WHAT HAPPENS WHEN people who don’t usually participate in elections decide to vote? Things turn weird – that’s what happens. This is because the people who don’t vote are very different from the people who do. The motivations relied upon by the pundits to explain the behaviour of habitual voters are not the motivations of non-voters. That’s why, when these folk cross the line separating the passivity of non-voting from the world of active political citizenship the results can be startling.
It’s why political entrepreneurs like Dominic Cummings and Steve Bannon work so hard to reach and motivate the people perennially dismissed and abandoned by the smug political campaigners of the mainstream. The Cummings and the Bannons know these marginalised individuals: the people that shit happens to; the people who live in the shit; are extraordinarily combustible. Strike a match in the right place, at the right time, and – Kaboom! – the “deplorables” explode into action.
It is precisely the “otherness” of these non-participants that makes them so potent politically. An across-the-board expansion of the electorate: one in which exactly the same proportion of National, Labour, Act, Green and Te Pāti Māori voters simply stepped across the line separating non-voting from voting; would make no appreciable difference in either the opinion polls or the polling booths. Indeed, this is pretty much what happens when people step out of the “Don’t Know” category to express a clear preference. They tend to break the same way as those who have already disclosed their electoral choices. But non-voters: the sort of people who tell pollsters and phone canvassers to fuck-off; they are different.
Non-voters come in two flavours. There are those who never got into the habit of voting, and those who, for a whole host of reasons, got out of the habit.
The habit of voting, like the habit of going to school, is a reflection of a settled family environment. In such households, all manner of social and economic connections serve to keep their inhabitants tethered to the local community and its values. The absence of these connections produces individuals estranged and alienated from the community and its concerns. The impact of politics on their daily lives being neither perceived nor explained, they do not care about elections – or vote in them.
Those who have gotten out of the habit of voting usually have a sad story to tell. For some reason, the ties that bound them to their community have been severed. It may have been the result of family disintegration, substance abuse, criminal offending and incarceration. Alternatively, it could have been job loss, prolonged unemployment, indebtedness, homelessness and/or severe mental illness. Something happened to set these individuals on a downward spiral to economic privation and social isolation. What had been citizens with rights, become invisible un-persons with nothing. Politics was for winners – not losers like themselves.
Breaking into the world of these non-voters isn’t easy. Somehow, a political movement has to convince them that the vote they cast will produce a direct and positive impact on their lives. Non-voter politics tends to be grounded in the not unreasonable observation that participating in elections, voting, changes nothing. Their cynicism is encapsulated in pithy anarchic aphorisms: “Don’t vote, governments always win”, or, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal”.
The crucial thing to note about these aphorisms, however, is that they identify an enemy. “Governments.” “Them.” For non-voters, politics is what the people with power do to you. The idea that politics could be about what you do to “them” is dismissed as absurd.
The critical insight of Cummings and Bannon was that it is possible to persuade these non-voters to use their votes as weapons. Deployed strategically, the right number of votes, cast in the right number of places, can make “governments” quail and cause “them” to weep. Sell non-voters that message and you will have given them a truly visceral reason to vote. Their unlooked-for participation can ruin the whole day of the Powers-That-Be – delivering a massive one-fingered salute to the whole, evil, vicious system that ruined their lives. By voting, they can say “Fuck You!” to the people in charge, and – lo – the people in charge will find themselves unexpectedly and irremediably fucked. As happened with Brexit. As happened with Trump.
So, where would the Kiwi equivalents of Dominic Cummings and Steve Bannon go looking for estranged and alienated non-voters? What part of the New Zealand population is most likely to have been uprooted from family and community? Which citizens are most likely to fall foul of the Police, MSD, Oranga Tamariki and Corrections? What sort of New Zealander is the most likely to end up in jail – and the least likely to vote? Who, if they used their votes as weapons, could strike a mortal blow against the status quo? The urban Māori underclass – that’s who!
And who has the best chance of reaching the urban Māori underclass? Te Pāti Māori .
Not that Te Pāti Māori has its very own version of Cambridge Analytica to identify the angry and the alienated and bombard them with carefully crafted social media messages. TPM just doesn’t have those kinds of resources. What it does have, however, is its own place in the networks created to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. These networks led Māori service providers to places and people undetected and ignored by the state and its agencies. More importantly, they began the process of reconnection and tethering that allows political messages to be taken in, rather than simply thrown away.
And when these folk lifted up their heads, looking around through eyes brightened by unfamiliar feelings of pride and hope, TPM was there with the promise that, this time, this special time, voting could make a difference. Aotearoa was changing. Pakeha – especially young Pakeha – were changing. The racism was still there, of course, heightened, it would seem, by the prospect of Labour, the Greens and TPM having the numbers to keep the changes coming. But TPM also told them the country had moved on from 2005, from Don Brash and his “Iwi/Kiwi” election billboards. An awful lot of elderly National Party voters can die in 17 years!
To the bigots still breathing, however, the Māori non-voters could deliver a very special gift – one that would ruin the racists’ whole day. In the spirit of the community that had discovered them in their time of need, and which they had rediscovered, Māori non-voters could step across the line that separates the un-person from the citizen. By casting a vote in the 2023 General Election, not only could they re-make themselves, they could re-make their country.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 4 August 2022.