Since the resignation of John Key, the speculation about what-might-happen in election year 2017 has been framed almost entirely in terms of personality politics. Is National’s Bill English more – or less – chemically inert than Labour’s Andrew Little, and will the electorate finally decide this predictability /complacency/familiarity to be re-assuring, or disturbing? Is English so very lacking in inspirational energy that he will need to bribe the electorate with tax cuts in order to induce even the centre-right to get out and vote for him? Will the centre-left gain any/some/or a whole lot of traction out of the departure from the political scene of National’s super salesman? And so on.
This obsessive focus on personality politics is understandable. New Zealand politics has been a presidential form of combat for several decades now. However, elections aren’t merely a popularity poll. Moreover, since “populism” – in the form of a desire for wholesale institutional change – is winning elections all around the world. So, it could be worthwhile to try and collate what we know about the dynamics of populism, and see if any of its structural elements fit the situation in which the electorate currently finds itself, in this country.
For many people on the centre-left, populism is a dirty word, and a shorthand for the politics of bigotry. In this country, it has tended to be equated with the angry legions of New Zealand First. Who knew they were not just a reactionary spasm, but the wave of the future? Certainly, at the end of this week, the next US President will have won office (at least in part) thanks to his proven ability at (a) scapegoating refugees and migrants (b) wooing neo-Nazis and racial supremacists (c) attacking journalists and judges (d) threatening to jail his opponents (e) urging nuclear proliferation and (e) by promising to restrict women’s rights to control their own fertility.
On the face of that campaign record, there wouldn’t seem to be much in common between Donald Trump and say, Spain’s centre-left populist party, Podemos. Yet arguably, the similarities could be instructive for the Labour/Green partnership here. Since its inception three years ago, Podemos has shown an interest in the ideas of the Spanish academic Ernesto Laclau. The trouble is – quite unconsciously – Trump has been even better than Podemos at putting those ideas into practice.
What Laclau has sought to do is to rescue populism from the centre-right agenda. To do so, he utilised three simple concepts, which I’ll try to explain : an empty signifier, a chain of equivalence, and an antagonistic frontier. What is the “empty signifier”? To be brutally brief, this is the rallying slogan or inspirational leader “empty” enough to contain all of the public’s concerns and resentments in one vessel. For Trump, it was his maverick personality and promise to “Drain The Swamp” – a code that said if you give me power, then all of those policies you abhor, from trade policies that kill your jobs, to godless abortion rights to being mocked on TV talk shows by degenerate liberal celebrities will come be brought an end.
Similarly for the Brexiters, the empty signifier was a referendum outcome that would end the influx of migrants, restore job security, save the health system, and reverse the decline of Britain. For the populist parties of Europe’s centre left (Syriza and Podemos) it meant charismatic leaders like Pablo Iglesias and rallying cries of “ Enough is Enough” and “Si se puede: (Yes we can)” This ironic appropriation of Barack Obama’s message of hope said that electing Podemos was the only way to reject the economic policies of austerity, clean up political corruption, create jobs, end mass youth unemployment, provide affordable housing etc etc. etc.
By identifying and promoting an effective empty signifier, populist parties promise sweeping change to an entire system. They do not proceed as Labour has done here, by unrolling policy after policy as if incrementally, this will inspire a mounting confidence in the opposition’s ability to govern. It is also an argument for postponing the release of policy until it is clear what the empty signifier will be. What is the receptacle going to be for the centre left’s bundle of policies this year?
The ‘chain of equivalence’ is an obvious and related concept. If the empty signifier encapsulates all of the electorate’s aspirations, misgivings and resentments, it follows that all of the detectable problems in society – unaffordable housing, homelessness, child poverty, the failing and underfunded health system etc – have to be treated as equivalent, and symptomatic of the same intrinsic failure of governance.
By sheer luck – state-sponsored demand from China kept the economies of Australia and New Zealand afloat during the GFC – Key and English have been able to avoid being as brutal to the vulnerable (on welfare benefits and NHS funding) as the Cameron/May government has been in Britain. Instead, the National-led government has been living in denial that glaring social problems exist. It has goosed the economy and GDP growth with unsustainable measures (eg earthquake reconstruction activity) and is sleepwalking into the future in the hope that something will eventually turn up, for us and for our children.
All of these tendencies are vulnerable to an equivalence argument. Tactically, the centre –left shouldn’t engage in nitpicking the Nats – which will only lay them open to nitpicking responses of interest only to the denizens of the Beltway – but in promoting an ‘ asleep at the wheel” campaign where all the government’s policies are seen as being equivalent to a dereliction of duty. National is walking us backwards into the future.
Which comes down to the third Laclau concept – “ antagonism” – which will be the hardest to put into practice. Especially for a NZ Labour Party that hasn’t strayed very far at all from its homegrown version of Blairite economic conservatism twinned with social liberalism. Both strands have been anathema to Labour’s traditional base, many of whom have decamped to either Winston Peters or to National or to the Greens. In the process, the centre-left has won relatively few recruits in the mythical middle ground. Unfortunately, the departure of Key may convince the Labour caucus that it can –finally!– drag enough fiscal conservatives and corporate chieftains and formerly Key-bewitched voters back across the line. Populism says otherwise:
Populist discourse divides society in two: those below and those above. This is precisely what Podemos did from the beginning: those below (the people – la gente) were pitted against those above (the establishment – la casta). Laclau refers to this division as an antagonistic frontier: you are either on the side of the people, or on the side of the people’s enemy. And if getting rid of the people’s enemy is the solution to all of the people’s problems, it follows that all the different demands of the people can only be met if we get rid of the old establishment.
That’s the difference. Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, Trump in the US, the Danish Peoples Party in Denmark and other populist parties have no qualms about seeking change by being truly and aggressively in opposition to the politics of business as usual. As Hillary Clinton found to her cost, it is very hard to inspire people to vote for more of the same – decked out with subtle tweakings – if that status quo is widely seen as generating poverty, social misery and an unfair distribution of resources.
Since the convulsions of the 1980s, Labour has shown little interest in pitting itself against the status quo. It has been far more interested in being seen as a kinder, fairer version of it. That gradualist stance certainly suits those who belong to the upper income groups – including those in the media – who stand to benefit from the centre right’s programme of tax cuts, even if some of them vote against those tax cuts on conscience grounds at the ballot box. (The professional commentariat can always afford to treat politics as a game.)
There is an alternative route. More dangerous, but potentially more rewarding. The centre left has an auxiliary wing – the Greens – who could convincingly convey an antagonistic us vs them message, on climate change, water quality, intensive dairying and environmental degradation, and social justice issues. On most things from global warming to home insulation, the Greens have not been scarily idealistic : they’ve been right. Prophetically so.
However, all signs are that something more like the opposite strategy is being contemplated – whereby the Greens will try to look like a dutiful part of a ‘credible’ alternative government. On past performance, this will leave the centre-left as sitting ducks to claims by National/Act that they are extremists anyway, and hellbent on putting those (largely illusory) economic “achievements” of the past nine years at risk. The populist alternative is to condemn the status quo as a failure, root and branch, for most New Zealanders – on everything from child poverty to superannuation, from education to health funding – and project your message accordingly. Opposition means opposition.
What strategy does the centre left currently have for rebutting the inevitable line of attack that a Labour/Green government would be a dangerous experiment, especially when it comes to economic management? Even when Labour insists that it is credible and that the Greens pose no threat to commerce, it has lost half the battle. This is a ‘when did you stop beating your wife’ situation where the slur will stick with voters, whatever the protestations of innocence. The path of centre-left populism would seek to turn that ‘weakness’ into a strength by front footing an argument for systemic change. All too often Labour puts itself in the position of pleading from the sidelines for a fairer outcome, in a game that is hopelessly rigged.
Footnote One : The parlous situation of the UK Labour Party is being sheeted home personally to Jeremy Corbyn, and to his place on the political spectrum. In its traditional strongholds, UK Labour’s problems run much deeper than that; the legacy of its Blairite past ( to which Corbyn’s rivals yearn to return) is an enduring problem. So is the party’s desperately mixed messaging. Currently, UK Labour seems to be promising to deliver both a soft Brexit and a meaningful form of ‘managed immigration.’ Those two things look irreconcilable. Meanwhile, most of the electorate appears willing to swallow a hard Brexit, if that has to be the price of total UK control of the immigration numbers.
Footnote Two : Before and since its disappointing showing in the June 2016 election in Spain, Podemos has been wrangling internally over the antagonistic populism advocated by Pablo Iglesias, and the more inclusive tactics of his deputy, Inigo Errejon. (In Errejon’s view, the left should be more engaged in what the Belgian theorist Chantal Mouffe has called “ ‘agonistic’ fence building between those rivals who share the same political space, with some of the subsequent accommodations this entails.) In early February, that tactical struggle will be resolved one way or the other, at Podemos’ national conference.
Trump, and Toby Keith
So country singer Toby Keith will be singing at Trump’s inaugural bash on Friday. Previously, Keith has sung at functions for both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He’s pro-military and keen to support the Commander in Chief and soldiers in uniform, rather than being particularly pro-Trump. Keith’s breakthrough hit (and yes, it was a long time ago) was a song called “ How Do You Like Me Now.” That track could hardly be more appropriate for Trump and his big day in Washington : .
How do you like me now?
Do you still think I’m crazy
Standin’ here today?
I couldn’t make you love me
But I always dreamed about
Being in your radio
How do you like me now?
That’s the deal with Trump, alright. Even if you don’t love him, he has managed to make himself inescapable. Toby Keith’s song was about a young guy spurned by the prettiest, most popular girl at school – the class valedictorian no less – so he harasses her, as payback. He then goes off, becomes famous and returns to gloat over how well things have turned out for him, and how badly her life has turned out. (“He never comes home/you’re always alone/ your kids hear you crying down the hall…”)
On one level the song is obnoxious, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the video. First, there’s a palpable menace in all of the gloating, and in the grinning collusion between the singer’s younger self and his current self. It is creepy and – crucially – the women concerned treat it as such. The ultimate eye roll between the two women at the end of the video eloquently conveys the message – that this guy was a dick back in high school and famous now or not, he’s still totally a dick.
A few brownie points then for Toby Keith, for the way he consciously portrayed himself in his own video as being such a jerk. Ultimately, the two incarnations of Keith – the young one and the current version – are depicted as preening jackasses : the shades, the cheerleaders, the white stretch limo and all. Very Trumpian, nearly 20 years ahead of its time. See what you think.