Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Politics Is About Choices - Not Tricks.

The Squeezed Middle: Employing the political tactics perfected by the American strategists Mark Penn and Dick Morris, Phil Goff is attempting to play both sides against "the squeezed middle" - a phrase which, along with "Soccer Moms" and "Reagan Democrats" has more to do with polling than principle.
MARK PENN and Dick Morris have a lot to answer for. Between them they have managed to change the practice of politics in the modern world fundamentally. If you’ve ever wondered why today’s politicians never seem to do anything large or inspiring; or why modern politics appears to revolve around the petty and the paltry; then look no further than Penn & Morris.

It was Mark Penn who invented "Soccer Moms". This wonderfully evocative term was his shorthand way of describing middle-income mothers of young families more-or-less uninterested in political and economic issues – but absolutely committed to the moral and physical welfare of their families. The way to come at these voters, Mr Penn told his client, President Bill Clinton, was not via their back pockets, but through their values. Convince them that you care about the same things they care about, and they are much more likely to vote for you.

This is where Dick Morris enters the picture. His main claim to fame is as the inventor of the political technique known as "triangulation". His advice to President Clinton, as he contemplated his campaign for a second term, was brutally simple. Abandon fixed ideological positions and re-fashion your political message so that it incorporates elements of both the Left and the Right. In other words, if the liberal and conservative ideologies represent the base, your new position should be "above and between them" at the apex of a new "triangular" political configuration.

President Clinton’s ringing declaration that "the era of big government is over" and his support for Republican Party-inspired "welfare reforms" are two of the best known examples of "Clintonian Triangulation".

Political observers in the United States point to President Barack Obama’s latest White House-brokered compromise over bitterly contested tax and benefit legislation as evidence that he has embraced his Democratic Party predecessor’s "triangulation" technique. That President Obama recently played host to President Clinton at the White House has done little to dampen this speculation.

The Penn-Morris combination: intensive and continuous "neuro-personality" polling of the electorate; combined with the constant re-positioning of political parties – to keep them "above and between" the extremes of Left and Right. In the 21st Century, this is simply the way politics is done.

Our own prime minister, John Key, is a master of the Penn-Morris style of politics.

The National Party polls the electorate continuously, accurately tracking the smallest shifts in public opinion and building up "psychographic" profiles of the many (and often quite contradictory) components of the Government’s electoral base. Mr Key follows the results of his party’s polling assiduously – borrowing freely from the policies of both his right- and left-wing competitors to preserve the public’s perception of him as a leader refreshingly unencumbered by ideological baggage.

Labour’s leader, Phil Goff, attempted a little triangulation of his own last Monday with a speech to a gathering of well-heeled Auckland lawyers and businessmen entitled "The Squeezed Middle".

Promising a future Labour Government would "operate within tight fiscal restraints"(a clearly conservative commitment) he also pledged his party to growing "better jobs and higher incomes" (a traditional left-wing objective).

The subject of his speech – "The Squeezed Middle" – is clearly born of the same mixture of demographic and psychographic profiling that gave birth to Clinton’s "Soccer Moms" in the 1990s, and to "Reagan Democrats" back in the 1980s.

The picture it conjures up is one of deep social anxiety and economic insecurity. At its heart is the sort of middle-income family which did well in the boom years, but which now finds itself just a paycheque away from disaster. These are the folk who borrowed heavily – maybe to buy a better house or to set up a small business – and who now find themselves shivering in the bitter recessionary winds.

The "squeeze" they feel comes, on one side, from their fear of falling back into the poverty from which their family only recently escaped, and, on the other, from the pressure of a pitiless economic system that will crush their hopes without the slightest hesitation.

Mr Goff must know that such people are deeply conflicted. Strong believers in free enterprise, their values cast the poor as lazy "bludgers" – undeserving of the vast quantities of taxpayers’ money spent annually on their relief. But, they also know that if the worst happens, and they lose everything, it will not be for lack of hard work. Why doesn’t that count? They ask themselves. Why, when the chips are down, is the banker never your friend?

That’s the weakness of Penn-Morris politics. Power isn’t something that can be triangulated, and polling merely describes the voters’ predicament. Real politics is about making choices.

New Zealand’s problems need solutions: whether they be left-wing or right-wing solutions matters much less than locating a politician with the guts to give them a try.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 14 December 2010.


Nick said...

Thank you Chris, a very welcome column. You are right that choices are required. Ultimately the politics of triangulation are self defeating to who ever votes for them as the choices postponed will deliver a bitter fruit.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris, I'm sure you're aware of this already, but Goff's lifted the 'squeezed middle' line directly from Ed Miliband.


Anonymous said...

Hear hear!

Well put Chris.


Victor said...

As Barry Goldwater didn't quite say: "Moderation in pursuit of error is no great vice".

Whilst I agree that the current government lacks intestinal fortitude, that's wholly preferable to one that makes the wrong (i.e. dogmatic right wing) choices on a radically large scale and sticks to them out of mistaken ideological rigour.

Wishy-washy, slightly-right-of-centre-ism might fail to arrest our decline. But a return to Ruthenasia would kill us off beyond any hope of resuscitation.

The price of such massive errors is no small thing, as it is almost always paid in human suffering.

In the absence of a solid majority for Social Democratic/Keynesian policies, a skilled triangulator may be the best we can hope for.

Let's work to build such a majority, based on a less simplistic view of policy options than currently predominates and let's leave the denunciation of alleged wimps to the neo-liberal bully boys. It's the one thing they're good at.

Anonymous said...

The squeezed middle is an offensive political slogan when almost everybody is being squeezed. A slogan like that runs on the cynicism that the poor will vote for you anyway and the rich never will so we'll try to make an anxious "middle class" feel specially served. It is reminiscent of the ill-advised "mainstream New Zealanders" slogan Don Brash used in the 2005 election campaign. New Zealanders are more tight-knit than the Americans and British and are less forgiving of that kind of politics.

But how does Labour expect the electorate to believe they're genuine about running a tight fiscal ship when they've spent half of this term attacking the government for borrowing and spending too little? Could Labour stand firm against strike-prone teachers demanding annual 5% pay rises? Would they really bring themselves to cut government spending or increase GST to remove ourselves from $300m a week of borrowing?

There are many apolitical politicans today who don't believe in much and serve their careers first and the people second. How will people believe in someone when their positions change like gusts of wind and are decided by polls, PR advisors, factional in-fighting and focus groups?

The inability of New Zealand's politcal class to genuinely tackle New Zealand's problems is starting to create real anxiety about the future.

Anonymous said...

What social democrats seem unable to grasp is that compromise can only come as the result of struggle between genuinely competing ideas. It is not possible to struggle for a compromise, it is only possible to arrive at one.
Thus we have been through decades of hapless social democrats failing miserably in their attempts to defend the historical compromise between capital and labour, the welfare state.
Meanwhile the right has not forgotten its principles, the welfare state was simply the best they could do at a particular point in time and they have aggressively sought to dismantle it in order to progress their own poisonous vision.
The only way to halt the relentless move to the right is for the left to put forward a socialist vision to unite people in struggle around. Promising 'kind capitalism', 'a third way' or other variations of leaving power relationships the same is simply not going to cut it.

As long as Labour and the Greens refuse to confront the fundamental toxicity of free market capitalism they will remain part of the problem, not the solution and even reasonable compromise will be impossible.

Olwyn said...

@Victor: The problem with the combination of value identification and triangulation is not that it reflects a centrist position, but that it betrays no position at all. Once you have gained the levers of power by such methods you can do whatever you find expedient, since you have not revealed a position, only a set of sympathies.

There is a further question though, as to what politicians actually can do under the present circumstances. It seems that they are all reliant on credit and investment, which are conditional on their implementation of, and maintenance of, neo-liberal policies.

In relation to this, one of the most shocking recent events was Julia Gillard's initial response to Assange - declaring him criminal without his being charged with a crime, and even considering taking away his passport, rather than insisting on justice for a citizen of her country. One can only assume that her gut reaction was "Don't offend the Americans, don't alienate the investors," rather than "What are my obligations here?"

The problem with triangulation is that it uses sympathies to conceal both priorities and intent, both of which Julia revealed to some extent in her response to Assange, whatever sympathies she expressed in order to get elected.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous: “As long as Labour and the Greens refuse to confront the fundamental toxicity of free market capitalism they will remain part of the problem, not the solution and even reasonable compromise will be impossible.”

Amen to that.

But Labour and the Greens are each already well aware of the social democratic and ecological analyses and the data that make “the fundamental toxicity of free market capitalism” plain. In which case, why do they largely ignore them?

Two reasons, I think:

Firstly, regardless of whether the media really do shape the perceptions of most people, politicians believe they do. So, in the world of mediatised politics, too many progressive politicians have been brought to heel. The question “How will this play in the media?” completely overrides “What is the right thing to do according to our principles?”

Consequently most politicians – particularly those of the left – seem petrified of media reaction to any sort of ideological discussion, let alone full-on confrontation. And perhaps with some reason: both MSM and the blogosphere are crawling with right wing loons ready to flame and threaten anyone who puts their head above the parapet. The section 59 “debate” in NZ was an object lesson.

Secondly, in this strange post-modern consumer capitalist society we inhabit, we have been schooled to live (or at least to attempt to live) with seriously ambiguous value sets and incoherent if not downright chaotic identities. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has written about this phenomenon extensively; he calls it “liquid modernity.” Chris alludes to it from a social democratic perspective: citizens who are deeply conflicted on welfare. Others writing from a green perspective have described the paradox of western society which simultaneously desires sustainability and wants to keep all the pleasures of consumer capitalism.

Resolving this deep and disturbing paradox requires a party to take a massive risk and at the moment no-one in NZ seems quite willing to take it ... not yet, anyway.

Loz said...

Although I agree with the thrust of your piece Chris I don't agree with the origins or what it represents. The New Republic has a great article by Jonathan Bernstein titled "Why 'Triangulation' Is the Most Empty Phrase in Politics"1 that's worth reading.

Triangulation justifies the status quo or middle of the road. How do you actually "triangulate" (which requires three points) between two positions of left and the right anyway? Triangulation implies a third position, also known as Tony Blair's discredited "Third Way".

There are many traditional left wing policy positions that have always had widespread electoral support such free healthcare and higher taxes on the wealthy. Many polls have shown for decades that a majority of kiwis would support increases in tax for universally free healthcare and education. Triangulation theory would suggest politicians moving to adopt these positions due to populism but no such movement amonst the ranks of politicians exists. The New Zealand Labour Party did even better by being elected with popular socialist mandates in '84 and '87 and then rejecting the mandate it was given to introduce the same "triangulated" policy platforms aspoused as middle road today.

Historically, compromised policy platforms just dont show a correlation with the appeal to widespread popularity triangulation suggests they should have.

The common hallmarks of a "triangulated" Labour (just like triangulated Clinton and Blair) is not adopting popular reforms but cultivating an image of reform while refusing to control the free market. Phil's pledge to "operate within tight fiscal restraints" while providing "better jobs and higher incomes" may fit well with that definition but it smells just like old fashioned rhetoric... do we really need another term?

Anonymous said...

Direct user-pays can be removed from healthcare, but it is not free; somebody always pays.

Loz: I don't think there's a strong relationship between what Labour says about economic matters and what they'd actually do if elected.

Anonymous said...

Further to my comments about Zygmunt Bauman - seems he is regarded as a key influence on new British Labour leader Ed Miliband. (I didn't know that when I posted last night.)

See "The sociologist influencing Labour's new generation", The Guardian (UK), 3/11/2010, at http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/nov/03/zygmunt-bauman-ed-miliband-labour?INTCMP=SRCH

It will be interesting to see whether, under this influence, Miliband is willing to cut through the knots in which the British Labour Party has tied itself over the past decade and a half.

Victor said...


Of course triangulation doesn't always involve a default to the middle ground.

Loz and others are quite right that it often involves a default to right-of-centre neo-liberalism.

This, however, is surely preferable to the wholesale, ideologically-fixated pursuit of neo-liberal goals, such as we have experienced (to our enormous cost) in the not too distant past.

At this point, pressure is mounting amongst the government's quondam supporters for a more forcefully neo-liberal approach.

The charge of poll-driven opportunism and weakness is being repetitively leveled by what I would lossly describe as the Fran O'Sullivan tendency.

When stripped of ideology or policy content, the mantra "real politics is about making choices", merely gives aid and comfort to this tendency.

Indeed,"real politics is about making choices" is just(and probably considerably more)prone to neo-liberal default than triangulation.

I'm genuinely surprised that this isn't obvious.

Victor said...

I, of course, meant "loosely" not "lossly" but Freud may have appreciated the typo.

Unknown said...


We don't always agree, but that is a good article - we seem very short on politicians who hold sincere, well grounded philosophical convictions on either the left or the right of the spectrum.

In short, the quality of thinking that is presently driving policy, is weak and shaped by short term pragmatism. It is poll driven, and flawed.

Give me a conviction politician of the left or the right any day. New Zealand would be much better served.

Kind regards,

Madison said...

While I know I'm out of date by a few posts on this one I have to say it's quite true. The origin of this process isn't from Penn and Marks, it was merely perfected by them. True politicians who stand for something have been fighting a losing battle against those soulless weasels who have been fighting for power merely to have power. That is the type of person who uses this type of strategy, someone who doesn't stand for anything other than simply wanting power for power's sake. Bring on some people with principles any day, I may not agree with all of them but I would at least know who they truly are and what they stand for.

Anonymous said...

"New Zealand’s problems need solutions: whether they be left-wing or right-wing solutions matters much less than locating a politician with the guts to give them a try."

Like Roger Douglas, eh Chris? He always had the guts to inflict solutions on us...

Embrace the truth - Goff and Labour are just as much liberal capitalists as Key and National, or Hide and ACT. Time to build real alternatives, but the liberal left seem content to embrace more extreme social engineering (legalising prostitution, banning smacking, etc) in place of society building ;(

Auckland's Labour mayor Len Brown is the perfect example of that - tells everyone what they want to hear, but implements pure free market capitalism (bulldoze those heritage buildings)...

Time for some socialism :)

Victor said...

When Brendan thinks he agrees with Chris, there's probably something wrong.

Politics is about policies and about people. If the policies are wrong, having a more extreme, dogmatic and driven form of these policies must, of necessity, be even more wrong.

As to people, I share Madison's distaste for 'soulless weasles' but why should anyone want to replace them with soulless rottweilers?

Anonymous, you think it's time for some Socialism. I think it's time for some Social Democracy.

That means I have some idea where you stand, where we differ and where we might be able to agree without undue sacrifice of principle.

That's a whole lot better than fascistoid yearnings for a big boss who will 'just get things done', irrespective of what precisely gets done, how it's done or who suffers.