Paradise Delayed: Thousands gather in Wellington's Willis Street in 1931 to watch the election results posted by The Evening Post newspaper. The Labour Party victory anticipated by so many working-class New Zealanders failed to eventuate. The next four years were to be the most desperate in the country's history.
THE PEACEFUL CIRCULATION of elites – that’s how the political scientists describe democracy. But if that’s all voting is about, I’d favour The Who’s much pithier version of the process: “Meet the new boss – same as the old boss.”
The problem I have with the political scientist’s view of democracy is that it takes us – the citizens – right out of the picture. We, the people, are reduced to a passive agglomeration of individuals; a great big witless lump of humanity to be pummelled and pushed by advertisers, marketers and pollsters, into giving our votes to the “elites” with the best campaign team.
And this unholy gaggle of professional “communication specialists” – spawned by the political scientists, sociologists and psychologists who came up with the theories that guide them – have an even more instrumental view of the democratic voter. In the hands of these arch manipulators, the nation’s citizens are transformed into what honest con-artists call “marks”, but who, to the political fixers, are known as “the punters out there in punterland”.
It gets worse. Because the views of these “communication specialists” are transmitted via polytech and university courses into the minds of hundreds of eager journalism students. They, too, are encouraged to view voters as passive consumers of sophisticated “messages”; people whose views can be shaped and re-shaped – practically at will – by the all-enveloping communications media of the 21st Century.
These young people are taught that “perceptions” trump reality – and that perceptions are easily manufactured and/or manipulated.
The handful of journalism students who, every year, rebel against this pernicious, post-modern doctrine that reality is a “social construct” and that there is no such thing as “the truth”, are condescended to and pitied as the intellectual relics of a bygone age.
As for the rest, the Guyon Espiners and Duncan Garners of tomorrow, what lesson can they be expected to draw from their lecturer’s teachings other than the blindingly obvious one that, in the 21st Century, “the news” is being steadily reduced to the status of a commodity?
Increasingly, journalism is no longer what gets placed between the ads: it has become just another means – perhaps the prime means – of “delivering eyeballs to advertisers”.
And if “reality-based” journalism upsets those advertisers – or drives too many “eyeballs” to another channel? What then?
I was talking to a parliamentary candidate from one of the major parties a few days ago, and he told me something very interesting.
He said the subject most talked about on the doorsteps of his electorate was the appalling news media coverage of this year’s General Election.
People lamented the sparse media coverage of local electorate contests; wondered why there were so few in-depth articles about the big election issues; and decried the way in which the newspapers and the airwaves were being turned over to “journalists” with clear partisan objectives.
What they were really saying was that they wanted to be treated as citizens – not as “marks”, or “punters”.
They did not consider democracy to be a con job, or a game, or matter of re-cycling elites, but of discovering the popular will: and delivering – as the original Greek words demos and kratos suggest – “power to the people”.
At a recent Labour Party conference I enjoyed a long discussion with a veteran activist who shared with me his boyhood recollections of the 1931 General Election.
In the depression-stricken working-class neighbourhood where he and his family lived, there were high hopes that the Labour Party would be elected to tackle the deepening economic and social crisis.
He remembered the vast crowd gathered outside the local newspaper offices to watch the results come in, and the slumped shoulders and bowed heads of the working-class voters as they trudged back home in the silence of bitter disappointment and dreams deferred.
For a Labour victory was not to be. In 1931 a combination of right-wing parties was elected, and my storyteller and his family, along with their friends and neighbours, were forced to endure the bleakest and most harrowing years of their lives.
Seventy-seven years later, I am desperately hoping that a new generation of democratic citizens will use tomorrow’s election to avert the sort of catastrophe that overwhelmed their great-grandparents.
In the words of The Who:
Just like yesterday
Get down on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post of Friday, 7 November 2008.