Notes on democratic fundamentalism

Perhaps I’m reading a bit much into Jordan Carter’s declaration that he’s a libertarian socialist — as he said on the tweets, “it’s just a pun, an oxymoron. Which I found amusing”. So I may be overreacting in the particular case, but if you’ll forgive that, it’s made me look at and consider my own perspective in a way which lends itself well to writing down.

I think Jordan is cherry-picking his definitions; co-opting two existing pieces of fashionable terminology for the sake of provocative pretension. I think what he’s described is really just liberal-social-democracy of the relatively ordinary modern kind — a pretty far cry from anything resembling either libertarianism or socialism in actual history — and I don’t see what’s gained by smacking an ill-fitting label on it. But there’s a fair bit to lose. For a start, by doing so you alienate all those who really do call themselves libertarians and the socialists (though perhaps that’s not a great loss).

Moreover, as a matter of political branding it’s braindead. By applying what is, unjustly or not, heavily loaded and controversial terminology to what is actually a thoroughly mainstream political movement you risk marginalising it. ‘Socialist’ and increasingly ‘libertarian’ are markers of political extremism, at least in the Anglo world. They breed mistrust and fear, and rightly so: you can carry on all you like about how the horrors of 20th Century socialism and communism weren’t worthy of the names, but the fact is those were the names which stuck. They’re beyond reclamation. (I’ve argued this before, and I understand it’s not a line which is popular with wishful socialists, and you’re free to disagree — but I’d prefer not to argue the toss at too much length again; it’s really a sidebar in this post.)

‘Libertarian’, although Ayn Rand hated the term and its baggage, has been similarly redefined from its original usage by her heirs, and the authoritarian-conservatives who are busily colonising that movement (Tea Party, UKIP, ACT etc; collectively I call them ‘liberthoritarians’). Association with that lot is anathema to social democracy and left praxis of any sort. On the other flank you have the link with anarchism, whose symbolic currency among the social mainstream to whom a political vehicle like the Labour party must appeal is little better.

That’s all really just a preamble, though, to the following more important bit of the post, which is about my own rather amorphously-defined political perspective (bearing in mind that this is also a massive topic which I hope do deal with in about a thousand words and a couple of hours). The reason I think it’s daft and a bit pretentious to adopt titles like ‘libertarian socialist’ is that I’m less interested in what people declare to be their philosophy and more interested in the mechanisms they choose to promulgate that philosophy. Being a “socialist” or a “libertarian” or whatever else is one thing, but if your commitment to achieving the aims of your chosen creed is via democracy, that implies a commitment to fulfilling the expressed wishes of your society whether or not they accord with your own. If the electorate really does decides it wants a full-scale neosocialist agenda and votes in a government which will deliver it, a genuinely democratic libertarian movement will not impede the progress of such an agenda except by legitimate legal means; and by the same token, if the electorate seriously votes for the neutering of government and the implementation of a social-Darwinist Nightwatchman State, then a genuinely democratic socialist movement will grudgingly accede to that. The trouble is that many, if not most, libertarian and socialist movements are only democratic movements insofar as democracy is convenient.

Although I think I have previously disclaimed the title, I am essentially a democratic fundamentalist — I consider the commitment to democracy to undergird the rest of a political-philosophical agenda, rather than sitting on top of it. The reasoning is a mix of principled and pragmatic arguments which I’ve also made many times before, mostly derived from uncontroversial old-fashioned liberalism — that people have the right to determine the shape and nature of their society (right or wrong), that the government must answer ultimately to the governed, that there’s no other proven method of ensuring smooth, regular and nonviolent power transfer, and so on. For these reasons I have no truck with non-democratic movements on either side of the aisle; the authoritarian socialists who killed a millions in the last century, or the modern-day liberthoritarians who call for the violent overthrow of legitimate governments with which they happen to disagree, or those who argue that democracy is broken because voters make ‘bad’ choices (with the inference that, for society’s sake, the power to make such choice should be stripped from them).

Such movements don’t hold with democracy; they may tolerate democracy as long as it gives them results they like, but democracy doesn’t work that way. You take the bad with the good, on the understanding that you will have the opportunity to win back the fort and set things to rights again, if you can persuade the electorate that you’re worth supporting. So to merit consideration as a legitimate political movement, this commitment to democracy is a necessity. And to a large extent such a commitment — assuming bona fides can be demonstrated — is sufficient to grant legitimacy. For this reason, as much as I despise the ACT and New Zealand First parties, for instance, I do accept that they have legitimacy inasmuch as they generally conform(ed) to and support(ed) the robust, existing democratic norms of society. Regardless of the policy mix which sits on top of it, I can tolerate a genuinely democratic movement because in a robust democracy, you should only get away with doing what the electorate permits you to do.

Explained this mechanical sort of way it’s a naïve view, but to be useful, notions such of these do need to be considered in light of what lies beneath. Determining whether a given system constitutes a democracy worthy of the name is often non-trivial, particularly at the margins. Even within generally robust democratic systems, there exist distortions and imbalances which warp access to and exercise of power in favour of one group or another. There is even a pretty wide tolerance within which a democratically-elected government with a mandate to do so can fiddle with the levers, creating advantages for itself while not fundamentally rendering the system undemocratic. The authority of democracy is also not ironclad, it does not obtain outside the existing normative moral, ethical and legal frameworks of humanity; if 51% of an electorate decide it’s ok to slaughter all blue-eyed babies, it being democratically certified does not make such a provision legitimate. So in this way what I’m talking about it isn’t really democratic fundamentalism at all — there are sound arguments to be had all down the line about these and other factors, and indeed recognising and addressing the (many) limitations of democracy isn’t something to be shied away from.

The question of ultimate sovereignty also can’t be ignored. The ultimate authority for how a society ought to be configured rests with the people, and if this means that a government, democratically-elected or not, is acting egregiously counter to the electorate’s wishes in ways which democracy can’t fix, stronger medicine must sometimes be applied.

This is the reasoning the Tea Partiers claim when calling for Obama to be overthrown; and that Lindsay Perigo (now shilling for a noted authoritarian who is the parliamentary leader of a noted authoritarian party) appealed when he declared the Clark government illegitimate. But while some legitimate grievances exist(ed) in both cases, those calls were and are vexatious. In reality a stronger standard is needed to maintain the balance between democracy and ultimate sovereignty. Of course, in both cases the calls for insurrection came to nought — they were manifestly idiotic and consequently did not attract support; and moreover, in both cases subsequent democratic elections under the systems that both provocateurs claimed were invidious returned strongly in favour of the opposition parties, utterly disproving the assertion. In the New Zealand case, the incoming government repealed the offending Electoral Finance Act, doubling that proof (and then proceeded to enact something very substantively similar, to very scarce outrage from anyone).

Of course, this principle of the peoples’ sovereignty means the electorate can relinquish its power, vest it permanently or semi-permanently in some other mechanism of power. I’ll get the obvious out of the way now: this is what happened to the Weimar Republic; the existing democratically-legitimate rulers of Germany ceded their authority to Hitler, who enjoyed impunity from democratic censure (and, it must be said, who brilliantly exploited the constitutional arrangements of the republic to engineer the ongoing popular support for his cause and the ineffectuality of his opponents). What happened in the years following 1933 is an example of why a movement’s commitment to robust democracy must be treated as fundamental, but the ultimate recourse to power must remain with the people.

For me what it all really boils down to is the comment usually attributed to Tocqueville, that a democratic society gets the government it deserves. But this is both misattributed and misquoted — it was Joseph de Maistre, and the original quote omits ‘democratic’. The implication is that any society gets the government it deserves. A sham democracy exists because those governed by it do not demand more — more representation, more transparency, more robustness, more accountability. A dictatorship is such because its victims didn’t do enough to prevent one from becoming entrenched, or overthrow it once it had become entrenched. This is a harsh view, and strictly incorrect — there is little the Ukrainian peasantry of the Holomodor could have done to prevent their expurgation as a result of Stalin’s decrees, and nothing they did to deserve such a fate, for instance — but the essence of truth in the quote is generally that, in the final analysis, nobody has a greater responsibility or ability to ensure that their government carries out the wishes of the people it governs than the people themselves.


Great prospects

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:

You’ve all heard or seen the British comedy TV show “the two Ronnies” – well we have our own comedy show starring the “two Hones”. Hone, of course, is Maori for John – and the two “Hones” don’t give a “Heke” about who they insult on Waitangi Day.

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).

Wrong objection

David Farrar falsely equivocates when he asks the following:

Why do so many people who complain that ACT got five seats in Parliament on only 3.65% of the vote, never complain that the Maori Party got five seats in Parliament on 2.39% of the vote?

The issue isn’t so much that ACT didn’t deserve seats for their share as that, for proportional consistency’s sake, NZ First deserved seats for their share as well. From there, people work backward to ‘If NZF didn’t get them, why should ACT have gotten them?’

The overhang is a misdirection away from the fact that the 5% threshold is the main source of entropy in our proportional system (and its neighbour SM). The two types of electedness he suggests are the same — winning an electorate and coming in on the list — aren’t, as David well knows, and this is a capricious argument from him. To prevent an electorate member from sitting on proportional grounds directly disenfranchises the electorate who voted for her. The solution to a system which arbitrarily disenfranchises a large number of voters on the basis of other voters’ decisions surely isn’t more disenfranchisement — it’s less.

As I’ve argued before, removing or lowering the threshold would reduce voter regret among the supporters of marginal parties, and embolden those electors to vote for their chosen party, resulting in truer representation. The possible impact on an overhang party — one which has traditionally won more seats than its share of the vote would otherwise entitle it — is an interesting case, and would force people who now vote tactically to re-evaluate their decisions.

I have an upcoming post asking what factors people value in an electoral system, and issues like these are germane to the forthcoming discussion about MMP.


Electoral finance: the principles I – Transparency

In the run up to the election there was massive hypocrisy in the right complaining about the Electoral Finance Act while simultaneously amping up the fuss around New Zealand First finances; complaining about the exploitation of loopholes that the EFA they so hate was supposed to close. So I thought I’d use this as a an opportunity to look at the principles that should underpin our electoral finance rule one by one.

One of the most serious issue raised by Jones, Glenn, the Velas, and the Spencer Trust (not to mention National’s Waitemata Trust, Ruahine Trust, and so on) is transparency. People voted for NZF (and National and Labour) without knowing who was paying their bills, without being able to assess what the funders might be expecting in return.

Would the same people have voted for NZ First in 2005 if they’d known it was being funded by Bob Jones and the racing lobby? Perhaps, but they didn’t in 2008 once they knew. National if they’d known about funding from the tobacco, pharmaceutical and insurance industries? Perhaps.

But perhaps they would have looked closer at the policies and made a decision about whose financial interests they were voting for.

What would NZ First do for the racing lobby? We have an answer.

What will National do for tobacco and pharmaceutical companies now they have the cabinet benches? We’ve already got a pretty clear idea about what they’re offering the insurance industry: profit from a privatised workplace accident compensation model, and the Herceptin decision is positioning for politicians making decisions on drug funding.

Perhaps knowing who’s bought influence would help us weigh up what to do with our votes, and it sure would help us keep the bastards honest! 

Principle I: Transparency – it is vital for democracy that we, the voters, know who is behind the candidates, who is paying their bills, who is pulling their strings.

Who took down Winston?

Winston Peters did not fall, he wasn’t even just pushed, he was dragged down by an effective tactical campaign. Some political operative got everything they needed – the evidence, the source, a couple of journos, a couple of commentators and a couple of politicians – and they went for it, and they won. 

It’s tempting to see it as a joint National-Act campaign with a disgruntled ex NZ First staffer feeding them information, but the idea that National and Act managed to work that closely together and completely shared everything seems really far fetched. Also the main source will have needed a single main contact.

So maybe it was a National campaign, carefully orchestrated, inviting Act in when needed. National had the biggest benefit from the end of NZF, so that counts for it. But… National ran a very low risk campaign and this was not a low risk strategy: imagine the fallout if the media had covered the strategy orchestration by the Nats, or if Peters really did have the material on the Nats he’d always claimed.

Ok, possibly an Act campaign which occasionally invited in National? Much more plausible from a risk perspective: Act could’ve withstood this going bad without any real difficulty. But… if you were a disgrunted ex-NZFer, would you go to Act? And how much did Act really get from the death of NZF? And does Act have the internal political infrastructure to pull this off?

Final option, someone on the right but outside both parties – relationships and trust with both parties, but not beholden to either. So no political risk to either party, more plausible deniability for journos (it’s not coming straight from a party operative) and the ability to co-ordinate across and beyond party lines. But… there are only a few right operatives that skillful who aren’t in parties and surely someone’s checked them out.

So, who did it? Who had the skill, ability and connections to take down Winston Peters?