Differentiating between democracy and republic.

Although NZ readers may not be that interested in the subject and in lieu of US Fathers Day missives (not celebrated in NZ), I thought I would lay out some brief thoughts on a political subject being debated in the US. It seems crazy but there seems to be some confusion on what a the terms “democracy” and “republic” mean.

There are (MAGA) right-wingers and conservative media commentators who claim that the US is a Republic, not a Democracy. They are either cynical or ignorant. The two are not antithetical. Democracy is a means of giving political voice, selecting political representatives and granting social (and often economic) equality. It comes from the Latin word “demos,” or polity.

Republics (from the Latin res publica) are a type of political governance where, unlike monarchies or other forms of oligarchical rule, leadership purportedly derives from or is delegated by the sovereign will of the people (which may/may not be voiced democratically). There are democratic republics and there are authoritarian republics, so the two terms–democracy and republic–while having different specific meanings, may or may not be overlapped when it comes to a given political framework.

In fact, as the old saying goes, any country with “democratic” in its name is likely not regardless of whether it has “Republic” in its title. For example, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) is anything but. The Peoples Republic of China (PRC) holds elections (in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)), but is certainly not democratic in the liberal (universal, free, fair and transparent elections) sense of the term. Argentina under its dictatorships remained a “Republica Federal.” In fact, Republics can be federal in nature, where political administration is decentralized and broken into constituent parts such as US or Brazilian states, or unitary in nature, where the central government has administrative jurisdiction over the entire country (as in NZ). In neither case does this necessarily involve democracy as a concept or practice. It is simply a type of governmental administration within given territorial limits, to which different types of political voice, representation and accountability are attached.

Again, democracy is about political expression and social equality; republic is about political organisation. The US was founded and has been broadened via much struggle and conflict as a democratic republic (first for some, eventually for all). The process involved two parallel processes that were not always congruent or synchronised, which consequently has led to repeated conflict (think Civil War and the Civil Rights movement). In fact, the broadening of “democratic” rights within the US over the years has produced backlash from small and large-R “republicans” who believe that the awarding of rights to previously marginalised groups and non-citizens somehow infringes on their existing rights (which assumes that “rights” are a divisible pie where awarding some to one group means that other groups will lose their fair or previously allotted share). This has extended into discussions of “states rights” versus those accorded by US federal law, where advocates of the Republic versus Democracy designation argue against democracy because it interferes with State’s autonomy over their internal (political, economic and social) affairs. In this view, a US Republic leaves the issue of individual and collective rights to be decided by States under their own self-made laws. Democracy removes that prerogative by federal fiat, subjugating states to the dictates of a federal overseers (who in turn are seen as pawns or tools of nefarious elites). This view is deeply flawed, if not dishonest.

The “states versus feds” debate has been rehashed endlessly and largely settled as a matter of US constitutional law. Despite ongoing efforts by groups like the Federalist Society to redefine the relationship between the central government and states, it has never really been framed as a “Republic versus Democracy” issue. But in the hands of malevolent or ignorant actors, this adversarial distinction contributes to the false dichotomy between and binary juxtaposition of the two different but often compatible terms.

It would be a pity if the narrative that democracy is antithetical to being a republic begins to take larger hold in the US in the lead-up to the November elections. Perhaps some of those who espouse such a view really would prefer that the US become an authoritarian republic. But what the very presence of such views does show is that when it comes to fundamental concepts underpinning the US political order, there sure are a lot of misinformed if not downright stupid people out there–and plenty of others who wish to exploit their ignorance for myopic partisan gain.

Media Link: AVFA on post-colonial blowback.

Selwyn Manning and I discuss varieties of post colonial blowback and the implications its has for the rise of the Global South. Counties discussed include Palestine/Israel, France/New Caledonia, England/India, apartheid/post-apartheid South Africa and post-colonial New Zealand. It is a bit of a ramble but it raises some infrequently discussed points. You can find the episode here.

Te Pati Loco?

Normally I would not write about Maori issues. I may have been living in NZ for over 25 years but I do not feel that it is my place to opine because I am not an expert on Maori history and politics and do not speak Te Reo (because as anyone who seriously studies comparative politics will attest, foreign language proficiency is a bottom line requirement for scholarship in the field unless you only study countries and cultures that speak your mother tongue). Hence in the past I deferred to Lew to write about Maori issues here at KP, but since he has departed there is no one left to do so.

However, in light of the recent carkoi and protests organised by Te Pati Maori (TPM) in response to the Coalition of Cruelty’s budget, I thought I would touch briefly on a matter of Te Pati Maori praxis. I was dragged into the debate about the protests when I noted on social media that the use of the term “strike” to characterise the direct action was done in error or for dramatic effect since “strike” is codified in employment law as a collective withholding of labour services by employees from employers in the context of workplace disputes. If the labour service withdrawal is called by collective agents and follows the procedures for engaging in such action (giving notice, etc.) then it is a strike “proper.” if it is done by individuals or groups of workers without collective authorization, then it is a “wildcat” strike that may be deemed unlawful by employment courts. A general strike is a labour service withdrawal across economic sectors done for economic and/or political purposes, which is difficult because it requires unity of purpose and action by employees working in different productive areas, which in turn requires agreement between union agents and agent/principal agreement in every union on the action. That is a big ask.

Taking a day off from work to go to a protest, be it by using paid, unpaid or medical leave or no leave at all is not a strike no matter what one calls it. Workers assume the employment risks associated with such actions. Employers can weigh their responses according to the law and their relationship with employees. That could even include giving people the day off or paying them overtime to stay on the job, among other options. Again, the nature of the relationship between boss and worker outside of the legal framework can influence an employer’s response for better or worse.

I figured that since I have written two books and a dozen or so scholarly articles about comparative labour relations, including the subject of strikes and State responses to working class collective action, that my neutral if pedantic observation about the proper use of the term “strike” would be as unremarkable as it was incontrovertible. I was wrong.

To be sure, the use of the term “strike” in the Te Pati Maori protest literature, which explicitly references it as a display of Maori economic power, lent itself to the view that Maori were going on strike. As such, right-wingers seized on the term to call for employer retaliation against those who joined the protests. There was much agitation on the Right about violations of contract (individual or collective) and the penalties that should be levied. The PM weighed in with the comment that workers should be careful about striking and that strikes should be done on weekends because that way they would not be as disruptive.

Besides the fact that a PM should know the difference between a strike and a protest (rather than cynically feed into the “strike” narrative), it is pretty rich for him to suggest that strikes are best done on weekends. As I said on social media, by that logic we should take our holidays on weekends as well. The whole point of strikes, protests, demonstrations and other types of direct action is precisely to be disruptive of the status quo as given in defence of a cause or to air grievances. A protest without disruption is like an army without a fight, full of rebels with causes but no stomach for consequences. Protests and strikes are about assuming collective and individual risk. The risk may be large or small depending on circumstance, but in one way or another it hangs over acts of “unauthorised” direct action in most every instance.

Having said all of that, I understand the call to strike in the Te Pati Maori literature as using the original sense of the term, which means “to deliver a blow.” The protest was organised as a symbolic blow against the reactionary anti-Maori thrust of the Coalition of Cruelty’s policies. It was not about Maori labour service withdrawals per se.

For my troubles in clarifying what is and what is not a strike and how the term was misused in the call to action by both supporters and opponents of the protests, I was called condescending, paternalistic, pompous, a lightweight, and best of all, a “racist c**t,” the latter by a lady who surely must kiss her mum and perhaps children with that mouth. As I wrote to her, she must be fun to be around.

All of that aside, I then got the pleasure of watching Te Pati Maori leaders speak in and outside of Parliament on the subject of the protest and much more. Although Ms.Ngarwera-Packer presented her views coolly, her counterpart Mr. Waititi was at his bombastic, hyperbolic best, taking the tradition of Marae oratory to a level that even that tax-funded weiner-tugger Shane Jones cannot match. He threw out gems such as “if Maori are 60 percent of the prison population then (we) deserve 60 percent of the Corrections budget,” a feat of logic so extraordinary that it would be akin to saying that NZ should pay the PRC, Russia and rightwing extremists most of the intelligence budget because they are the ones being spied on. To be frank, I have always found Mr. Waititi to be a bit of a buffoon and charlatan, but then again, that is probably the old Pakeha racist codger in me doing the assessment (I have been characterised as such before).

Which is why I paused to reflect on my reaction to his rants. Others have already noted the hypocrisy of TPM being funded by taxpayers and gaining prominence via “Pakeha” procedures and institutions. They have noted with alarm the seditious rhetoric of Mr. Waititi’s wife, the daughter of none other than that paragon of indigenous resistance, John Tamihere (although Mr. Tamihere’s management of the Waiparera Trust, for whatever its faults, was first rate during the pandemic and is widely respect in the West Auckland community). Now the TPM is calling for a separate Maori parliament, presumably to run in parallel to the “Pakeha” parliament and be equal to it. I am not sure how it will be funded and what outcomes it hopes to achieve, but it provides some food for thought about political alternatives even if it has a snowball’s chance in hell of materialising while the current government is in power.

The proposal is interesting in part because one of the features of a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) democratic system like that in NZ is that it allows small, narrow-focused or single issue parties to get elected and press their interests within parliament, using coalition-building and vote-trading as a means of doing so. The ACT and Green Parties started out this way and have now widened their political appeals beyond their original core policy platforms. Whether that is for better or worse is for others to decide, but the general thrust for both of them was to start narrow and then widen their platforms via the incorporation of other agenda items and constituencies. ACT has gone with the gun rights crowd, incels and racists; the Greens have gone with identity issues, animal rights and rainbows. Both have had success by doing so. NZ First has done something a bit different, using malleable nationalist populism as a vehicle for Winston Peter’s political aspirations. To his original xenophobia and self-loathing Maori appeal (to blue rinse Pakehas), he has now added anti-vaccination conspiracy weirdness and slavish “anti-woke” corporate bootlicking to the party repertoire. Like the broadening shifts undergone by ACT and the Greens, it has served his party well and allowed it and ACT to become the tail-wagging rump ends of the Coalition of Cruelty dog.

Te Pati Maori is a different kettle of fish. Gone are the days of Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia, who tried to play the centrist–some might say assimilationist–parliamentary game.They supported both Labour and National-led governments while confining themselves to practical pursuit of “reasonable” goals, that is, objectives that could be achieved by and within the system as given. Truth be told, the Maori Party record was mixed at best, but one thing that did come out of its emergence on the political scene is that outside of Maori-related issues (say, rural health and lower-income welfare support), it had zero to little impact on NZ government policy. The “big” policy decisions were made by Pakeha-dominated parties, including things like foreign and defence policy (I wrote about the Maori Party’s lack of consequence in NZ foreign policy other than on international indigenous affairs in this scholarly article).

Today’s Te Pati Maori is different. More than a just a party name change, it is overtly anti-Establishment and “progressive” in orientation (whatever “progressive” means to them, which may not be what other “progressives” think that they are). As the proposed Maori parliament suggests, TPM rejects the system as given. That is why it uses the word “strike” without regard to the Pakeha convention known as Employment Law. It’s spokespeople openly speak of “revolution” and government overthrow even if it is unclear what they actually mean when they use those terms. What is clear is that TPM is more about political theatre and symbolic politics than delivering tangible policy outcomes to and for their constituents. If anything, its marginalization within the political system has increased along with its militant rhetoric and actions. It might be too early to tell, but the carkoi protests could be seen in that light: as a lot of bluster and fanfare but no tangible impact or results to show for them. In fact, the response from most other parties was to either lambaste or shrug and ignore Te Pati Maori’s antics. Time will tell if the impact of the protests are more subtle and longer-term in nature but for the moment TPM stands alone, seemingly barking into the wind.

Again, that got me wondering as I stopped to check my white privilege. Am I being unkind to TPM? Or am I just another racist cracker bleating about the rise of a righteous and strong indigenous voice?

I found my answer in Gramsci. It occurs to me that, because TMP often refers to its actions and rationales in neo-Marxist terms with a smattering of Paulo Freire, Franz Fanon and Norm Chomsky thrown in, that Te Pati Maori sees itself waging a war of position within the “trenches” of the NZ Pakeha State. That is to say, it is working from within to disseminate its “counter-hegemonic” vision and policy prescriptions in civil and political society. Its focus is on grassroots organising, starting with Maori and reaching out from there into other “progressive” communities such as those grouped under the Green and Left Labour banners. It is not worried about converting the old Pakeha elites or engaging in parliamentary compromises because, as the recent census shows, Maori are growing in demographic numbers while Pakeha are declining. Given the structure of MMP, that growth can translate into increased seats in whatever parliament they chose to stand in, and given the youth appeal that they presently feel that they have, time is on their side. Along with forging alliances within the Labour and Green parties, unions and other civil society organisations, TPM is using a long-game strategy where what it is doing now sows the seeds for its successes down the road.

They may not be so loco after all.

So what to make of Te Pati Maori? Are they just nuts (as the term “loco” implies)? Are they communists, extremists and separatists as Winston First and Tugger Jones claim them to be? I would argue no to both suggestions. What TPM is doing is a time-honoured yet new form of politics in a social media age, where their theatrics are part of a grassroots appeal to marginalised and disaffected (not always the same) groups, especially proletarians of colour. By working “in the trenches” TPM can slowly promote an ideological re-orientation away from neoliberal vestiges (because neoliberalism is not just an economic doctrine but has become over the course of two generations a social construct that frames our way of life) and towards a type of post-modern indigenous-centric perspective infused with working class-based values and perspectives. This view is self-realised and awake rather than woke, defiant but not always disrespectful, confrontational but not conflictual, independent rather than (Pakeha) dependent, cooperative and collective rather than corporate in organization. It may take time for the TPM-led movement to congeal, but the stirrings are there and the people are ready for generational change to take effect. That is the plan and TPM sees itself as the instrument for converting that plan into praxis.

Or so they hope.