Gordon Campbell on the politics as a morality play

5403097d80546bd24a18To a striking extent, the working class vote in Western societies has been going to right wing demagogues, not to left wing social democrats. Even the mainstream parties on the right of the political spectrum are running the risk of being rejected and/or taken over. In the US, for instance, there is a widening rift between the working class legions backing Donald Trump – their persecuted hero – and the donor class elites of the Republican Party. Most of those wealthy donors are still backing the doomed campaign of Nikki Haley, to try and prevent a second Trump presidency.

No doubt though, when faced in November with a choice between Trump and Joe Biden, the Republican donor class (and other educated conservatives) will still vote for Trump. But it will be as captives of the Trump cult, which, these days, bears little resemblance to the Republican Party that the donor class used to control.

Here in New Zealand, right wing social democrats currently enjoy the majority of support. By the day though, Christopher Luxon looks more like a harried courier running between David Seymour and Winston Peters than the guy who is actually in charge of the government. As the drink driving advertisements keep on telling us, sometimes you have to say “No” to your friends.

Last October, people voted for an allegedly more competent, supposedly moderate government. How will voters react when it becomes crystal clear that National is complicit with the extremism of its support partners, who are dictating much of the tone and a lot of the policy content of the Luxon administration. You really have to go back to David Lange to find a New Zealand Prime Minister who is quite so much the mere front-of-house salesman for the plans of his more ideologically-focussed Cabinet colleagues.

But, to go back to the original question – why have the displaced, the left behinds, and the blue collar strugglers largely rejected the parties of the left? (I’m being generous here in calling Labour and the Greens parties of the left). The answers have implications for understanding (a) the failure of the second term of the Labour government, and (b) the options facing the Greens’ new leadership team, in the post-Shaw era. The Greens no longer have to prop up and lend moral credibility to Labour, for the greater good.

Morality plays

By and large, the left prefer to think that people regularly vote against their own economic self-interest only because they are bamboozled by (a) biased or incompetent media coverage, (b) by political spin or (c) by diversionary cultural issues, whereby immigrants, gays or gangs are routinely blamed for society’s wider failings. The right is certainly adept at running these kinds of diversionary campaigns. Look over there at the trans people in your restrooms, or at the kids with cell-phones at school, while we quietly allow agriculture and other polluting industries to continue to poison the waterways and make the climate change impacts even worse.

There’s more to it, though, than spin, or bad journalism. At the national level, as Jonathan Haidt pointed out years ago, politics operates a lot like a religion. Meaning: Elections are decided less on policy detail and more on moral values. The right offers a comprehensive moral package of freedom, personal responsibility, strong families, national pride, and inner resilience.

The current left wing parties have no equivalent moral bundle. Their moral approach consists of variations of caring – about social inequality, for the elderly, for children in poverty, for families trying to make ends meet, for the struggling middle class, for the environment and so on. Yet, as Jacinda Ardern recently demonstrated, the politics of caring have a fairly short shelf life before things start to grate. Caring needs to be backed up by substantive structural change equivalent to its levels of compassion. Because if you care so much about the social outcomes, what are you doing to change the settings?

Furthermore, as Haidt said a decade ago, many voters regard “caring” as a job for families, not for the government:

….[Are] voters really voting against their self-interest when they vote for candidates who share their values? Loyalty, respect for authority and some degree of sanctification create a more binding social order….As marriage rates plummet, and globalisation and rising diversity erodes the sense of common heritage within each nation, a lot of voters in many Western nations find themselves hungering for conservative moral cuisine.

That’s the challenge for the left. To be credible and compelling, it needs to offer transformational change that’s grounded in deeply held values. The right has no problem with meeting that challenge. It is offering political comfort food calculated to satisfy the public hungers. Where does that leave Labour, and the Greens in the post-Shaw era? Unfortunately, caring is a reaction, not a vision.

Depressingly, Labour has shown utterly no desire since the election to analyse how and why its election defeat was self-inflicted. Basically, Labour frittered away the power and opportunity that voters gave it in 2020 to make decisive moves to the left and enact structural change in the NZ economy – by, for example, breaking up the predatory neo-monopolies and cartels that dominate our economic landscape.

With hindsight, a small economy like New Zealand was probably the last place to rationally expect that unfettered market forces would deliver discipline, efficiency. and innovation. To no one’s surprise. this experiment has left sector after sector with forms of shareholder capitalism that are characterised by captive markets, rapacious price setting, and delays in investment and innovation.

Already, Labour in opposition has slipped back into variations on “Oooo, those awful Nats.” In all likelihood, Labour is hoping that will suffice until its turn to govern comes around again. Labour was once a party of radical change, itching to put into policy practice the values that it knew it shared with the majority of New Zealanders. Not any more. Briefly, Labour led from the front during the pandemic, and the public rewarded it with an unprecedented mandate. Unfortunately, Labour then froze. It seemed apologetic – terrified even – of the policy implications of its own success. No wonder the public kept telling pollsters last year that the country was going in the wrong direction. More than anything, that was a moral judgement. Yet much of the time, Labour acted as if it shared that opinion.

In this vacuum, there is a talk about the “irrationality” of the populist right. How can people think like that? At times though, one can sympathise. Is it really so irrational to rage against an Establishment that is offering only soft-line and hard-line versions of the same economic policies that threw you onto the social scrap heap, in pursuit of greater efficiency?

Central bankers are bonkers

Talking about irrationality… on the business news this week, we are being told that since the job market is proving to be surprisingly resilient, any interest rates will have to be delayed – until maybe the end of the year, when unemployment is tipped to have risen to oh, around 5%.

The “logic” of this RBNZ approach never seems to be questioned. But think about it. Central banking’s response to the cost of living crisis is to try and see if they can deny more people the ability to earn a living. If only it can shunt more people into the dole queues. Surely, that’ll put a dent in household spending!

The actual causes of inflation may have been excessive RB/government stimulus, that was a good idea at the time. Inflation is also a by-product of predatory pricing by supermarkets, of offshore oil prices driven up by the low Kiwi dollar, of disruption to supply chains etc etc – but hey, that’s too hard, or way beyond our control.

So… The Reserve Bank has decided to make people pay more for their mortgages for longer, and see if it can induce firms to throw more people out of work… Because that’ll do the trick. There’s nothing like impoverishing the populace and deliberately creating a recession in order to get consumer spending back under control. With luck, that will push inflation back within the completely arbitrary 1-3% annual range.

When those in power are imposing this kind of brutal “logic” on the public, it is little wonder that some people are turning to “ irrational” solutions for their plight?

Toby Keith, RIP

The country singer Toby Keith died this week of stomach cancer, aged 62. In the early 2000s, Keith was at the forefront of some truly toxic songs of US patriotism, and he led attacks on the Chicks for their questioning of the Iraq invasion. Later, he played at a Trump fund-raider in 2016.

OK, and all of that aside, I confess to having a soft spot for one of his mega-hits ”How Do You Like Me Now?” Or at least, for the video. Without the video, this was a pretty mean spirited, gloating case of “you mocked me at high school and now I’m a big star and ha ha, your life isn’t turning out so great.” The video saves it by depicting the women – then and now – as looking at each other and saying with a silent eye roll, that yeah, he was a dickhead then, and he’s still a dickhead now.

Did Keith realise how the visuals were subverting his song? I’d like to think he did.

After all, the guy did have a self-deprecating sense of humour. He even had a hit with a song about his favourite beer mug, and the way it regularly turned him into a big ol’ bleary eyed drunk.