|What’s That You Got There? For an increasing number of people, both here in New Zealand and around the world, Democracy is the problem – not the solution. It gets in the way. It’s fake. It slows everything down. Or, it just takes too much effort.|
LET’S FACE IT, Democracy’s a drag – in every sense of the word. The beatnik sense: It’s drag, man. Meaning a state of affairs characterised by boredom and frustration, where something or someone stands between you and your desires. Then there’s the “drag” of play-acting, imposture and pretending to be something you’re not: He appeared in drag. Not forgetting the scientific definition of “drag”: something that retards or impedes motion, action, or advancement. And, finally, “drag” in its most common usage: to cause to move with slowness or difficulty. There’s more, of course, but you see where this is going.
For an increasing number of people, both here in New Zealand and around the world, Democracy is the problem – not the solution. It gets in the way. It’s fake. It slows everything down. Or, it just takes too much effort.
Out on the edge of our political culture – the place where the people who were evicted from Parliament Grounds usually park their camper-vans – Democracy is often dismissed as a chore and a bore.
That’s because representative democracy involves a lot of work. Founding a party. Drawing up a constitution. Working out what it is that you stand for. Collecting the names and addresses of more than 500 eligible voters who have also paid the party’s membership fee (receipts required). All of these things must be done before you can be registered by the Electoral Commission as a political party. And, of course, you’ve got to be a registered political party before you can field electorate candidates and/or lodge a Party List.
What a load of bullshit! How is people’s freedom protected by forcing them to jump through all these bureaucratic hoops? Obviously, it just a way of dampening the ardour and deflecting the energy of free individuals.
You don’t have to be Albert Einstein to see that the moment your movement agrees to adhere to the Electoral Commission’s rules and regulations, the whole sick business of politics becomes inescapable. Factions form. Factional leaders appear. Factional strife erupts. The most ruthless and thick-skinned bastards in your movement end up running the show. You’re fucked before you’ve even begun to raise money and trudge the streets in search of votes. Which is exactly what the Powers That Be intended all along.
Democracy? It’s a drag, man.
Then there are the people who for whom Democracy is a Drag Queen.
The costuming is fantastic: Freedom! Justice! The make-up is perfect. Have you ever seen anyone who looks more honest, caring, or kind? But that’s all it is, folks – lipstick and a wig. Fake News. Forget the frocks, the face-powder, the accessories. Lady Liberty is really Captain Capitalism. And all those love songs to the people she belts out? Lip-syncs the lot of them. Captain Capitalism can’t sing a note.
Neoliberals also characterise Democracy as a drag. Not drag as in boring. Not drag as in fake. But drag as in something which slows everything down. Most particularly, as something which slows down or – even worse – actively impedes the operations of the free market.
That’s why Neoliberals do everything within their power to make “government of the people, by the people, for the people” a practical impossibility. Strip the people’s representatives of their power to interfere in the workings of free enterprise. Privatise everything owned by the people. Starve the state of the funds it needs to look after its citizens properly by cutting taxes – and then by cutting them some more. De-regulate everything you can persuade the voters is an impediment to their happiness – especially the overweening power of the trade unions! Make a bonfire of rules and regulations. In the immortal words of Mark Zuckerberg: “Move fast and break things.”
Don’t let Democracy become a drag on your freedom.
And then there’s the rest of us. The ordinary, decent, conscientious participants in the electoral process, for whom Democracy has come to feel like a huge and heavy collection of failures and broken promises that we are compelled to drag behind us.
Every general election it’s the same. The political parties lay out their wares before us in the political marketplace. We lay down our money and we make our choice. If we’re lucky our party wins. If it loses, we shrug and say “there’s always next time”. The problem, though, is that, win or lose, nothing ever seems to get better. No matter which party occupies the Treasury Benches, the business of living just gets harder and harder.
There was a time – or so the history books tell us – when the promises of politicians meant something. Every three years the parties would issue manifestos stuffed with policies which, if they won the election, they would implement. The parties themselves were large organisations, with thousands of members, and political mechanisms for translating their wishes into policies, and policy into law. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it worked well enough to keep people believing that Democracy was something to be cherished.
Exactly when it all started to go wrong is difficult to pinpoint – although there are many who identify the election of 1984 as the beginning of Democracy’s decline in New Zealand. They point to the fact that what Labour put in its manifesto bore absolutely no resemblance to the policy revolution unleashed upon the country by David Lange and his Finance Minister, Roger Douglas. New Zealanders were told that there was no alternative to the Labour Government’s “reforms” – which must have been true, because in 1987 Labour didn’t both to publish a manifesto at all.
Others say that the rot really set in in 1990. Tired of Labour’s reforms, nearly half the country turned to the National Party’s Jim Bolger who was promising to restore the “decent society” that Labour had destroyed. Except that, even before all the votes had been counted, National began to break its promises. Instead of the decent society, New Zealand got the “Mother of All Budgets”. More of the same – only worse. Much worse.
Democracy no longer seemed to work, but the people could neither repair it nor improve it. They tried. New Zealanders abandoned their First-Past-the-Post for a Mixed Member Proportional electoral system. But, if anything, that only made matters worse. The decisiveness of governments elected under FPP, the power to keep their promises, was swapped out for government by coalitions, which, as everybody knows, can only ever be as honest as their most deceitful members.
Promises no longer mattered, because no party was ever in a position to keep them, or, at least, not all of them.
Until the election of 2020, when, in recognition of its superb handling of the Covid-19 Pandemic, Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Government won an absolute majority of the seats. Now, at last, her party’s promises could be kept.
But they weren’t. Labour politicians and the governmental system they served appeared to have forgotten how.
And so we poor Kiwis keep trudging forward, harnessed like plough horses to this dead weight at our backs. This rotting corpse of Democracy that we are forced to drag behind us. It’s a sad story, but the saddest part of all is how easy it would be for the right person, using the right words, to persuade us to cut the traces connecting us to our democratic burden – and simply let it go.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 22 March 2022.