Is a more radical mood developing in NZ?

It’s been a remarkable year in politics, and as we turn to reflect on the year, political scientist Bryce Edwards examines whether there has been a more radical mood amongst the public. He does this by looking at some of the more radical words being used in public discourse.

One of the most contentious arguments to rise out of the general election outcome has been about whether there was a substantial “mood for change” reflected in the result. There have been arguments amongst politicians, commentators and academics about whether some sort of vote against the status quo occurred.

For example, speaking at yesterday’s Post-Election Conference held by Victoria University of Wellington, Winston Peters justified New Zealand First going into a government with Labour on the basis of the mood for change. In contrast, at the same event, National’s campaign manager Steven Joyce painted the election as being more of a “Changing of the Guard” in which the personnel changed more than a major shaking up of the existing order.

In a larger sense, we can ask whether the New Zealand electorate was imbued in any way by the more radical mood witnessed around much of the world that has recently voted for anti-status quo options? Here we can think of everything from Brexit to Donald Trump. There has been a noticeable rise in anti-establishment politics of a number of different varieties, including the likes of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. Even the remarkable elections of more moderate leaders such as Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau has represented some anti-status quo sentiments.

This article reflects on whether there has been a rising mood of radicalism evident in New Zealand. There are plenty of metrics that can be used in this discussion. And in future articles I will survey some survey evidence which gives a further indication of how people have been thinking about the status quo.

Radical words

One way to read the political mood of the public is to examine what sort of political words are in vogue. The changing choice of words used in media, for instance, can often reflect some larger societal changes. Particular words often rise and fall in popularity in conjunction with the political discussions going on amongst the public. Inevitably, also, these words used in the media also influence how the public think about politics.

It’s therefore useful to measure some key political words that relate to radicalism, and see how much they are being used in the current era. In the exercise relayed below, I have done this with a number of words that relate to the current “radical Zeitgeist” that seems to be present in the politics around the world at the moment. These are: inequality, working class, Marxism, capitalism, feminism, and racism.

The information is derived from the online database, Knowledge basket. This database records the full text of all the items published in numerous print publications such as the New Zealand Herald, the various Fairfax-owned newspapers such as the Dominion Post and The Press, as well as a few magazines. Although there are various potential problems with the data, it does clearly show the significant increase in the use of certain words in recent years in the print media.

Politicians have had to present themselves as somewhat more “fresh” and open to the challenges denoted by the more radical conversations going on. They’ve had to talk more about inequality, regardless of whether it relates to economic, gender or ethnicity issues. And it seems unlikely that these conversations and use of more radical words is about to stop.

The point of these measurements of word use in the print media is to show just how the context of the 2017 general election campaign had changed, with a clearly more radical setting. Words that have various radical resonance – such as “feminism”, “racism”, and “inequality” – have been much more commonly used in the public sphere. It all suggests that New Zealand politics – like elsewhere – was becoming buoyed by some sort of radicalism.

Political parties and politicians had to campaign in the midst of this bolder political period. And it potentially explains the more volatile and colourful campaign that occurred. In general, there was a mood demanding new ideas, and a mood that was critical towards the status quo. This mirrored the cutting-edge new dynamic happened around the rest of the world, in which is “business as usual” was no longer acceptable to a growing number of voters.

Economic inequality and other radical leftwing words

The global financial crisis starting in 2007-2008 destabilised western governments, economics and ideologies, and has clearly had a long-lasting influence on the political mood in places like New Zealand. Arguably it has resulted in the rise of all sorts of radical responses – it has unleashed left and rightwing anti-establishment politics, and it has encouraged a new focus on inequalities. Campaigns and movements against economic inequality have been seen in everything from the Occupy slogans about the 99 percent versus the one percent, through to best-selling books about the problems of capitalism. And in general, radical language and ideas relating to socialist concepts have been back in vogue.

Public debate reflected this growing concern about inequality. As an indication of this, see Chart 1 below. This shows the growing number of articles published in the New Zealand print media in recent years that used the term ‘inequality’. As can be seen, prior to the 2010, it wasn’t common for the term 'inequality' to be used in the print media – there were about 250 articles published a year that used this term in the decade preceding the rampant rise after 2010.

Chart 1: Publication of articles in New Zealand publications mentioning ‘inequality’

In recent times – particularly since the GFC – there has also been an increased propensity to use some of the language of class politics. Graph 2 shows how many articles have been published in the print media each year using the term “working class”.

Chart 2: Publication of articles in New Zealand publications mentioning ‘working class’

In line with the idea that class politics is increasing, there has also been a noticeable increase in the use of the ideological term/name that is most associated with class politics – Marxism – see Chart 3, below. It seems that in 2008 there was a major spike in the number of articles mentioning some sort of variation on ‘Marx’, and the increase has continued in most years since.

Chart 3: Number of articles in New Zealand publications mentioning ‘Marx’, ‘Marxism’ or ‘Marxist’

Since the GFC it appears that the pros and cons of “capitalism” have also been discussed more often – see Chart 4. As can be seen, we seem to have reached “peak capitalism” in 2017, with about 661 news articles using this term this year. A large part of this was due to the news reports following the creation of the new coalition government, when Winston Peters cited failings of “capitalism” for his decision to go into a government with Labour.

Chart 4: Number of articles in New Zealand publications mentioning ‘capitalism’

There has also been a grand resurgence in campaigns relating to other social inequalities and oppressions, especially around issues of gender and ethnicity. The rise of feminism and anti-racism have been particularly prominent around the world.

Chart 5, below, shows that the use of the term “feminism” and/or “feminist” increased remarkably after 2012.

Social inequality and related radical words

Although radical words closely relating to economics and leftwing politics were in significant ascendancy immediately after the onset of the global financial crisis, other radical words associated with race and gender later become much more prevalent too. Words relating to feminism and racism – which can be seen to connote challenges to the status quo – have also indicated a rising radicalism, relating more to concerns about non-economic inequality, disadvantage and prejudice.

Chart 5: Publication of articles in New Zealand publications mentioning ‘feminist’ or ‘feminism’

The other key politics theme of race is also clearly on the rise too. Chart 6 shows how the number of articles using either ‘racism’ or ‘racist’ had declined during the mid-2000s, but then increased significantly after 2014. 

Chart 6: Number of articles in New Zealand publications mentioning ‘racism’ or ‘racist’

Radical politics in 2017?

According to the measurement of the above radical words, in 2017 we appear to have reached a peak, so far, in the use of words associated with challenges to the status quo. We can see how the increase use of such radical words started after 2008, especially with more traditional leftwing words being used much more. Then a few years later, perhaps in response to this increasing radical mood, some other words associated more with non-economic inequality started to rise in use – debates about gender and race usurped the dominance of traditional leftwing radical words. Nonetheless, all of these words represented some sort of anti-establishment or anti-status quo critique of society and contemporary politics.

To what extent this radicalism was reflected in the campaigns of politicians is not so clear. But certainly, an argument can be made that all politicians have had to adjust their campaigning to reflect new agendas and challenges from the public and media.

In general, it can be seen that politicians have had to present themselves as somewhat more “fresh” and open to the challenges denoted by the more radical conversations going on. They’ve had to talk more about inequality, regardless of whether it relates to economic, gender or ethnicity issues. And it seems unlikely that these conversations and use of more radical words is about to stop.

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