Week in Review

If it looks or sounds like Trump: Press delete

Lawyer and former TVNZ political editor Linda Clark makes a direct plea to voters to put community and getting along ahead of division and anger.

Democrats are ‘human scum’, farmers are ‘rednecks’,  journalists are ‘psycho’ and the Labour-led Government is a bunch of ‘c****’. Welcome to modern politics, folks. I can’t be the only one who feels uncomfortable about where this is heading.

Former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer has described democracy as a pretty fragile flower. The petals can fall off quite quickly, he said. He’s right, though if the rest of the world is teaching us anything at the moment it’s that as the petals fall, voters either don’t notice or don’t care.

In New Zealand one of our quiet superpowers has been that our political system is steady and, mostly, civil. By and large, for all that we disagree on issues, we have far more in common than divides us. So the majority of New Zealanders support progressive taxation, a safety net for families in stress, (mostly) free health and education, a fair superannuation system, the ACC scheme, treaty settlements.

Governments are put together by the blue tribe or the red tribe and (since the late 1980s at least) while there might be some changes in emphasis and some pet projects launched (such as a flag referendum or a provincial development fund), by and large the losers accept the result, adjust their policies to accept political reality and we all move on.

What’s really happening, of course, is that the centre of the political spectrum is holding firm. In some elections the governing arrangements might tilt a little left, other times a little right. But under MMP no major party can garner the necessary votes to become Government if it alienates those voters and values that sit in the middle.

Elsewhere in the world that kind of politics has been turned on its head.

Said Donald Trump recently: ‘Our opponents are driven by hatred, prejudice and rage. They want to destroy you and they want to destroy our country as we know it.’ In Trump’s world only he stands between voters and some kind of imagined apocalypse.

Trump has – quite literally – rewritten the political rule book. He lies, he screams, he tweets abuse in the middle of the night. He’s vulgar, coarse and, it increasingly appears, surrounded by sycophants and crooks. Any one of those ‘qualities’ ought to see him cast out and yet…. He may even be re-elected.

Trump’s brand of politics is deliberately apoplectic and extreme. He wants voters to be angry and he fuels that anger daily with tweets, rallies, chants and social media sledging. The more emotional the rhetoric (because Trump completely disproves the theory that it’s female politicians who are emotional), the more polarised is the public and political response. The effect is increased hostility and decreased public confidence in political institutions.

What’s really happening, of course, is that the centre of American politics has collapsed as politicians and voters adopt Trump’s paradigm that everyone is either with him or against him. The divide runs deeper than just posturing over policies. In fact it’s not even about policy; it’s much more personal. A recent survey reported in The Atlantic noted that political tribalism is now so heightened that 45% of Democrats say they would be unhappy if their child married a Republican. Yep, someone who votes differently in a democracy. In 1960 fewer than 5% were prepared to say the same.

No one watching American politics can predict how this will end. The Republican Party has imploded. The centrists who you might have thought would have called Trump and his cronies out by now have remained largely silent and the left still appears to be intent on finding new ways to trip over itself. But – and here’s the reason why this is concerning – other politicians in other countries are looking to Trump and his playbook for ideas. As voters we should do everything we can to discourage them.

Ask yourself, do you like how Trump acts? If the answer is no then don’t support or encourage anyone who emulates him. The politicians, the broadcast jocks, the influencers, even the share brokers; if they name call or marginalise or engage in mocking vilification – tolerate none of it. Anyone who wants to polarise and divide us, who wants us to get angry with each other (old versus young, male versus female, town versus country, born here versus immigrant etc) – don’t buy it, don’t share it and definitely don’t vote for it.

This is a time for cool heads, not hot tempers. New Zealand faces enormous challenges managing climate change, global uncertainty and entrenched social inequalities. These are all long standing issues that need durable solutions which can only be reached if the political centre holds.

The Prime Minister talks a lot about the politics of kindness but I prefer the politics of community; where all those who can put their energies into drawing out the connections we have with one another, rather than the differences. New Zealand is a cluster of different communities but among and across those communities we can find common ground – if we are prepared to look and listen for it. The non-politicians amongst us do this all the time in our sports groups, our school boards, our fund-raising committees. We don’t agree on everything but we work out ways of working together positively and in ways that maintain community connections. Now more than ever, if we want to avoid Trump’s polarising virus, the national conversation needs the same goodwill.

All of us can start today by applying the Trump test. If it looks even a bit like Trump, or it sounds even a bit like something Trump would say, press delete.

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