Politics in the age of populism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Via http://valuesandframes.org/handbook/2-how-values-work/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can fight this horrible darkness

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

refugee-airport-protest

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

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

The political prospects for 2017: living our values

This week I spoke on an panel with Morgan Godfery and Mike Munro at the Fabian Society in Wellington on the political prospects for 2017. A podcast of the discussion should be up on the Fabians website shortly. In the meantime, here’s my speech notes – about 90% accurate to what I ended up saying on the night, which is how these things always go.

The political prospects at the start of 2017 are looking pretty bleak. The polls aren’t great. The right is in ascendancy around the world. I don’t even want to know what new fascist executive order Donald Trump has signed in the time it took me to walk here this evening.

The challenge for the left is pretty massive. With crises at every side – climate change, housing, inequality – it’s not enough for us to just get over the line. We need profound progressive change. A fundamental shift in the consciousness of our society.

It can be done. The trick is not to take the wrong lessons from Trump.

We’ve heard it again and again since November. “The white working class feel ignored. That’s why Trump won. That’s why Brexit passed.” In New Zealand, we talk about Waitakere Man, a narrow-minded stereotype from a less-sophisticated Outrageous Fortune. We’re not talking enough about his issues. We’re not paying enough attention to his needs.

And subtly or more usually unsubtly, we hear, “Women? Shush. Brown people? Shush. Queer people? Shush. Your issues are distractions. No one wants to hear about it. Wait until we’re in power.” Feminism lost Hillary the US election, or maybe it was Barack Obama saying a few mild-mannered things about police violence. Here in New Zealand, senior Labour advisors publicly bagged Louisa Wall’s marriage equality bill as a distraction from issues that matter.

It’s like we’ve forgotten a basic fact of leftwing politics. It’s built on solidarity.

That’s the fundamental divide between left and right. We believe in community and cooperation. They believe in self-interest. We’re about the collective. They’re about the individual. We know that the important question is not “how does this benefit me personally?” It’s “how does this benefit us all.” Standing together, not because we’re all the same and we’re all after the same thing, but because we have the same enemy: capitalism, which takes many forms: patriarchy, white supremacy, social conservatism.

The Standing Rock occupation against an oil pipeline in North Dakota does not impact me directly. It’s not my water that could be polluted or my ancestral lands being torn up. But I know the struggle at Standing Rock is aligned to my struggle – against corporate power, against environmental destruction, against dispossessing and exploiting indigenous people and their land. It isn’t about my benefit. It’s about my values.

I don’t want to assume everyone here has sat through at least one Labour Party conference or candidate selection, but I know you’ve heard the line: “My values are Labour’s values. And Labour’s values are New Zealand’s values.”

We understand the importance of values. But we’ve forgotten that they’re not theory. They’re practice. We need to live them.

When we live our values, nothing’s a distraction. Every issue is an issue that matters.

Take healthcare. We Kiwis take such pride in our public health system. We look at the absolute disaster of American healthcare and feel very smug.

Labour’s policy platform says this about health: “a nation where all New Zealanders, regardless of income or social circumstances, are able to live longer and healthier lives because they have the knowledge to make informed health decisions and the support of a strong and adequately funded public-health system.”

That’s a damn strong set of values.

But let’s take three issues which put that principle on shaky ground. (This may be where I lose some of you.)

Abortion. Abortion is still a crime in New Zealand. It’s difficult to access, especially if you aren’t bureaucracy-savvy or don’t live in a major centre. A pregnant person on the West Coast will have to travel to Christchurch, at least twice, to a clinic which is only open a few days each week, in order to terminate a pregnancy. They’ll need to take time off work or find last-minute childcare and god forbid they’re in a vulnerable situation where they have to keep it all a secret. We’re talking about a safe medical procedure, a basic question of personal agency, a life-changing situation which is not adequately supported by our health system.

Assisted dying. Also a crime.  We deny people of sound mind the ability to make their own decisions about the end of their own life, no matter how much pain they’re in or how much time they have. We don’t let them treat their pain with cannabis, either.

And trans health care. Trans people face horrific difficulties getting the health care they need, and that’s putting aside the horrific levels of harassment, discrimination and violence they experience. The waiting list for trans feminine surgery, or male to female surgery, has 71 people on it. Doesn’t sound too bad – except that at current rates, someone going on the waiting list now will be there for fifty years.

This surgery literally saves lives. Those of us who don’t have to live every day in the wrong body might find it hard to comprehend. But it is absolutely basic, necessary medical care, which our health system does not provide.

What do these three issues have in common, besides making me incredibly angry? They’re Kryptonite, as far as our leftwing politicians are concerned. They’re dismissed, regularly, as unimportant distractions. Alienating fringe issues.

We’re talking about healthcare. About the value we place on supporting every New Zealander to get the treatment they need, quickly and effectively. Unless you’re unhappily pregnant. Or terminally ill. Or trans.

When we talk about values, and say we believe in certain things, and then we turn around to people and say “shush! Wait your turn! We don’t want to talk about your health, or your lives, or the support you need, it’s a distraction!” all we do is undermine ourselves. We show that our values aren’t dearly-held and unyielding – they’re flimsy. No one elects flimsy.

Imagine if, when a Labour Party conference passed a remit on reproductive rights, or a private member’s bill on assisted dying was drawn, we didn’t flinch. We didn’t throw basic issues of health access and bodily autonomy under the bus for fear of the polls. If progressive MPs and commentators and campaigners all stood together and said “Yeah. We believe every New Zealander deserves modern, accessible medical treatment, unlike this government which has ripped $1.7 billion out of the health system.”

Health is only one example. Imagine if David Shearer hadn’t flinched, when he was asked about the man ban. If he’d said, “It’s 2013. It’s ridiculous there aren’t more women in Parliament. Labour’s looking at ways to change that. Why not go ask John Key why his Cabinet’s such a sausage fest?” Maybe he’d be Prime Minister now.

This is how we improve the political prospects for the left in 2017: being bold. Standing on our principles. Even if people disagree with you, they respect you when you’re consistent and honest. And when you’re running against double-dipping Bill English and Paula Bennett the bully, that can be enough to swing a vote. How many people have you ever heard say “Look, I don’t agree with Winston, but I always know where he stands?”

We don’t narrow our focus. We reach out and show that all our struggles are the same struggle.

This achieves several things. It means our values of solidarity and universalism and community are demonstrated to an immensely broad group of people. Two, it gives people certainty.

Maybe their bugbear is the opening hours of the dental clinic down the road, but they live in a safe rural Tory seat that doesn’t get a lot of attention and certainly won’t warrant a visit from Andrew or Metiria or James. But when they see us standing up for increased health funding, and comprehensive services for marginal communities, and saying “we’re not turning our backs on this group of people, or that small town, or this particular need” they see what kind of people we are. They see our values in action.

A mass movement is not built by finding the largest homogeneous group we can and appealing solely to them. A mass movement is not built by nominating one group – like white working-class men – as the most important people to reach, and expecting women or Māori or queer activists to fall in line for the good of the cause.

Thousands of veterans turned up at Standing Rock to show solidarity with the water protectors. Muslim organisations have donated tens of thousands of bottles of water to Flint, Michigan. And I’ve got to be the only person in this room who hasn’t seen Pride, right? Don’t boo.

That’s how we change the world. By being ourselves. Being the people who believe in solidarity and standing up for the oppressed, even if they don’t look like us or sound like us or need the same things as us.

If we learn the wrong lesson from Trump’s victory – if we accept that the white working class will only support us if we speak exclusively about them and their issues, we are frankly fucked. We’ve sold out the notion of solidarity, which is the heart of our politics.

In 2017, the challenge for the Left is not to find the magic words which will make a mythical racist white working class vote for us. It’s not to silence women or transgender folk or Indigenous people. It’s to stop buying into this divisive bullshit, and show everyone what our values are, and that a better way of doing things is possible.

That’s what people are desperately after.

The prospects for 2017 aren’t looking good. But it could look better.

Were we wrong about Trump?

A few thoughts expanded from my Twitter yesterday, on the number of leftwingers or liberals who I see saying things like “Oh, Donald Trump has calmed down since winning, he’s toned down the extremism, maybe he won’t be a total monster as President.”

The thing is, Trump’s behaviour may have calmed down. But the hatred and violence he deliberately fostered during the election hasn’t.

There were many, many factors involved in the US election result, and a lot of the narratives presume there was a massive surge in Republican support, to which I just keep referring to this graph:

But just because Trump didn’t get a huge stack of new voters doesn’t mean his aggressive, violent messages had no impact. Of course they affected the way people talk, and the way people are behaving now he’s won, and their sense that openly racist, xenophobic, sexist attitudes are acceptable now.

Those people are now doing the work for him, of terrorising people who might resist, of shutting down honest debate about democracy, and of marginalizing even further the people already on the margins. They are harassing, attacking, abusing, vandalising, threatening, and inevitably they will be killing other people because of Trump’s message.

It’s entirely convenient and cynically, strategically smart for Trump to chill out and start acting like a grown-up for the cameras now. Because the violence will carry on regardless – they got the message – and our “oh it’s not so bad, he’s stopped screaming racist abuse” reaction means it will go unchallenged.

If we say “oh but violence is terrible, I deplore violence” yet do not actively resist the root cause of that violence we might as well say nothing at all.

Trump’s newfound “mature” demeanour gives people – especially privileged liberals with access and resources – an excuse to step back and stop being angry. Stop elevating the voices of others who don’t have our privilege. Stop caring about violence and abuse targeted at people who don’t look like us.

After an election in which so many marginalized people already felt like (and have plenty of data to support the notion) middle-class liberal white people sold them out, we simply cannot double down on ignoring their needs.

We cannot take comfort in the fact that Donald Trump has taken off the red baseball cap of the disruptive threat to the status quo and put on the trappings of a normal, safe white male politician. Because then all we’re doing is saying fascism is okay as long as it’s not too shouty.