being the most important aspect of a senator’s job, as it is in committee where all bills are first considered). Since his victory is owed more to the tea bag movement and conservative media support rather than than of the GOP bloc in Congress, he is walking into a forum without much political cover. Moreover, he is a moderate Republican (for example, he supports abortion rights) in a party increasingly dominated by non-elected conservative fundamentalists. Sure, he will be lionised by the Republican National Committee and congressional bloc at first. But once the hard work of legislating begins, his representative appeal will have to take a back seat to the back room wheeling and dealing of which legislation is made (recall the old adage that the two things one never wants to see being made is sausage and US legislation). As a minority state senator in a one-party state like Massachusetts he has some notion of what that entails, but if he is to be more than a one-term Senator, he will have to lift his game exponentially given the national stage he is now playing on.
All of which means that his anti-Washington, anti-healthcare appeal, which was essentially a negative campaign about who he was not and what he opposed, now has to be transformed into a practice of pragmatic compromise and centrism unless, of course, he is hoping that GOP majorities will be restored in both Houses in the November 2010 mid-term elections. But even if that occurs, he still has to downplay his representative role in favor of his legislative obligations, at least until he is up for re-election. In a political moment where disenchantment and resentment is rampant throughout the electorate, that may turn out to be far harder than running a dark horse campaign against a lackluster opponent. But if he favours the representative role over the legislator role now that he is in office, he runs the risk of alienating his Senate colleagues and consequently be rendered hopelessly ineffectual in delivering on his promises. Either way, he has his work cut out for him, and his good looks are of no use in that context.
PS: Among many other things I will leave for the moment the conservative movement penchant for photogenic poster people over those with substantive political experience, or the potentially (seemingly counter-intuitive) negative implications this outcome has for any NZ-US trade deal.
I’ve remained largely silent on the so-called ClimateGate thus far, mostly out of an abject lack of expertise to judge the whys and wherefores of it all. It’s science, I’m not a scientist. But given Poneke’s magnum opus on the topic, the likelihood of an IPCC Himalayan glacier retraction and a NZ Herald survey which found that New Zealanders harbour deep doubts about anthropogenic climate change, I thought it apposite to repost something I wrote the other day at the bottom of a very long (but interesting) thread (somewhat edited). It’s something I’ve argued many times in other contexts.*
Climate change is often couched as an important problem of the sort which democracies fail to address — along with things like the global credit crisis, and fascism. But the failure is not with democracy itself, but with the calibre of certain actors within it. Climate change is an issue which should have been hit out of the park by any political movement with any competence, because the magnitude of the stakes and the weight of both reasoned evidence and benign symbolic matter which it embodies yield raw material for the most profound and powerful sorts of political campaigns — the sort which fundamentally change peoples’ beliefs and allegiances and which, if properly conducted, can grant a political movement incredible license to implement far-reaching policy of the sort which reforms society at its most basic levels. The Great Depression was just such an event for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Michael Joseph Savage. The miners strike was for Margaret Thatcher. September 11 was for George W Bush. And so on.
And yet, the skeptics are winning the battle of ideas around climate change. The failure to convince the electorates of the free world of the need for urgent climate change policy, a matter of the most critical and immediate importance backed by the best science available, reflects an utter failure on the part of political and scientific elites whose most important job it is to provide such leadership. The political and scientific establishment has squandered a phenomenal opportunity, with the exception of Al Gore, who with An Inconvenient Truth did more to progress the cause of gaining electorate buy-in to the topic than everyone else has done since. They are struggling and failing, not only to implement reforms of the magnitude which are required, but even to maintain the credibility of the scientific establishment.
Some [including Ag, to whom this was originally addressed] argue that it was always impossible to sell climate change to the electorate due to the vested interests amassed against it, cognitive biases, lack of expertise, plain ignorance, etc. Those are important factors, but other factors are more important and more controllable to boot — after all, people in a liberal society can only really control their own actions, and must be prepared to defend their positions against others.
The scientific establishment failed by allowing a tiny minority of skeptics and raving moonbats and vested interests to frame their establishment as a corrupt back-slapping club funded by grant money; by evading and prevaricating and playing dirty when legitimately challenged on important matters of fact and procedure; most recently by covering up emails and giving the conspiracy theorists grist for their mills. In defending their failures, they blame the heterodox minority, the vested interests, the rapturists and the conspiracy theorists.
Politicians have failed mainly by couching their arguments in favour of urgent climate change policy in terms of hard facts and economic figures, assuming that people could connect the dots themselves rather than spelling it out in terms they could understand at a visceral or intuitive level as well as when they whip out their utility calculators. The politicians blame the same people as the scientists, ignoring the fact that a generation of failure on their part to adequately contest the battle of ideas and to safeguard the political process against the influence of vested interests has allowed such lobbyists to become entrenched.
Part of this is systemic — there are problems with the scientific peer review system which politicians can’t understand; there are ruthless and well-resourced lobbyists with vested interests which have been permitted to entrench themselves in democratic political systems. But none of that is any excuse. They should have been able to drive it home anyway, given the raw material at their disposal. This is not a failing of democracy, but a failing of certain actors within the democratic system: particularly, those who believe so deeply that they are right, so they need not prove their case. People who think that inherent truth of the position will simply shine through. If their position was that strong, then it should have been easy, right? This ignores a fundamental reality of a free society: that people are free to be wrong, and must be brought about by reason and persuasion or not at all. I think it is that strong, and should have been easy.
The world is going to pay for the failure of climate scientists to adequately protect their credibility, and for the failure of politicians and policymakers to adequately sell the most politically saleable concept of the past generation — that the planet is going to get inhospitable if we continue to pollute it, and we don’t have a fallback position — and it’s infuriating that those responsible for this failure want nothing more than to shift blame for their own incompetence.
* It should be clear, but nevertheless: I’m not arguing that AGW isn’t real; in fact, the opposite: I am arguing that the problem is real but that the credibility of much of the evidence and the policy agenda is critically undermined. I don’t really buy Poneke’s conclusions drawn from his analysis of the emails, although I do accept that they demonstrate severe systemic and credibility failures which call a lot of the evidence into question. But in order to believe that it’s all a hoax, you have to believe in a scientific conspiracy of unprecedented scale, with no credible payoff. I just don’t see it.
Posted on 16:43, January 18th, 2010 by Pablo
The election of Sebastian Pinera in Chile is the most dramatic example of the re-emergence of the electoral Right as a political force in Latin America. Although he is the son of one of Agusto Pinochet’s most infamous ministers (Jose “Pepe” Pinera, who crafted the Chilean labor code that became a blueprint for the NZ Employment Contracts Act and who was a personal friend of Roger Douglas and Roger Kerr), and parlayed his father’s ministerial position and influence to create a credit card empire that now sees him as one of Latin America’s richest men, Pinera used voter discontent with the long-running left-centre Concertacion coalition to propel himself as a candidate “for change.” In this he was the Chilean equivalent of John Key, because (besides their private sector wealth), both capitalised more on voter disenchantment with successful long-term Left governments than on offering any real change in policy direction. Instead, Pinera and Key rode a wave of sentiment in favor of change for change’s sake rather than on promises of policy re-direction, appealing to the centrist sentiment that prevails in both constituencies. The vote, in each instance, was more anti-incumbent than pro-alternative, and had little relation to the policy accomplishments of the defeated Left governments.
More importantly, Pinera represents the most recent example of Right party electoral success in Latin America, but his is not the only one. In Panama, a rightist won presidential elections last year. In Brazil and Costa Rica, right-centre candidates lead in the polls for this year’s presidential elections. In Peru, the centrist APRA government looks to be re-elected, and in Colombia and Mexico, rightist governments are in power (with Colombian president Alvaro Uribe looking to capitalise on his success against the FARC guerrillas by constitutionally extending his right to run for a third presidential term). Even in Argentina, the right-centre Union Civica Radical has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence as a result of the policy disasters of the (nominally Left) Peronist government led by the husband and wife team of Cristina Fernandez and Nestor Kirchner. Although it occurred under dubious circumstances due to the ouster of Leftist president Manuel Zelaya in June, the Honduran elections last November also produced a right-centre winner. Guatemala has been ruled by Rightists since open elections were restored in 1990. Thus, whether by hook or by crook, legitimate or not, the Latin American Right appears to be on the political rebound after more than a decade of predominantly Leftist rule.
To be sure, Left candidates won presidential elections in El Salvador and Uruguay last year, and Leftist governments control Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Venezuela. The electoral balance may have tilted to the Right, but it is by no means a seismic shift. What makes it noteworthy, therefore, is its implications for democratic consolidation.
Students of regime transitions have noted two important yet distinct elections in the move towards regime consolidation in new democracies. The first is the so-called “foundational” election, which marks the formal end of authoritarianism and the ushering in of a new era of transparent electoral politics. In countries emerging from right-wing authoritarianism, foundational elections tend to be won by right-centre coalitions that do not threaten the core interests of the authoritarian support base, which is the price paid for the transition itself (this is part of the so-called “ethical compromise” by which incoming democratic elites reassure the authoritarian elite by among other things not challenging the market-driven economic model and by granting amnesty to security personnel for any atrocities committed, something that is required for the transition to occur but which has been challenged in court in several post-authoritarian countries, including Chile). In countries emerging from left-wing authoritarianism the reverse is often true, with former communists re-branding themselves in order to be more electorally appealing while continuing many of the policies of their predecessors in core areas of public policy (except, most importantly, macroeconomic policy).
That makes for the importance of the second type of election, known as the “consolidation” election. In this election, which can occur four, six, ten or dozens of years after the foundational election, power is electorally rotated to the opposition. That is to say, a democracy is not considered to be politically (or at least electorally) consolidated until the opposition has been given a chance to compete, win and rule. This gives the opposition a chance to prove its democratic credentials, especially in cases like Chile’s where it has previously been associated with authoritarianism. In Brazil, Uruguay and El Salvador, previously Left oppositions have turned out to be exemplary (and moderate) democratic governments. In Ecuador and Bolivia, Left governments of a more militant stripe carried over from days in opposition have nevertheless continued to enjoy considerable popularity and policy success. Nicaragua and Venezuela remain more problematic due to the authoritarian predilections of their respective leaders, Daniel Ortega and Hugo Chavez, but in terms of the totality of Left rule in the region, they are a minority.
It has, until recently, been an open question as to whether the Latin American Right could be truly democratic in the event that it won presidential office. Right wing electoral authoritarians like Alberto Fujimori in Peru or Carlos Menem in Argentina (who ran as a Peronist) demonstrated that, at least in the 1990s, the tug of dictatorship still pulled strongly on those of a “conservative” persuasion. More recently, the behaviour of the Right opposition and Micheletti interim government in fomenting and legitimating the ouster of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras confirms wide-held trepidations about the Right’s democratic bonafides. Now, with the resurgence of the electoral Right apparently region-wide, the time appears to have arrived for that question to be answered more fully, and in the event that it is in the affirmative, then the chances for the electoral consolidation of democracy in Latin America will have been reaffirmed. Should it be answered in the negative, then it will confirm that the Right is simply incapable of overcoming its authoritarian tendencies regardless of the means by which power is achieved.
Feeling a bit like Rip Van Wrinkle after a good holiday spent in mostly wild areas without full access to news, I am slowly regaining my “urbane” senses. But I have mixed feelings about my return to the Asian city in which I live. The best part of the trip was breathing real, clean air, feeling the breeze and listening to the night-time silence and bird singing at dawn, swimming in unpolluted open water, seeing wildlife in their natural settings rather than in cages, talking with people wedded to the earth or at least without pretense, and forgetting what day of the week it was. Nothing my wife and I took in the way of pictures can accurately capture the fullness, nuance, and complexities of the trip, which is why the return to the noise, smell and rush of the city is underwhelming.
While away I was struck by how, in virtually all of the places we stayed, other than local stories the majority of what passed for available global news were truncated newswire or US/European newspaper bylines and (mostly) celebrity-focused nonsense. I return to much of the same here, as is the case with the on-line versions of NZ news outlets. So, in a sense, I really did not miss anything by being away (save an aborted terrorist attack on a US-bound airplane and, much more importantly, a successful suicide bombing attack on a CIA post in Khost, the sequels to which will be very far-reaching). In fact, it was perversely delightful to not have to be up to date on anything other than the tides and wind, to wake up with the light, and to utterly depend on local knowlege rather than familiarity with world events to make the days interesting and enjoyable.
For their part, while I was away NZ political bloggers who continued to post regularly (unlike us more relaxed folk at KP, who actually have lives and priorities other than blogging) appear to have been obsessed with themselves and their self-importance, led by one particularly sociopathic character with a serious martydom complex (which in turn is a reflection of a deeply narcissistic personality gone into disorder). Some things never do change.
What has changed is my approach to the second year of blogging at KP. I want to be more judicious in my posts, and to sparse them out more evenly relative to my editorial and scholarly work. Last year I found that I was at times blogging just for the sake of it rather than to make a point or critical observation about something of substance. Some of that is due to having too much time on my hands, but some of it is due to getting sucked into what I see as a blogging syndrome: an addiction to the immediate call and response effect of posting, which for someone who likes to argue and debate, is the purest opiate of all. In that sense, blogging is the opposite of “real” scholarship in that the latter is done a solitary pursuit in which feedback, in the form of peer review and critiques, comes infrequently and in highly formalised format (such as via referee manuscript evaluations and comments on conference papers). In fact, original research publication is very much a lonely, lengthy, painful affair in which devastating core critique, rejection and self-doubt are all part of the process for all but the most brilliant of minds. None of that happens on a blog, in which the poster/author is also the censor (should s/he care to be), and in which the commentariat often is unversed (or less informed) on the subject relative to the author. Editorial writing is somewhere in between, in that it is light on original research but retains an element of editorial scrutiny and critical feedback in the form of editorial responses or letters to the editor, some of which can be quite arbitrary and politicised ( for example, I have yet to figure out what the NZ Herald editorial policy is, and on what grounds it publishes op eds).
All of which is to say that I am going to refocus my energies this year on scholarship rather than blogging, which means a diminished output for the latter and hopefully an increase in the former. That certainly does not mean abandonment of blogging altogether–I still expect to post regularly–but simply posting at a slower, more measured rate. I also need to reflect more on my choice of subjects for this particular forum, as I do not want to get trapped into repeatedly posting on subjects that, although of high interest to me, do not necessarily occupy the attention of my colleagues in the KP collective or the readers (who are the audience which I hope to engage). That more narrow focus can be left for the scholarly audiences to which I seek to appeal, with blogging focused on more contemporary and variegated, although no less important subjects. I shall continue, as before, to offer episodic links to the Word From Afar column at Scoop.
If I could spy on you, dear readers, I suspect I would see a few heads nodding in approval.
As the second-to-last paragraph hints, the above wasn’t written about John Key — it was written by conservative columnist Piers Akerman in Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph the week before last. I’ve replaced ‘Kevin Rudd’ with ‘John Key’ and ‘Australian’ with ‘New Zealander’ (and cut it, obviously).
But dedicated partisans on both sides are frequently similar in their thinking, and I’ve read pretty much this sort of argument again and again from Key’s enemies — people whom I hope are embarrased that they deal in the same sloppy generalities and bitter grumblings as Piers Akerman — over the past year. It misses the point, which is that he’s still popular. By definition, he’s doing well. And yet there is no ‘evidentiary reason’ for it to be so.
This provides a clue as to Akerman’s puzzlement, and that exhibited on this side of the Tasman with regard to Key’s ongoing favour: you’re looking at the wrong factors. The main factor omitted by Akerman and others of his sort is that he (Rudd or Key, take your pick) is emotionally resonant with the electorate. This matters; in some cases, it’s enough on its own. He (either of them) won a campaign based on next to no policy at all, leading the incumbent oppositions of the day to ridicule him, ignoring what was right under their noses: that policy wasn’t necessary.
The modern left’s obsession with facts and figures, expected utility and measurable outcomes should, in a rational world, grant them a strong advantage in any political contest. Indeed, the classical analysis is that democratic political systems which apportion votes by population rather than by wealth are inherently biased toward the working classes who are more numerous by definition. Given the assumption that Labour’s policies objectively provide greater material advantage to a larger number of electors than National’s policies, they should win that horserace every time. But they don’t, because politics is not rational. Concrete policy achievements are not the key to political success; their impact is largely limited to how they make the electorate feel about the party and candidates, not how they impact on the electorate in observable, material terms (although, depending on the policy, this can have considerable impact). The link is not direct and linear: there’s a crucial and very complex layer of abstraction which most politicians on the left simply don’t see.
Drew Westen (about whom I’ve been raving to anyone who’ll listen for the past year or so) goes into much more detail about this, and his book The Political Brain should be required reading to anyone who wants to know how people actually think about politics — when they think at all, which isn’t very much or very hard.* He calls this focus on reason ‘trickle-up politics’; as valid, he says, as trickle-down economics. This strategy concentrates its firepower on the dispassionate brain, the least-important part when it comes to making important judgements, and disdains that which lurks beneath — the part which can call upon deep-seated experience and instinct to order the supposedly rational brain to do what feels right, utility calculations be damned.
Generally speaking, the right understands this better, and they tend to lead from the gut. This provides the left with what they think is an opening to debate the matter on facts, not realising that facts aren’t very important in political decision-making. Westen and other researchers have found in a wide range of experimental situations that they can predict with greater than 80% accuracy a person’s position on a given political issue of the day, knowing only how the person feels about the issue. Adding facts back into the equation only improves predictions by a few per cent. They literally don’t matter without the emotional resonance. This is true for everyone from randoms on the street to justices of the Supreme Court. It’s just how people are.
So, my one wish for the NZ left for 2010 is this: stop thinking of political popularity as the result of naked appeals to the material self-interest of utility accountants; stop hectoring those who remain unconvinced and ask why they are unconvinced, without resorting to the lazy option of complaining that they are fools or stricken by false consciousness or that they just like a good scam when they see one. Start thinking of politics as a system for engagement and trust-building, by which to build a mandate to make a better country. National aren’t that strong; it’s just that they’re against opposition who turn up to the battle for hearts and minds armed with a spoon.
*Westen’s research is American and focuses solely on the two-horse Republican v Democrat battle, so it isn’t directly analogous to NZ or Australian politics. Nevertheless, most of the traits he observes hold true to a fairly large extent.