The Psychology of Ardernism

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.

Survey results: partisanship online

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?

Labour15.48%
National20.92%
NZ First3.77%
Greens11.30%
Other30.13%
I don’t feel close to any party18.41%

If a general election were held tomorrow, which party would you vote for?

Labour18.38%
National16.67%
NZ First2.14%
Greens11.11%
ACT8.97%
TOP2.56%
NewConservatives7.26%
Advance NZ/Public Party20.09%
Other8.55%
I don’t know4.27%

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.

Polls

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 1993 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.

Political Ideas in the Pandemic Age

Isaiah Berlin for PIFAL.jpg
Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997).

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.