Could the alienated grumpies have a greater effect on New Zealand political life?

This was written before John Key announced his resignation. Other than perhaps the tense I think there is no need for revision. 

Unfortunately most analysis on the American elections focuses on who voted but, as Bob Chapman pointed out, the Non-Vote Party plays an important role. This is yet another example of Gilling’s law of how you score shaping the game; in this case pollsters tend to score voters and pay little attention to those who do not vote.

In fact the American NVP gets more support than either the Democrat or Republican parties. It just does not elect presidents or Congress representatives.

The New Zealand NVP is (proportionally) smaller than the American one, gaining far fewer ‘votes’ in the 2014 election than National, but slightly more than Labour, although less than Labour and the Greens together.

Why is the voter turnout rate higher here than the US? It has been falling. It was over 90 percent immediately after the war and is now below 70 percent. Clearly the NVP is a growing force in the political landscape.

What I am curious about is the extent to which it covers what I called in an earlier column the ‘angries’, people who are alienated from the political system and angry about what it is doing for them, feeling politically impotent. Overseas they typically seem to be older, lower-income, poorer-educated and less well-informed workers. Usually they tend to support authoritarian solutions to social problems, dislike markets and prefer central decision-making which overrides them (and yet they are angry when the decision-making overrides their interests).

Another group of angry New Zealanders is those involved in the political process but angry about Key’s style and his government’s failure to address issues they think important: climate change, healthcare, inequality and poverty ... it is a long list. The ones I meet are well-educated middle class who vote and participate in other political ways. Let’s differentiate them by calling them ‘mangries’.

There are angries in New Zealand. I first became aware of them in public life from talkback radio. (Paul Henry is a current public voice for them.) My impression is that many vote, often for minor parties. Those who are successors of Rob’s Mob in the 1970s are likely to support Winston Peters today. But many, I guess, belong to the NVP, although it has other large blocks of supporters such as beneficiaries, Maori and the young.

I do not want to make a comparison between John Key and Donald Trump. You don’t have to be very clever to find plausible similarities between any two politicians. However I want to consider how Key deals with the angries and their political kin, which explains, I think, some of his widespread popularity and why the mangries particularly do not like his style.

While Key has usually got good political instincts – in the short term anyway – he seems to depend greatly on opinion polls and focus groups. (Have you noticed how he will dramatically change a policy stance over a weekend, presumably when he has had a chance to consult the surveys?) They keep him in contact with middle New Zealand and the angries.That he has to form coalitions on policies – with Act, the Maori Party and United First -- also keeps him in touch with particular groups in society.

This explains his incremental policies towards their demands, which makes him appear to be a centrist politician. Of course you can’t do that for everyone. Hence the way many mangries feel excluded and the grumbling coming from the business sector.

Two other factors support Key in keeping the angries less prominent. First, New Zealand is smaller with a better electoral system so one can feel there is more opportunity to influence outcomes.

Second, while the income of angries – and most New Zealanders – stagnated for over a decade following Rogernomics and Ruthanasia, they have been experiencing mild increases in material affluence in recent years. Some of the overseas angries appear to be especially grumpy after a long period of income stagnation while the one percent in their countries has done very well.

Could the angries become a greater political force? The overseas experience suggests that it requires special circumstances combined with demagoguery for that to happen. Even so, the rising strength of the NVP is a worry.

If I had to make a bet the most likely immediate source of their irritation would be the failure to adequately fund the public health system. We could see a strange coalition of angries and mangries expressing that concern. But the opinion polls and focus groups would soon alert Key to finding some cash for health, perhaps even before the opposition parties have tried to lead a charge.

However, the angries and mangries do not have a lot in common. Angries dislike diversity, mangries tend to celebrate it; angries are social conservatives, mangries are more liberal.

For the economy it would appear that angries have a relatively short-term outlook, mangries a longer-term one – arguably they can afford to. As Key finds – and no doubt Trump will too – it is easier to govern in the short term, disregarding a multitude of long-term issues like an effective climate change policy, healthcare, housing, inequality and poverty, the water resource, the age of eligibility for New Zealand Superannuation and .... well that is just the beginning of the list.

Key’s government may be less admired by the voters in the long run than it is today. But as the Trumpites say – ‘we won’.


Footnote: In the earlier column on the angries I said the 2016 turnout in the US presidential was higher than in 2012. It appears to have been only marginally higher. However it is said to be significantly higher in states where Trump won and lower in Clinton states. I await a full analysis and will report if there is anything to learn from this.


Comments (2)

by Bruce Thorpe on December 05, 2016
Bruce Thorpe

In the USA, voting occurs on a working day Tuesday, and there are numerous other disincentives that keep down voting in many minority communities such as registration and residency requirements, and low dispersal of voting booths.

In NZ, until recent times most communities were close knit with very high levels of participation, but as families have dispersed widely over recent generations, the sense of obligation and sense of relevance has diminished just like playing rugby, supporting the local school has also become diluted. 

by Richard Keller on December 17, 2016
Richard Keller

Hi Brian,

Well written as usual but there is one aspect you appear not to have considered:  the elite are angry too, in fact desperate.  Between climate change, global pollution, and the recognition of the uselessness of nuclear weapons except for suicide, the millennial long approach, even philosophy, of civilization, at least in the West, namely exploitation, which in addition to a fundamental plundering of the planet, has also taken many plundering forms of social organisation, such as oligarchy, inequality, royalty and class based societies, the emerging corporate oligarchy, etc. often through some form of capitalism, is no longer survivable (sustainable).  That has been widely understood since the sixties/seventies.  So-called climate sceptics are simply not believable, they are just desperate (thus angry).  The capitalist exploiters know this as well, hence neo-liberalism.  Enron, 'The Smartest Guys in the Room', showed the direction of weirdness this desperation was going, and the so-called 'financial crisis' of 07-08 showed how open they were prepared to be about it.  It is now or never for this philosophy, and it has its sights set on the ultimate one, the monetary singularity, which would be the social culmination of the exploitation mentality.

You see the political problem is that the angries, the mangries, and the elitangries (sorry) all share the same terror that the changes necessary for survival are fundamental, including a more or less disappearance of the consumer society in its present form.  This terror-desperation-anger is a major source of the new politics of today but it has not entered the discussion.  It needs to.*


Richard Keller,  Wellington

* Naomi Kline in 'This Changes Everything' has tried to tell this story softly, but no one is fooled.  The thought of the needed changes produces an earthquake like terror and civilisation at the political level is not yet ready for this discussion.  I'm looking forward to reading the book, "The End of Alchemy", which might add to this discussion.

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