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Edwards: Political debate in 2018

What was the Zeitgeist in New Zealand politics and society in 2018? Dr Bryce Edwards looks at some of the year’s big political themes, which suggest 2018 has been the year the “culture wars” started to dominate debates.

Political commentators and journalists have begun to produce their summaries of the year in politics, helping the public make sense of 2018 from a “big picture” point of view. Often these are dominated by nominations for the best and worst performing politicians and the biggest stories and policy issues.

It’s also interesting to look at the bigger themes that underpinned the year in politics – the “zeitgeist” or spirit of the year.

Stuff’s Martin van Beynen took this approach, and wrote a very good column two weeks ago summing up the political year as being based around equality, strikes, te reo Māori, feminism, and identity politics – see his column, 2018 – the year of quiet revolution.

Here are my picks for the big political themes of 2018 – with a number in common with van Beynen’s list – and a look at how often words associated with these themes have been published in articles in New Zealand newspapers and magazines.

Equality

Issues of inequality have dominated politics around the world since the global financial crisis fractured the consensus and conformity of politics a decade ago. The public continues its renewed concern with fairness in a variety of different areas of life. The traditional concern over economic inequality is still there – especially in terms of debates about poverty, unequal wealth, and the cost of living. But there are plenty of other forms of inequality and unfairness that relate to gender, ethnicity and so forth.

In terms of economic inequality, industrial relations disputes have escalated significantly this year. As van Beynen points out, “this year has also been the year of the strikes… Over the last two decades many people's wages have hardly kept pace with inflation and this year is catch-up. Ironically it is the very party that many of the strikers voted for that is having to deal with the unrest.”

“Equality” appears to be replacing words such as “inequality” and “poverty” in usage. And the chart below shows that the number of articles published in New Zealand using this word went up about 40 percent in 2018.


 

Gender

2018 was the year that gender politics broke through as perhaps the dominant social-political issue. Of course, feminism has been rising significantly in importance in political and social debate for at least the last five years, but this year – especially with the #MeToo movement – it suddenly surged in visibility.

The chart below shows how the number of articles published using the term “feminism” or “feminist” nearly doubled in 2018.

Gender debates and discussions included broader gender, sex and sexuality issues. For example, transgender rights debates took off around the world and in New Zealand, and often pitted feminists against each other due to differences over identity categorisation.

As the chart below shows, in just three years, the number of articles published each year that mention “gender” has escalated from about 3000 to about 7000.


Ethnicity

The other major broad dimension of inequality in 2018 has been ethnicity – relating to concerns about race, racism, and Māori rights and culture. As can be seen in the chart below, use of the word “ethnicity” has risen significantly over the last year – about 42 percent.

The most controversial aspect of ethnicity is allegations of racism – and again, the number of articles published with this term has skyrocketed in 2018, going from about 3500 in 2017 to about 5500 this year.


Cultural aspects of ethnicity have continued to increase significantly, and the continued focus on te reo Māori can be seen in the chart below that indicates the number of articles using this term has risen by about 50 percent in 2018.

Martin van Beynen has commented on this: “The year will also be remembered as a tipping point for Māori, especially for te reo. The goodwill towards the language seen this year has been unprecedented and suddenly it feels like New Zealand is headed towards bilingualism of a sort.”

Culture wars

With the focus on economic forms of inequality seemingly being supplanted by non-economic issues – partly related to gender and ethnicity – it seems that in 2018 New Zealand went further down the path of the “culture wars” associated with bitter battles in the United States.

Debates about issues relating to sexuality, gender, human rights, discrimination, disabilities, abortion, censorship, euthanasia and drug law reform have become divisive.

Prominent “culture war” words and phrases of the year included “woke”, “intersectionality”, “virtue signalling”, “old white men”, and “privilege”.

These culture wars are often closely associated with the concept of “identity politics”, which was discussed much more. Van Beynen also discusses this in his column: “As the world has moved from class politics, where your economic status and background defined you and your political allegiances, today, and especially in 2018, we saw the culmination of identity politics as its champions breached the walls and took over the citadels.”

The number of articles using this term is still relatively low – but as can be seen in the chart below, the usage has more than doubled in the last two years.

In practice, one of the key culture wars debates is about free speech and hate speech. And certainly in 2018, these debates took off, especially around campus politics and the visit of two very controversial Canadian speakers. The surge of debate on this issue is reflected in the chart below, with mentions of “free speech” more than doubling.

Justice

This week “justice” was declared word of the year by US publishing company Merriam-Webster, as it had experienced a “74 percent spike in look-ups compared with 2017”.

The US company explained: “The concept of justice was at the center of many of our national debates in the past year: racial justice, social justice, criminal justice, economic justice”.

Here in New Zealand, the same use of the term justice has also been a big part of the year. In addition, some of the most important public debates have been about the Government’s justice portfolio, in terms of the courts, prisons, and legal system. Unsurprisingly, the chart below shows that the media’s use of the term spiked in 2018.

All of these major themes of the year suggest that New Zealand politics and society continues to be in a mood to question the status quo. This reflects the ongoing turmoil of politics and society elsewhere in the world, which is still captured by a radical zeitgeist.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the term “zeitgeist” itself seems to resonate more widely. In 2018 publication of the term was up 42 percent.

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