Wednesday 28 January 2015

Getting Behind The Rage

Let Anger Be Your Guide: The fatal error of NZ First - this country's pre-eminent populist party - was to forget the most basic rule of populist politics: get behind the rage. It is popular anger that leads populist parties to political success. Which is why it is so important to always allow the enraged and the embittered to clear the path to victory.

IT’S EASY TO POKE FUN at NZ First. There’s something irredeemably amateur about the party; something rough-hewn and unrefined; that offends the professional sensibilities of New Zealand’s rather snooty political class. Except for Winston, of course, whose indisputable political skills, being more-or-less on constant public display, cannot be so easily dismissed. That said, it is not unknown for people to detect, in the air around Mr Peters’ trademark coiffure, the unmistakeable whiff of snake-oil.
That the political class (professional politicians, journalists, broadcasters, public relations specialists, pollsters, parliamentary staffers, columnists and commentators of every hue, plus those occasional academic specialists brave enough to raise their heads above the parapets of the universities’ ivory towers) take such offence at NZ First is, however, very reassuring.
Any political party so unashamedly driven by populist impulses as NZ First should be very afraid of the caressing fingers of official approbation. Just as everyone’s favourite teenage rebel, the Fonz, would cringe to hear himself praised by the local high-school principal, Winston Peters flinches away from excessive media acclaim. Populism takes aim at the high and mighty: the big man who crushes the little guy; the “effete snobs” who sneer at ordinary people’s tastes; the politically correct mavens who condemn their prejudices. No populist leader wants to win praise from the targets of his marksmanship!
Except for Winston, of course! NZ First's decision to "opt for National" in 1996 nearly destroyed the party and its leader. (Image by Frank Macskasy)

Except for Winston, of course. Or, at least, that younger Winston who, after keeping the New Zealand public waiting for nine interminable weeks in 1996, came within an inch of destroying both himself and his party by throwing in his lot with the National Party. (The very same National Party that he and his populist comrades had spent the previous three years attacking.) His supporters could not have been more surprised or disgusted. It was as if Robin Hood, having brought the Sheriff of Nottingham to his knees, proudly announced to his cheering followers that he was accepting Prince John’s invitation to become their local tax-collector.
Mr Peters near-fatal error in 1996 was to forget the most basic rule of populist politics: get behind the rage. It is popular anger that leads populist parties to political success. Which is why it is so important to always allow the enraged and the embittered to clear the path to victory. The moment the populist finds such folk blocking his way (NZ First’s practically instantaneous fate in 1996) then he knows his party’s on the wrong track. The successful populist politician’s response will always echo that of Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, one of the leaders of the February Revolution of 1848 in France: “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”
To carry off this leading-by-following trick, the populist politician requires both a vigilant eye and an unusually sensitive ear. In present-day New Zealand, for example, only a blind, deaf and extremely dumb populist would assume that to stay behind the rage he has only to hurl abuse at John Key’s government. All he would demonstrate by such tactics is how thoroughly he has missed the fact that John Key is, himself, an extremely accomplished populist leader. What’s more, John Key, unlike Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, has no need to go running after the crowds. Thanks to his pollster, David Farrar, and focus-group supremo, Mark Textor, the Prime Minister knows exactly where the people are going. That’s why he’s so often to be found parked there, waiting for them to arrive.
Which is not to say that the electorate is without rage, merely that, unlike the unfortunate Judith Collins in 2014, John Key has yet to become its target. If popular rage is to find any focus at all in 2015 it is likely to be the fact that, when it comes to the big issues of affordable housing, rising inequality, child poverty and environmental degradation, the political class is offering New Zealanders so little in the way of believable solutions.
It is precisely in exploiting this rising level of popular frustration with the political “professionals” and economic “experts” that the much-derided ordinariness and amateurism of NZ First could come into its own. John Key’s government, unlike the government of that other great National Party populist, Rob Muldoon, finds it difficult to deliver very much to the “ordinary bloke”. Mr Key’s Cabinet’s slavish adherence to neoliberal ideology has meant that economic and social policies that could have really assisted the “average Kiwi” are consistently ruled out of contention. It is in National’s self-denial that NZ First may find its opportunity to grow the rage.
Promises of big changes, based on the common-sense solutions of ordinary, rough-hewn and unrefined New Zealanders, could very easily become the new currency of electoral success. Economic radicalism, fuelled by popular rage, but restrained by the average Kiwi’s social conservatism, is something NZ First could very easily get behind.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 27 January 2015.


Anonymous said...

This is unusually poor, Chris.

NZ First is best understood as a party of centrist economic nationalism. The party's name gives a pretty fair indication of its priorities.

Current polling puts National at 52% support, exactly double that of the Labour Party. Your "rage" thesis doesn't seem to have a lot going for it.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Populism doesn't have to be sneered at. In the US they are calling Elizabeth Warren populist, and it seems to me she's pretty much the opposite of Winston. A savvy intellectual with the academic qualifications to give her credibility. She actually understands the bullshit spoken by bankers, and gives it back to them in spades. The fact that she is perhaps taking advantage of public anger at the banking system doesn't mean to say that either she is wrong, or that this anger is misdirected.
Winston is a consummate politician obviously, but he was a good minister of Maori affairs, and if his policies hadn't been quashed by idiots in national, he would have been considered a great Maori affairs minister and an elder statesman. He maybe wouldn't have needed the populism :-).
But give him credit, he brings up – albeit in a populist way – issues which need to be talked about, and which probably wouldn't be talked about because of the collusion between politicians and mandarins. He might be right, he might be wrong, but he exposes the maggots to the sunlight :-).
And he is one of the most brilliant avoiders of questions ever. In fact I think National Radio used him as the supreme example of how to avoid a question asked by a journalist in a documentary about politician speak. I'd never, ever vote for the man, but I do recognise he has certain qualities :-).

Chris Trotter said...

Au contraire, Anonymous@12:35, National was extraordinarily successful at getting behind the rage last September.

The rage on that occasion was directed towards Kim Dotcom and Nicky Hager for daring to upset the even tenor of National's days.

As I said, John Key is no mean populist himself!

Mind you, with 8.66 percent of the Party Vote, Winston did pretty well too.

Anonymous said...

Key is a traitorous leader. He cares not for the Kiwi battler (even though his mum was one), and does nothing to help middle to poor NZ. Long as he's ok, he just doesn't care. Supercillious is a good description for Key, all buff but no heart.

Go Winston, for common sense, integrity and inate fairness. Now Labour don't offer any of that, do they. They would rather help the immigrant and the greenie.

manfred said...

Great article, Chris.

This is exactly what I was thinking in the run-up to September 2014 - the possibility of a coalition between the rough and grumpy NZers, who believe in economic pragmatism (as did the Dixiecrats and assorted rednecks of FDR's coalition) but sneer at the correctness and sophistication of the urban liberals, and the Labourites.

Might I add, with the Greens left in the cold with a confidence and supply deal.

Must we even mention the absurdity of hoping for a couple of measly percent from the politically poisonous Internet Mana?

Freaking the shit out of half the country more like it and creating a laughing stock and a whipping boy rolled in to one! No. As odious as he is, Kelvin Davis was the lesser evil.

The 2014 election taught us a great deal.

The winning coalition for next election, I think, would be fundamentally based on two parties - NZ First and Labour.

With Andrew Little's Kiwi bloke likeability and Winston's rude populism, New Zealanders could be in for a respectable left coalition they can trust.

There will likely be no Mana Party to scare voters and the Greens can be kept at arms length.

Such a coalition could perhaps de-emphasise the trendy causes celebres and focus on core issues.

I am enthusiastic about socially liberal reforms, but I think it wouldn't hurt to put them on the backburner for a while. After all, we already have most of them enacted into law.

Anonymous said...

I don't think there's much evidence that National has benefitted from anger in the electorate, and it's not obvious that John Key's popularity is driven by a populist approach to politics.

You say that National took cynical advantage of the opportunity provided by KDC and Dirty Politics, but it seems to me that the left just doesn't know how to talk to middle New Zealand. The leader of the Labour Party apologised for being a man three months before the election, FFS, to say nothing of the efforts of the poisonous weirdos on the periphery.

Coming back to the point, I don't agree with the majority view on Peters. I think his economic policies are reasonably conventional and credit him for his efforts on the Winebox. While I have reservations about his appeals to the worst instincts of the electorate, I can understand why a Maori politician might be opposed to immigration and foreign ownership. Beyond the not insubstantial xenophobia angle, I don't see why he gets such a hard time.

Put it this way: I'd happily supports Peters over Hone Harawira, Derek Fox, Sue Bradford, Matthew Hooten or Patrick Gower.

Wayne Mapp said...

This item covers a similar point I made in a comment on this site about two months ago. I think Andrew Little will use NZF to cut out the Greens. And such a deal could be announced prior to the election, if the Nats have got seriously offside with the New Zealand public.
When you consider all of Labour's main announcements they are much more in NZF space rather than the Greens.

Loz said...

Successful polling is reliant upon weeding out responses from those who are unlikely to vote. As such a massive proportion of the population are currently disengaged from politics, suggestions that half of those who will vote support National ignores a widespread disenchantment with the direction of government.

Disenchantment, despondency... or rage, are but measures of intensity of dissatisfaction.

New Zealand has been living under Neoliberalism for so long it’s difficult to point the finger anywhere else for the ills of the country. The housing affordability crisis that is plaguing the entire western world is a direct result of inadequate planning and limitless credit. Yet, the feeble suggestion that (minimal) local body planning and environmental protection is responsible for the unfolding disaster is the best the powers that be can come up with. Tax avoidance by corporation and sham nepotistic trusts. Foreign ownership of land and businesses, are all areas that Winston Peters has been able to use to his benefit in the past. It would be nice to think that Labour might join in the attacks for a change.

peteswriteplace said...

Good post Chris. Now we wait - for what I wonder?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Interesting take on populism in the US.