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The unfortunate necessity of the ‘Ordinary Voter’

10 days ago I nearly voted Labour. David Cunliffe’s automated phone call the night before the election nearly got me. Nearly. In the end I gave my two ticks to the Māori Party. I figured it would need them to stay alive, and to have any kind of role in continuing the development of Whānau Ora. In a way I was disappointed in the Māori Party campaign as I did not get a sense of how they would seek to influence economic direction; they almost never talked about the economy, the single most important thing voters can make a choice on. But I voted for them anyway, not so much on policy but on strategy. So, the thing is, I did not vote to change the government, and I knew it. Even as my blimmin’ kids started chasing each other between and around the voting booths, with the four-year old doing a pretty good impression of someone in the grip of a psychoactive substance, I knew it. And when we scuttled out of the Newlands school hall before anyone could throw us out, I knew it. It came down to a matter of trust for me. While I prefer Labour’s economic policies, I couldn’t trust that the Labour hierarchy I would give my party vote to would be the same Labour hierarchy in following months or years. Nor could I trust their ability to hold together a coalition of the Left.Easy enough to say that now, in hindsight, with yet another Labour primary looming. But lack of trust is what drove my decision not to vote Labour, and therefore the Left as a whole.

So, in outing my voting behaviour, I can now admit it’s been a little depressing in the days since the election. Not so much because of the election result, which was predictable (and I was relieved the Māori Party survived, albeit in depleted form), but because of my Twitter feed and FB status updates that have been spitting rage on upon both non-voters and centre right/right voters. [And impliedly, voters like me, who passed up the opportunity to vote Left]. A few of these give the general impression I have been getting..

I am gutted at the lack of compassion and understanding from all those National and right wing voters. You’ve just given John Key and his mates a mandate to continue with corruption, gutting what’s left of a safety net, signing away New Zealand sovereignty, raising debt… […] Soooo gutted FUCKING FUCKTARDS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Should have given the right to vote to your 12 million sheep, they have more intelligence and compassion

Many of the people I know that voted National …have a great lack of understanding on how they will affect the future of this country. It makes me wonder how they made their voting decision. As much as I believe that everyone is entitled to their opinion, and that all opinions are valid, I sometimes wish there was a law that prevents stupid people from voting!

I have no love for my country anymore, I despise the All Blacks for helping Key get re-elected, and I don’t respect the 48% who voted for National because they are heartless and brain-dead. I hope they will feel the pain and suffering already experienced by the disadvantaged, it’s the only way to make them regret their decision.

It’s not so much that electoral democracy is not fit for purpose but rather that a large portion of the voting electorate are no longer fit for purpose.

Wag friend on election results: “Evil will always triumph because Good is dumb.”


Many, but not all of the comments I saw came from predominantly Pākehā well-educated, employed and middle-class commenters. The anger and the disbelief was confronting and disturbing. It was also immediate, and visceral and, for the most part, emotionally honest. What worries me is not the emotionalism per se. What interests me is the contempt expressed for The Ordinary Voters. He and She are stupid, gullible, uneducated, corruptible, greedy, and more.

Perhaps these kinds of comments (and the above examples provide just a tiny smattering)  is the product of what often been called political ‘tribalism”. After all, there is nothing so powerful and unifying between individuals joined by a common political ideology as the sense of being part of a chosen people that have the best answers. That is an ancient narrative as old as social humanity, is it not?  Such thinking is, after all, at the heart of our party-based system of political representation. But that belief creates the inevitable corollary that those who don’t share any given belief are at worst dumb, gullible, and corruptible, and at worst, corrupt, craven to ‘interests’ and, well, just plain evil.

On the other hand, there is another strong theme that has been emerging; the Ordinary Voter as Sensible and Discerning paragon. John Key even told us so, on his Campbell Live interview two nights after the election. ‘The Public’ he reckoned are ‘much smarter than maybe all of us the media and politicians give them credit..[…] They are much smarter than we think. Much smarter.’ [That repetition didn’t make it onto the web edit, but I repeat it here because the emphasis is..well, emphatic.]

I don’t take issue with Key paying tribute, as he saw it, to the electoral intelligence of voters (from his point of view, natch) . It would be extraordinarily ungracious for a prime minister who had just led a third term election victory with increased support to neglect to pay tribute, in some way, to the voting public. A couple of things interest me about this quote, though. One is that Key clearly identifies the ‘elite’ (‘us the media and politicians’) as not quite connecting with, or understanding ‘the Public’. The second point is the necessary implication from this quote is that this identifiable elite (albeit wrongly) considers The Public to be stupid in the first place.

I’m sure his observation reflects a truth. After the leaders’ debate on 10 September the TV3 expert panel (including Bryce Edwards and Josie Pagani and Duncan Garner) was convened to discuss the debate. The panellists were convinced The People watching would have drowned in the policy detail (despite the many thousands of text voters who were highly engaged with the issues being debated). They then enlisted a quaintly-named People’s Panel (comprising amusing Ordinary Voters Who Are Clearly Not Experts) and asked them if they found there was too much policy detail for their little heads. ‘Um…no.’ was the general response, to the surprise of all. I found this aspect of the piece patronising.

The theme of an elite  out of touch with Ordinary Voters has also been picked up consistently by those commentating on the demise of the Left vote, and the internal chaos of the Labour party, as shown here, and here. Morgan Godfrey identified that  political elitism of the Left was to blame for electoral defeat, not policies:

Yet the problem wasn’t that the policies were poorly pitched. The problem seems to be that politics – the process, the institutions and then the policies – isn’t reaching voters at the hard edge. Our New Zealand not only talks past the New Zealand that won last night, our New Zealand also seems to talk past the people we claim to represent. Everyone is entitled to a better life, yet our leaders seem incapable of giving convincing expression to that very simple idea.

I don’t know how the Left can rebuild a relationship with Ordinary Voters, or how deep the disconnect really is between “the elite” and those voters. Nor is the “elite”, including mainstream media and others in ‘the beltway’ are entirely to blame for the routing on Election night. I sure as heck don’t think the blogosphere of Right or Left are to blame any more than any other factor; they are merely part of the mix. Focusing blame and attention on that elite or a combination of its parts, I suspect, is only going to reveal some of the problems.

My gut instinct tells me, however, that contempt for ordinary voters is never a good strategy for any political movement, within its elite, or within its broader membership. Rarely have I seen more unattractive advertisements for the Left than those disseminated on social media in the past couple of weeks.Cameron Slater may be a card-carrying attack dog for the Right, but I wonder if the largely middle-class and educated Twitterati and FB Status Update Commentariat don’t themselves comprise a fairly vigorous battalion of attack piranha. Except they attack their friends and family and acquaintances directly and indirectly. For every person who posted “I can’t believe the New Zealand public voted in Donkey and his lackeys again’ there was an auntie or an uncle or a cousin, or old school friend who either voted for the centre-Right, and just held their counsel, or who didn’t vote Left, or who simply didn’t vote, and who also will have held their counsel, because non-voters were just as big a target as voters for the wrong parties. And the divide between potential voters for the Left and actual voters grows just a little bit wider.

So maybe, just maybe, for the Left to regenerate some relevance and numerical support, obviously some serious thinking needs to go not into sorting out machinery of politics and the right platform.  But perhaps  the angrier politically active voters of the Left might also seek to understand (instead of presume) why other ordinary people actually voted as they did. And a hint: it will not generally be because they are venal, corrupt and stupid. Maybe some honest and open conversations could do at least as much for the rehabilitation of the Left than another Labour leadership primary. Maybe political tribalism is less an answer to political apathy or conservatism than a trap.














About Sparrowhawk/Kārearea

Legal academic and writer, Wellington. (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Pākeha. Nō te Hāhi Mihinare hoki)

3 responses »

  1. It has struck me that many of the folks I follow on SM who decried the abhorrent mouthing’s exposed in Dirty Politics fail to see that their comments [which are very similar to the ones you quote above] are so very alike to the ones they revile. Too many only hear what they want to hear, and so are convinced in the riotousness and merits of their arguments that they fail to recognize any other argument.

    A couple of years ago there was an Act on Campus advocate who said “my argument is so strong I don’t need to articulate it.” He was rightly mocked. Yet many who would have mocked him don’t see that they are taking basically the same stance.

    When studying history I have often looked at the rise of movements that demonize the Other and wondered how reasonable people let that happen. This election has given me that answer. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nei ra te mihi mahana ki a koe Mamari. E tika rawa tou kōrero – mehemea i whakaiti te tangata i pōti mo te ‘matau’ e kore hoki i pōti rānei, kei te whakaiti i au whanaunga, i au hoa mahi. Me kaha tātou ki te akiaki te tangata ki te pōti ahakoa ko wai rā. Heoi, ko te wero kei ngā pāti torangapu ko te tirotiro ki a mātou ano, ki te wananga hoki i ngā take i hinga, i toa rānei tetahi ki tetahi, a ki te rapu hoki te huarahi ki te kotahitanga, me te rongoa kia whai oranga te tangata.

    Liked by 1 person


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