THERE IS ANGER OUT THERE in the electorate. At least one Labour candidate has been assaulted, and the home of a Te Pāti Māori candidate has been broken into repeatedly and a politically-inspired threatening letter left behind. Questioned by journalists, the Leader of the Opposition, Christopher Luxon, has confirmed that the National Party is in a heightened state of vigilance. Several examples of what the party believes to be credible threats of violence have been sent to the Police.
The key question in relation to actual or threatened violence on the campaign trail is its prevalence. Are we witnessing no more than a tiny number of anti-vax diehards lashing-out at the mainstream politicians they love to hate? Or, is the anger and frustration more extensive? Are people venting their rage against a system they no longer see as demonstrating any real understanding of, or empathy for, the concerns of the population?
Expressed most forcefully on social media, there is certainly a view abroad in the electorate that if citizens do not adhere to a particular view of the world, then their opinions will be dismissed by the Powers That Be as, at best, worthless, or, at worst, dangerous.
As the election campaign has unfolded, the number of entities challenged in this way has grown to include not only heretical individuals and fringe groups, but also political parties attracting mass support. Act and NZ First have been decried as racist, and even the ideological acceptability of the National Party has been challenged. Given that all the most recent opinion polling indicates that, between them, these parties encompass a majority of the electorate, their characterisation as political deplorables is alarming.
Over the course of the last half-century a curious reversal has taken place. Back in the 1970s a small minority of the population (most of them university students and trade unionists) lamented the fact that their “progressive” views on everything from foreign policy to women’s rights; the environment to Apartheid sport; were rejected by a substantial majority of New Zealanders. Since then, however, the political evolution of the nation has reached a point where the causes of minorities have become the convictions of the majority.
Over the course of the same half-century, the young idealists and activists, who once revelled in their status as the moral and political vanguard of the nation, have moved into positions of authority and influence. In the universities, the public service, the legal profession, the major political parties, and the news media, the heretical rebels of yesterday have become the orthodox mandarins of today. Unfortunately, as they made what Rudi Dutschke, student revolutionary of the 1960s, called “the long march through the institutions”, their conviction that “we”, the enlightened minority, are right, and “they”, the unenlightened majority, are wrong, has congealed into an unassailable truth.
As individuals and groups espousing ideas and causes endorsed by only the tiniest sliver of the population make their pitch for official recognition, they have every reason to anticipate success. The assumption, in nearly every case, is that the minority viewpoints of the present, like the minority viewpoints of the past, stand an equal chance of graduating into majority acceptance. Only their residual wariness of the democratic process, and the crushing power of the majority it embodies, has prevented the key state and private institutions from letting themselves get pushed too far ahead of public opinion.
The best guess as to what made society’s key institutions suddenly feel powerful enough to challenge – and even to overrule – such deeply embedded cultural and political concepts as science and democracy, is the Covid-19 Pandemic. In responding to their global and national crises, the governments of the Western nations rediscovered the ease with which emergencies can be used to “persuade” their populations to accept policies which, in normal circumstances, they would stoutly resist.
Although speaking of the US experience, investigative journalist Matt Taibbi’s remarks may also mutatis mutandis be applied to New Zealand’s. Assessing the contribution of Dr Anthony Fauci, the USA’s Covid Czar, Taibbi writes:
Anthony Fauci showed proof-of-concept for the whole authoritarian package. He convinced the monied classes to embrace the idea of lying to the ignorant public for its own good, green-lit powerful mechanical tools for suppressing critics, engendered fevered blame campaigns … Only pandemic truths that eventually became too obvious to ignore prevented this story from having a worse ending. We’d better hope the door closes before the next emergency’s Answer Man tries the same playbook.
The re-election of Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Government not only reassured the progressive mandarins that, eventually, the majority can be relied upon to accept the judgements of the minority, but also, that the majority’s failure to be convinced no longer poses an insurmountable obstacle to progressive policy implementation. With the universities, the public service, the legal profession and the news media on side, a progressive political party can safely advance well ahead of public opinion. And, if they fail, there is always – as the occupation of Parliament grounds by anti-vaccination mandate protesters demonstrated – the Police.
Reassured of its apparent invulnerability, the post-2020 Labour Government threw caution to the winds. On matters pertaining to ethnic and gender politics it created an ideological salient positively begging to be attacked from all sides. Fatally underestimating the ability of social media to challenge the formerly unassailable influence of the mainstream media, Labour soon found itself confronted by a sizeable portion of the public which had not only stopped believing in them, but was also bloody angry with them.
Predictably, Labour’s political enemies moved swiftly to harness the electoral power unleashed by the public’s falling-out-of-love with, first, Jacinda Ardern, and then, after a brief period of hope that her successor might haul Labour back into line with public opinion, Chris Hipkins. By the opening of the 2023 election campaign, the polls were showing that Labour’s 2020 Party Vote of 50.01 percent had nearly halved. And Labour candidates were being assaulted.
True to their instincts, the “enlightened” minority struck back against the “racist” and “transphobic” majority, scolding their electoral representatives – especially Act and NZ First – for daring to align themselves with majority opinion on ethnic and transgender rights.
Nowhere was this elite disdain for populism more vividly displayed than on the weekend current-affairs shows, Newshub Nation and Q+A. The spectacle of two “progressive” young Pakeha journalists hectoring and pouring scorn on the Māori leader of NZ First, Winston Peters, was proof of just how little they understood the electorate they were doing their best to punish by proxy.
It is the news media’s job to elicit information from politicians – not to prosecute them. Peters’ promise to sort out TVNZ should be believed. If he finds himself in a position to carry out his threat, then it will only be because the angry majority has had enough – and voted accordingly.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 3 October 2023.