Sunday, 21 February 2010

Is Blue the New Red?

The people's flag is deepest ... blue!? Radicalism, once associated with the Left, is now more commonly associated with the Right. In order to keep its social order the same, contemporary Capitalism has found it necessary to change everything else. In response, Socialism has become a conservative doctrine.

THE MOST STARTLING fact about John Key’s National-led Government is its enduring popularity. For more than fifteen months, the public opinion polls have recorded more than fifty percent of the electorate in support of the Government. Such consistent popularity is without precedent in the history of public opinion polling in New Zealand.

At some point in the four years since Key became Leader of the Opposition, New Zealanders’ political attitudes and expectations shifted decisively from the Centre Left to the Centre Right – reversing the political trend of the previous twenty years. If this repositioned electorate remains fundamentally undisturbed, it will gradually solidify into an unassailable political consensus, and National’s lease on the Treasury Benches will see out this decade and extend well into the next.

It is tempting for those on the Left to dismiss this emerging right-wing consensus as depressing proof of New Zealand’s irreversible descent into selfishness and ignorance. Twenty-five years of neoliberal propaganda – runs the argument – have produced a younger generation incapable of thinking critically about the "big issues" of society and economy. Add to the intellectual inertia of Generations "X" and "Y" the Baby-Boomers’ loss of faith in all of the 20th Century’s grand ideological systems, and the new right-wing ascendancy is readily explained. The victory, says the Left, is by default: the Right is, simply, "the last man standing".

"What can you expect," they say, "when TVNZ’s Close-Up bumps a discussion with the Prime-Minister about significant changes to the tax system in favour of the public humiliation of an errant former All Black?"

And they would have a point. An active democracy is generally supposed to be impossible in the absence of a well-informed electorate. In a country where The Apprentice screens in prime time and Q+A at 9:00am on Sunday morning, should we really be surprised at the enduring popularity of a millionaire prime-minister who dresses nicely and flashes us a friendly grin?

Inherent in this critique, however, are all the casual assumptions of cultural and intellectual superiority that render the Left so odious in the eyes of so many "ordinary" voters.

"How can these poor plebes possibly understand what’s going on", wails the Left, "if we are not permitted to tell them."

That the "plebes" might actually be perfectly capable of working out for themselves what’s going on; or that they might deeply resent the implication that they’re a bunch of clueless children in need of a lecture from a self-selected group of grown-ups; are thoughts that seldom, if ever, cross the Left’s collective mind.

The willingness of the National Government to entertain such apparently dangerous notions as mining in national parks, or raising the rate of GST, is based on the Right’s more up-to-date intelligence on how far the New Zealand electorate’s thinking has shifted. Attitudinal polling and in-depth focus-group research both show how impatient voters have become with the Left’s knee-jerk responses to serious issues.

For example: rather than simply throw up their hands in horror at the whole idea of mining on Department of Conservation land (which would certainly have been their reaction ten years ago) many voters are now saying:

"Present us with a case, Mr Brownlee. Tell us how much money is involved – and where it will go. Show us what’s in it for the average Kiwi, and how you propose to extract these minerals without leaving an excessively large developmental footprint on the natural landscape. We’re willing to be persuaded, Mr Brownlee. Convince us."

A similarly pragmatic approach is evident in the debate over National Standards. Parents are by no means "sold" on the idea, but they are prepared to listen to the arguments – of both sides – and will let the evidence (rather than Ms Tolley or the NZEI) decide the issue.

The voters’ new-found openness to previously taboo topics is often interpreted by the Left as yet more evidence of the "anti-PC" reflexes of a "dumbed-down" population. But they’re wrong.

"Political Correctness" mostly represents the Left’s attempt to preserve the hard-won victories of the 1960s and 70s by transforming them into a collection of self-evident truths. What the radicals and liberals have forgotten, however, is that all those original "wins" were not secured on the basis of bald assertion, but by the patient amassing of hard evidence, and by presenting a better case for change than the Right could muster for the status-quo. They were also the product of the Left’s consistent willingness to bear passionate witness for its ideals.

Far too many leftists have forgotten that today’s political orthodoxy was once regarded as the most dangerous heterodoxy. It’s just not good enough to insist that the Conservation Estate is sacrosanct: a new generation wants to know (and an older one perhaps needs to be reminded) why it is sacrosanct. As Jeanette Fitzsimons’ valedictory speech to Parliament last Wednesday made very clear, what looked like a radical – even revolutionary – programme in the 1970s, can seem pretty darn mainstream thirty-five years further on.

Even more sobering is the way the dreams of the Left have, as Joni Mitchell puts it "lost some grandeur coming true". Not all the programmes instituted by the reformers of the Vietnam Generation worked. Knee-jerk defence of ideas that turned out to be wrong (like stacking the working-class into high-rise housing complexes) does nothing for a political movement’s credibility.

The hard fact that the Left has somehow to get its head around is that, in the 21st Century, they have become the conservatives. It is their institutions: free and secular education; a publicly-funded health system; social welfare entitlements; that must be defended by sound arguments based on hard evidence.

Fortunately for the Left, New Zealanders are, by and large, a conservative people: we tend to require a lot of convincing before we give up our belief in, and support for, tried and true solutions. But our reluctance to embrace change is not absolute. If an individual, or a group, has the gumption to make the case for a new approach to an old problem, New Zealanders have repeatedly demonstrated a readiness to give it a go.

Is it possible that Key’s – and National’s – unparalleled run of popularity is due to their evident willingness to challenge the Left’s status-quo? And to their superior ability to make out a case for much-needed change?

Has blue become the new red?

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 18 February 2010.


Anonymous said...

must be defended by sound arguments based on hard evidence....
Chris these people MAKE SHIT UP
How can...... must be defended by sound arguments based on hard evidence....this work ?

Chris Trotter said...

Anonymous: This is a common refrain among opponents of left-wing ideas. But the warning against "bald assertion" cuts both ways. You would need to show me - by providing hard evidence - that the arguments in favour of publicly-funded health and education, income support, racial and sexual equality, and collective bargaining no longer stack up. (And please don't cite the IPCC example because all that shows is that if you look hard enough into any large-scale scientific undertaking you will find instances of human error.)

Nick said...

A very bleak prognosis Chris, are your diagnostics based upon the current economic climate returning to BAU of moderate growth and stability? Or do you think the polls will change if there are major extranious factors such as oil price shocks?

My worry around this scenario is that we may already have descended too far into corporatism (velvet glove fascism) and that the parliamentary process is now an irrelevant facade. Some commentary may also be due on the relevance of the Enlightenment materialist faiths that underpin the left and right visions of the world, and their continuing relevance in a paradigm where the notions of "progress" and "continuous growth" are challenged by finite reality.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris. I think you have a valid point when you say that the Left has assumed that some things are self-evident truths, and that they are now unassailable because of the battles that have been fought in the past. The conservation battles fought in the past are one of many examples.

I'm a staunch defender of the conservation estate, but the arguments that won protection for most of it were fought in a different era, one where resources and energy was relatively abundant. You could have affluence and protection for vast areas of New Zealand.

The situation now is the reverse - we are fast running out of resources and energy from the traditional sources, and to keep the great growth engine going, we are eyeing up other places. I suspect that will continue for as long as we cling to that old ideology, and yes, that's an ideology of both the right and the left - "growth" is about as unassailable as something gets.

Tiger Mountain said...

Nihilism looks almost attractive with a grinning front man as PM, and half the country gripped by commodity fetishism and general idiocy. Reality it seems now remains the refuge only of those unwilling to submerge themselves in drugs, liquor, ‘pap’ culture and religion. The BBQ pitters may be on a ‘roll’ but it is not mandatory to join them, quite the opposite.

CJ said...

Interesting, twenty or thirty years ago the Labour Party was the party for the workers. At my workplace (a factory lots of blue collar workers, low to medium income) people now no longer see the Labour Party as "their" party. The impression seems to be that its a party for the Liberal, educated professionals. We are are expected to join the union donate money for the cause and do as we are told and let our betters make the decisions. In the meantime on a Friday night were having a BBQ and a few beers with the boss.

Chris Trotter said...

I fear you're right, Terry. And the refusal of the liberal, educated professionals to bring working people back into the heart of the Labour Party's decision-making processes will, I fear, produce the same bewildering spectacle we see in America - where blue-collar workers appear to feel more at ease with "right-wing" Republicans than they do with "left-wing" Democrats.

Unknown said...

Good challenging post Chris. I disagree with much of the logic but I cannot wonder if you are right and I am wrong because I cannot explain the polls. Perhaps they are part of a right wing conspiracy to alter our perception, perhaps they are because the left needs to reach out and reaffirm its belief and reconnect with much of the population.

The left's domination of the intellectual debate does not seem to be working. Maybe we (the left) needs to reconsider which debate we should engage in.

Anonymous said...

Growing up in a blue-collar suburb in south Auckland and living working in a blue-collar community in Chch, I think you are partially right Chris.

I find that beneficiaries and pensioners tend to be very strongly in favour of the Left, but that tradespeople "upwards" are strangely ambivalent.

There is very little sense of class consciousness or identification with any political/social movement. People are very much focused on themselves and their own situation - i.e. what's good for them.

The question is, why don't working people identify with the Left and see the Left as representing their interests better than the Right? The "false consciousness" diagnosis just doesn't seem to cut it.

Victor said...


I think you are half right and half wrong.

I certainly agree that blue has become the new red and, more significantly, red has become the new blue.

For the last 30 years, Social Democrats across the developed world have been defending the gains of what used to be called the post-war consensus, viz: social welfare, universal health care, a mixed economy and Keynesian financial policies, all of which have been targeted by the
Neo-Liberal, monetarist Right. In this sense, we have been and continue to be conservative.

I also think there is another, deeper, less time-constrained, sense in which Social Democracy (as opposed to both revolutionary Socialism and Neo-Liberalism) is essentially conservative.

The focus of Social Democratic beliefs is in humanity as a social species. We understand that Society is, to no small extent, both logically and historically prior to the individual. We therefore also understand that, although Society needs reforming, it also needs preserving, for we are nothing without the ties of mutual obligation that link us to our fellow citizens.

Interestingly, some of the leading conservatives of the last 150 years have also understood this and have sought to outflank their Liberal opponents with progressive social policies or at least postures: Disraeli and Bismarck both come to mind, as does Macmillan. We had a belated, and rather unpleasant echo of this here with Muldoonism.

At a more elevated level, you can also read conservative theorists, from Burke to Oakeshott, as providing a philosophic justification for a mature and subtle Social Democracy. Conversely,it's hard to square Oakeshott's Hayek-influenced thoughts on economics with his broader (and clearly conservative) philosophic stance.

There's also a sense in which Laissez-Faire Liberalism is inherently radical. It's emphasis is on the individual, on whose energies and rationality alone, our wealth and welfare is seen as depending. There is no thought here for 'social capital' or for the many centuries needed to accumulate it. All that is needed is for the rational individual to be free to seek his or her own best advantage.

Politics then becomes the means whereby barriers to the protean force of individualism get removed and 'level playing fields' created. And, as one group of hurdles are overcome, another gets targeted, ad infinitum.

Like Trotskyites, Neo-Liberals are in a state of permanent revolution against the regulatory state and the complex, multi-faceted society which it imperfectly serves.

So much for theory. Now to the realities of Aotearoa in 2010. Here, I think, I differ from you.

I see little evidence of an informed voting public carefully cherry-picking those issues on which it agrees with the status quo and those on which it disagrees, let alone of a sudden, widespread yearning for reasoned debate.

It is true that the anti-political-correctness tide has receded somewhat. But this may be because 'liberal' social policies are no longer associated with a government that was widely perceived as having passed its use-by date.

But, on the big issues, I see a public that simply doesn't understand that there are alternatives and a media as well as politicians, of all stripes, who are unwilling or unable to explain what these alternatives might be.

There is one big question separating, on the one hand, Social Democrats (such as myself) and Democratic Socialists (such as yourself) from both cautious Burkeian conservatives (such as Bill English) and neo-Liberal radicals (like Don Brash).

That question is: 'Keynesianism or Monetarism'?

On the answer to that question, our entire future may depend.

Victor said...

Further to my previous post, I suggest you stay cheerful by singing the following ditty:

The people's flag is brightest blue
With hopes of tax cuts coming through
And though I'll pay more GST
I will not let that worry me.

So raise the bluebloods' banner high
Beneath it's shade, I'll eventually die
And then I'll be an expence to none
While Jenny Shipley will have finally won!

Olwyn said...

Terry: I joined the Labour Party a couple of years ago. I hold left wing views and thought that it was better to bring those views to the party that complain about their absence. If more blue-collar workers join the party then that will change its make-up. In short, you cannot just leave the Labour Party to urban liberals, and then complain that it is full of urban liberals.
Chris: The "bewildering spectacle" you speak of seems to me to arise from the situation where no one feels either willing or able to make any real changes, and political positions get reduced to brands.

And Mickey Savage: I cannot get over the polls either.

Tauhei Notts said...

I thought it was 40 years ago that the blue collar workers were Labour. Rob Muldoon first cut that back a little in 1975. Then he cut it a little further with the Tour saga in 1981. Taupo went National when Labour should have won it easily. Then when Bennett won Waitakere I thought carefully about one of Chris Trotter's comments about the left losing Joe Public from their "outrageous fortune". Chris expressed himself in a much more erudite and eloquent manner than I do.

Bearhunter said...

I grew up working class in as working class street in a working class town. What truly united people was the urge to stop being working class as soon as possible. The only ones who wanted everyone to remain among the noble poor of the working class were "the Left"; the trade union organisers and party "activists". Over the years, the children of the working class became more successful and mvoed up the social scale and Labour followed. Labour is now the party of the university-educated, middle-class, hand-wringing liberal and it ahs no idea how to relate to what is left of the working class. The deiscussions they are engaging in are not the discussions of the working class, who have no one representing them. So perhaps Labour could consider re-engaging with the working class rather than arrogantly assuming that that particular vote is in the bag. It's not any great policy shift that won National the election, it was simply a reaction to the overweening arrogance of Labour.

Chris Trotter said...

Well said, Bearhunter! And, as those well-educated professionals are fast discovering, shorn of its working-class support Labour will find it increasingly difficult to secure anything like enough votes to get off the Opposition benches.

Bearhunter said...

Another point to remember is that many among the working class - especially here in NZ - are socially conservative, something Labour's liberal agenda has ignored. Really, the working class (and I only use that awful phrase because there is no other, really) don't care about conservation or equality or emissions trading or electoral finance as they do about putting food on the table and having a bit to save or spend left over after tax, petrol, rent/mortgage, schooling etc have swallowed the pay packet almost whole.

Bevanjs said...

I wonder if the terms "reach out" and "reconnect" rather than perhaps "represent" indicate a fair bit of the gap.

Anonymous said...

Chris says :

" At some point [recently] New Zealanders’ political attitudes and expectations shifted decisively from the Centre Left to the Centre Right – reversing the political trend of the previous twenty years. If this repositioned electorate remains fundamentally undisturbed, it will gradually solidify into an unassailable political consensus, and National’s lease on the Treasury Benches will see out this decade and extend well into the next.
Notice all the replies socialist, can not accept this fact, and they rabbit on.
Soon Chris will put me off his blog again, dissent not accepted from Trotsky.


Anonymous said...

"It’s just not good enough to insist that the Conservation Estate is sacrosanct: a new generation wants to know (and an older one perhaps needs to be reminded) why it is sacrosanct."

Without the spirit of the land kiwis are but an assortment of seafarers washed ashore on a few islands.