Simon Bridges could have been the Prime Minister. Opinion polls in February suggested a close election, with Colmar Brunton giving the centre-right National/ACT bloc a marginal lead over Labour and the Greens. The Coalition Government looked weak and ineffectual.
There was a strong possibility that Jacinda Ardern would be out of office by Christmas.
For the million or so who voted National in 2017, there was no reason to change parties. But the appeal was nostalgic. National had become a symbol of prosperity and strength in the 2010s. It was Sir John Key’s legacy. Bridges, like Bill English, became a custodian of that inheritance.
However, no political party can rest on its laurels forever. When Bridges admonished the government for a litany of failures during the nationwide lockdown, he was basking in Sir John’s afterglow. But the halo of Jacinda Ardern shone brighter. Having defeated Covid-19, the Prime Minister could do no wrong.
The moment of truth came when Bridges went on Facebook to vent his frustration at the Level 3 extension in April. The post received thousands of negative comments. Bridges was unapologetic. But polling soon revealed a collapse in National support and a few weeks later the man who might have been Prime Minister was sacked by his caucus.
As it turned out, the problem wasn’t just Bridges. Two other leaders have failed to restore National’s status with the public. Commentators attribute it to bad PR. If so and so had been less abrasive, if they were more positive, if this announcement or that had been framed in a different way, then National would be polling higher.
These considerations may explain a percentage point or two difference but they don’t give us much insight beyond that. An obscure 1985 book by the late Australian political scientist Graham Little offers a different explanation.
In “Political Ensembles”, Little described a psychosocial approach to understanding leadership and politics. The hypothesis was that we follow leaders who help us resolve an eternal human dilemma: the inner-conflict between our psychological need for others and a yearning to be independent.
Little called this the “self/other dilemma”. There are three basic solutions. One may elevate the self above others, or they may see others as an extension of the self. Alternatively, one might attempt to have it both ways and find a compromise. The politics that one gravitates to will depend on how this problem is resolved. These solutions engender different leaders.
The individualist, who sees life as a contest, will look to a “strong leader” who can provide structure and meaning in an otherwise chaotic world. But others find comfort in belonging to a group. Thus, a collectivist solution presents itself to those willing to surrender their freedom and independence in return for emotional security from a “group leader”.
Others may look to an “inspirational leader” for a more elegant, if less attainable solution. But life is never that simple. Eventually, the flaws of one solution become apparent and we look to another. This is also true for society as a whole. Little believed that political events reflect the changing psychosocial dynamics of the electorate.
Hence, the same country that elected Barack Obama could also elect Donald Trump. And so it is in New Zealand. Covid-19 laid bare the eternal dilemma at the heart of our politics. After slumbering for a decade in Sir John’s paradise, the contented middle-class woke up to a nightmare. Ardern was there to comfort them.
Her leadership exemplifies the type of politics that Little identified with a collectivist approach to the self/other dilemma. The underlying assumption is that we are dependent on others for protection. Thus, the relationship is based on a desire to be cared for and a fear of responsibility. An individual leader comes to symbolise this dependency.
In 2020, we became dependent on Ardern to make us feel safe. For a large number of New Zealanders, this was stultifying and even childlike. They have a voice in Judith Collins who, like Margaret Thatcher, fits the archetype of what Little called a strong leader. But it is clear that most have put “other” before “self” in this election.
Ardern must now go on making us feel safe. If there comes a time when she can no longer do so, New Zealanders may start to think for themselves again.
This opinion piece was first published by Victoria University’s The Democracy Project and is republished with permission.