I recently conducted a brief survey of politically-minded Facebook and Twitter users to gauge partisanship online. There were 239 respondents in total. I must stress that the poll is unscientific. The sample is too small to be statistically significant and, as with any opt-in survey, there is a self-selection bias. So it is not representative of the voting public. But it does give some insight into the leanings of those who engage in political discussions online.
The two main questions I asked were, “Which party do you feel closest to?” and “If a general election were held tomorrow, which party would you vote for?”. Both of these questions were answered by all 239 respondents. Here are the final results:
Which party do you feel closest to?
I don’t feel close to any party
If a general election were held tomorrow, which party would you vote for?
Advance NZ/Public Party
I don’t know
Yes, you read that right – 20% said they would vote for the new Jami-Lee Ross/Billy Te Kahika-led Advance NZ. That was slightly higher than the number who intend to vote Labour and more than twice the number voting ACT.
Interestingly, 30% answered ‘Other’ to the question about which party they felt closest to. This is also reflected in the level of support for the NewConservatives. Again, I must emphasise that it is not a scientific poll. But it does suggest to me that support for minor parties is remarkably strong online. This appears to come disproportionately from the right.
In my view, that isn’t something to be dismissed out of hand.
The much anticipated 1 News/Colmar Brunton poll is out. It tells more or less the same story as the last one, and the one before that. But it confirms that Sunday’s Reid Research poll was a rogue. That said, we can be reasonably certain that Labour will be the largest party on 19 September. This would represent a historic swing.
The only real question to my mind is: will Jacinda Ardern become the first Prime Minister since 1990 to govern with an absolute majority? I remain sceptical. Data from the New Zealand Election Study would suggest that a large proportion of voters make up their minds during the campaign. On average, nearly 20% decide in the final week. In a close election they can make all the difference, particularly where small parties such as NZ First and the Greens are concerned.
Then there are the newcomers. Billy Te Kahika has registered in the preferred Prime Minister poll (1%) and the NewConservatives are on 1.2%. Given the margin of error, it is possible that the populist vote could be underestimated. I don’t for a moment think that either the NewConservatives or Te Kahika’s party will get over 5%. But don’t be surprised if they contribute a higher than average wasted vote. And that could be important. Labour’s ambition to govern alone may depend on it.
Last week, a group of ‘contrarian’ academics led by epidemiologist Simon Thornley broke ranks to propose an alternative strategy for dealing with COVID-19. ‘Plan B’ would see New Zealand abandon the goal of elimination to focus on mitigation. In practice this means easing restrictions and a return to ‘business as usual’. Underlying the contrarian argument is a belief that elimination would have disastrous social and economic consequences. Yes, we may ‘defeat’ COVID-19. But the result would be a broken and impoverished nation.
If Thornley and his collaborators expected a groundswell of support, they must have been disappointed. ‘Plan B’ was roundly condemned by the scientific community and social media. Thornley in particular has been ridiculed for ‘cherry-picking’ evidence. But most damning for Thornley was an earlier suggestion that New Zealand should consider following Sweden’s laissez faire approach to COVID-19. At the time of writing more than a thousand Swedes have died with the virus.
So it is unsurprising that a host of data scientists, medical researchers, political activists and commentators are urging the Government not to abandon its elimination strategy. At first it was demanded that the contrarian detractors release modelling and peer-reviewed research to ‘prove’ their argument. But at least one eliminationist grasped very quickly that the debate was less about science and more a question of moral and political philosophy.
Dr Siouxsie Wiles told Newsroom bluntly: “I’m just opposed to the very fundamental values base that they’re coming from, around how it’s okay to let people die of this because they would die anyway, or something?” For Wiles the difference between her and Thornley is the relative weight they place on ‘excess mortality’. That is to say, the number of deaths that COVID-19 may cause in excess of the overall mortality rate. On average 33,000 New Zealanders die per year. Is that figure likely to be much higher in 2020; and if so, how many of these ‘excess’ deaths will be from COVID-19? The international evidence is unclear.
But Wiles does not consider these questions relevant to the policy choice. In her view, society has a moral duty to eliminate the virus, regardless of any cost-benefit analysis. Saving lives from COVID-19 is her number one priority. Of course, to reduce people to mere numbers would be callous. But as the contrarian economist Ananish Chaudhuri has argued, should one not give equal weight to all lives that may be affected by such policy choices? Leaving aside the empirical data on mortality, this dilemma cannot be resolved by sophisticated mathematical models.
Science may give us the facts but it does not tell us what to do with them. One is more inclined to read a tract of political philosophy than a paper on epidemiology. In a way, the pandemic has exposed the flaws and contradictions in New Zealand’s predominantly liberal outlook. Isaiah Berlin, one of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers, devoted his life to understanding the different strands of liberalism and the conflict these entail. His own philosophy may be instructive to us during these bleak times.
At the core of Berlin’s thought is the simple notion that human beings yearn for many things: freedom, security, justice, equality and so on. Such values are universal and to some degree they are all essential to ‘the good life’. But very often these values conflict with one another. For Berlin, the greatest lesson of history is that the many different ends we strive for cannot be reconciled permanently. Each generation will face conflicts that have no ideal solution. Sometimes it may be necessary to give up freedom for security and vice versa. As Berlin put it, “We are doomed to choose and every choice may entail irreparable loss.”
But the idea that we can perfect the human condition has entranced people for centuries. It has motivated extreme political ideologies of left and right, inspiring revolutions, war and terrorism. Berlin was not exaggerating when he lamented that more human beings had given their lives for the ‘perfection’ of humanity than any other cause. Although scientific knowledge and technology continue to grow rapidly, the basic dilemma of how to balance different values and goals will endure. COVID-19 has exposed this fundamental truth.
A perfect solution exists only in the imagination. To pursue it would be futile and dangerous. The ideas needed most right now are humility and realism.
Overall turnout in the 2019 local body elections was a dismal 41 percent. The figure was particularly bad in Auckland, where barely a third of the electorate bothered to vote. To put that into perspective, Phil Goff was re-elected mayor by just 17 percent of Auckland electors. However, declining participation in local democracy is nothing new. This has been the trend for quite sometime. But the 2019 elections represent a new low and could be a harbinger of things to come at the national level. Just before casting my own vote, I read a fascinating and timely book called ‘How Democracy Ends’ (2018) by David Runciman, Professor of Politics at Cambridge University.
Runciman makes the case that Western liberal democracy is going through a midlife crisis. In the past, liberal democracy’s greatest strength was the ability to continuously ‘reinvigorate’ itself. This was accomplished through widening the franchise, redistributing wealth and expanding social rights. War and depression, while threatening the essence of democracy, also highlighted its virtues – making it a more attractive proposition. By the end of the 20th century, the liberal democratic state had triumphed over communism and fascism, leading Francis Fukuyama to declare ‘the end of history’. However, the new millennium has seen democracy fall into decline. Runciman notes a ‘widespread contemporary disgust with democratic politics’ throughout the world and falling voter participation reflects this.
In a sense, Runciman argues, liberal democracy is a victim of its own success. Having achieved universal suffrage, and with the welfare state exhausted, there is nothing left to offer the masses but more of the same. While protecting us against extremism, liberal democracy has failed to come up with meaningful solutions to climate change and disruptive technology. It could be that these problems are beyond liberal democracy. This might explain the preoccupation with identity politics, which are concerned more with the authenticity of individual experience than finding common ground. The latter demands compromise – and that is a rare quality in politics now. Just look at the fallout from ‘Brexit’ or Trump’s America.
As Runciman explains, it was once accepted that the main objective of democratic politics was to find a consensus most people could live with. Mass political parties were essential to this, providing the means for compromise between different ideologies and interests. But social networking and mobile technology have rendered the old way of doing politics obsolete. It has become much easier to seek out those we agree with and to have our opinions validated at the click of a button. There is no longer any need to compromise. Hence the decline of political parties. Technology has also made it possible for manipulators of public opinion to get inside our minds. This could have major implications for liberal democratic politics (think Cambridge Analytica). While ‘the wisdom of crowds’ might have cancelled out individual biases in the past, this is no longer the case.
So what can be done? Runciman doesn’t have any solutions. Rather he counsels us to accept that this may be as good as it gets. However, unless humanity is wiped out, it is unlikely democracy will have a single endpoint. The three main possibilities that Runciman sees are: i) democratic states gradually become more authoritarian, ii) technology liberates us from making political decisions altogether – and not necessarily for the better, or iii) democracy survives in its present form. The possibility Runciman definitively rules out is that we can go back to the old politics. This is a provocative and troubling argument but one I find compelling. The moribund state of New Zealand local politics is one way democracy could end in this country.