Will we have an election year ‘culture war’?

Politics in Aotearoa is quite different to Australia, the United Kingdom and the USA, so it is difficult to know how much we will move towards the fractious and divisive politics of those countries in this election year.

Bryce Edwards suggests New Zealand voters must prepare for an ugly culture war this election

Trump, Morrison and Johnson have found fertile political ground in the backlash to being woke. Simon Bridges is likely to ape them

Bridges is already trying a bit of this approach, but he’s not very popular so it’s difficult to judge whether he is shifting support – National has generally maintained good levels of support regardless of their leader’s lack of appeal.

Some say the New Zealand insistence on fairness goes back to our colonial history. Many escapees of industrial Britain embraced a life in a less class-ridden country. Of course the idea that New Zealand is an equal and “classless society” was always a myth, but this egalitarian ethos endures.

It creates a particular problem for politicians of the right. As a former prime minister, John Key, told US diplomats in a private briefing, New Zealand’s “socialist streak” means it can be difficult to push rightwing policies. Key later elaborated: “New Zealand is a very caring country. I think New Zealanders do have a heart.”

In 2017 this helped the election of Jacinda Ardern’s government, made up of parties that channelled concerns about the lack of fairness under the then National-led government. The new government promised to be “transformative”, rolling out a fairness agenda in programs from KiwiBuild to child poverty reduction targets.

This all presents the National party with a dilemma. There are few votes in criticising the government’s fairness agenda – in fact the opposition is reduced to complaining that the government has not delivered on its left-leaning program.

As the election nears, National will try to paint itself as better economic managers and Grant Robertson as an irresponsible and incompetent finance minister, but this is unlikely to cut it with many voters.

I agree. Robertson has largely been successful at avoiding scaring the economic horses.

So where can it differentiate? National increasingly relies on stoking “culture wars” and law and order. It is these fertile new hunting grounds that give Simon Bridges his best chance of painting Ardern and her colleagues as out of touch with mainstream New Zealand.

I doubt that Bridges will get very far there – one of Ardern’s strengths has been her ability to show empathy for how ‘mainstream New Zealand’ feels, especially during high profile times of deaths and emotions.

Culture wars are concerned with debates relating to ethnicity, gender, sexuality, human rights, discrimination, free speech and civil liberties. Elements of the political left – especially in the Labour and Green parties – are increasingly associated with campaigns in these areas, and often their stances are not shared by many mainstream voters.

But I think they are just niche elements of the left.

Ardern knows very well to keep her government as clear as possible of contentious social issues. Instead, if Labour and its coalition partners can keep public debate around traditional egalitarian concerns about inequality, housing, health and education, the New Zealand notion of fairness will probably also ensure her government will get another chance.

But Ardern probably needs the Greens and possibly NZ First to retain power. Winston Peters tends to appeal to a quite small ‘unfairness’ demographic which is quite different to the type of ‘fairness’ voters Greens will be trying too appeal to.

National’s best bet might be to provoke an ugly culture war. Expect to see Bridges attempt to start debates on these issues and paint Labour and the Greens as “woke” elitists, or just soft on law and order. This might be desperate and opportunistic – National MPs genuinely don’t care that much about many of these issues. But National knows that they are the sort of emotive and divisive concerns that might change votes.

This would be high risk. While it may appeal to some they are likely to already lean towards National. The more moderate voters that are seen as essential to winning elections are less likely to be attracted to divisive politics. They are more likely to be repelled by it.

There’s a cultural backlash ready to be fostered – as Donald Trump, Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson have found to their benefit. Such debates, whether over identity politics, hate speech, minority rights or gender can be explosively divisive. That could end up being the ugly story of the 2020 general election.

The US is a two party democracy that is very polarised – Donald Trump exploited this to win the presidency.

But we have multiple parties and I think far less division. There are noisy minorities on the extremes, but National and Labour are generally seen as more similar than different by most, in part due to the moderating influence of MMP.

National (and NZ First and the Greens) will no doubt try to push ‘culture war’ type issues to an extent, and media will give them more publicity than they deserve, but I am doubtful that many voters will buy into the divide and conquer style of politics that has worked elsewhere in the world.

‘Culture war’ in New Zealand – revolution or evolution?

Do we have a growing culture war in New Zealand? Or have we had one and it is as good as over? Or is most of New Zealand, beyond the political activist bubble, chugging along in quiet evolution?

Bryce Edwards looks at Our new culture wars at Newsroom, and shows that in some ways there has been a spike in the use of some terms over the past five years.

Occurence of the words in an online database of newspapers and magazines in New Zealand.
Source Bryce Edwards

The last five years have seen a distinct increase in what might be called “cultural politics” or “culture wars” in New Zealand. The simplest way to understand this is to think of “cultural politics” as being about “non-economic politics” – debates over issues that aren’t directly about economics or materialism, but are more about issues of identity and discrimination. Political scientists also refer to such issues as being post-materialist.

Debates about issues relating to ethnicity, gender, sexuality, human rights, discrimination, disabilities, and so forth have become much more prominent over recent years. And divisive topics such as abortion, euthanasia and drug law reform, will continue to be extremely difficult for politicians to navigate.

The “culture wars” are particularly associated with political and social issues relating to ethnicity and gender. And some key words go with these issues – such as “feminism”, “racism”, and the more modern buzzword “diversity”. All of these terms have had an explosion of usage in New Zealand over the last five years.

But how divided is the general population, as opposed to the political media and social media bubble?

Most of the country largely ignores most politics between elections, and is more interested in the All Blacks, Shortland Street and the latest repackaging of a burger or some chicken, plus the usual chips of course.

Racism, feminism, and diversity aren’t the only words representing the new culture wars. The rise of more socially-liberal causes and debates have led to a new way of talking about politics.

By the minority who talk to any extent about politics and political issues.

Racism, feminism, and diversity aren’t the only words representing the new culture wars. The rise of more socially-liberal causes and debates have led to a new way of talking about politics. The slang term “woke” is an example of this.

I follow politics more than most but hadn’t noticed the term ‘woke’ being used. I have noticed that even All Black coaches use the term ‘learnings’ though.

Similarly, the term that has been used for woke political activists is “social justice warriors”. However, although once used to self-describe as a term of pride, it’s now increasingly seen as pejorative (in the same way that “politically correct” was once embraced by liberals and then became a term of disparagement).

I have noticed the increasing use of “social justice warriors”, but only in political social media.

The phrase “check your privilege” refers to “privilege theory” – which is a central concept of the culture wars – that one’s identity (ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc) represents certain structural advantages in society.

“Privilege theory”is new to me, and sounds like academic-speak.

Here, “identity politics” kicks in, with one’s membership of different social categories being an important indicator of one’s value to the debate. For example, the term “middle-aged white men” (or variations on this) is a trifecta of disparagement and critique about the dominant group in New Zealand politics.

I have certainly seen growing attacks on “middle-aged white men” (and variations) and attempts to shut people up who are identified by others as such.

Is it even “the dominant group in New Zealand politics”? Look at the current party leaders.

Jacinda Ardern is not middle aged nor male. Simon Bridges is not middle aged nor ‘white’. Winston Peters is old, and Maori when it suits him. David Seymour is relatively young. Marama Davidson is not white, male nor middle aged. Ironically perhaps only James Shaw could fit the demon category, and he is hardly dominant.

Arguments about political representation of groups who are traditionally under-represented, are central to cultural wars. We can therefore expect to see more debates about dedicated Maori wards in local government elections, and ways to achieve better representation of the whole of society in other political vehicles, and in structures such as company boards.

Other concepts are also now more important: post-colonialism, decolonialism, CIS-gendered, cultural appropriation, hate speech, and free-speech.

I’m not sure these things will be being discussed much in the cafes, bars and suburbs of New Zealand, let alone fought over.

Has the culture war actually already been won?

The keenness of the Establishment to embrace liberalism can be seen in the number of businesses that are becoming more concerned than ever with issues of diversity and cultural sensitivity. This indicates that some parts of the culture wars have largely been won.

Looking at the leadership mix above, perhaps it has been ‘won’. But I think this has been an evolution rather than a revolution, changes that were started in the sixties  which was a cultural revolution – that’s now fifty years ago – and has gradually changed as young idealists have got older and had more influence in power over several generations.

We can look at how things are now compared to how they were and think ‘wow, that’s a big step forward’, but it hasn’t happened suddenly, nor has it reached a conclusion.

Te reo Maori, for example, is now entirely accepted as an important part of the nation. It’s also no longer unusual to see the Tino rangatiratanga flag fly in many public places, often on Government buildings. And the concept of gender equality is now universally accepted in politics.

I wouldn’t say universally accepted, but certainly largely accepted (with the exception of small pockets of past-dwellers).

But not all of this is this is a pull of the political elite.

On drug law reform, especially cannabis reform, the public has been well ahead of our ruling class, pushing our reluctant politicians to deal with a political and legal failure.

And this is more of social rather than a political pressure, the ‘war on drugs’ was obviously lost a long time ago but our politicians have been too cautious (or gutless) to step up and make long called for changes. This is only slowly happening now – in fairness to Ardern and Shaw this is probably being held back by an elderly Maori gentleman.

It seems that the more socially-liberal elements in most of these conflicts are in the ascendancy.

This has been a several generation evolution.

Labelling it as a cultural war does not do it justice. Wars tend to end up with winners and losers (or perhaps that should be losers and loser-losers).

Overall New Zealand culture has changed markedly in the last half century, relatively quickly as many things have changed rapidly in the modern world. But it is more due to growing awareness and understanding of the majority of people, who are mostly oblivious the warring factions on the political fringes.

This hasn’t been a war of attrition. In the main we can all benefit.