Democracy’s dark future no distant doomsday

I struggled when Victoria University of Wellington’s Democracy Week asked me to “imagine a dark future” for New Zealand politics — to come up with a “nightmare scenario” for what’s ahead of us politically. 

To clarify: I didn’t struggle with this task because I think we have it so good in New Zealand politics. I struggled because — without wanting to sound overly bleak — the “dark future” I was told to imagine doesn’t feel to me so removed from our political present.

I worry that we’re fast becoming a hollowed-out democracy. 

Our parliamentary politics has become technocratic, dominated by the language of “clients” and “consumers”, rather than the language of “citizens” and values. 

We’ve lost a sense of direction in our politics. Vision is resisted. Pragmatism is the catchcry. We’re muddling through in managerial mode, rather than moving anywhere as a country.

Self-interest and selfishness have become acceptable ways of thinking about how we vote, and how politicians act. This individualistic mindset, traceable back to colonisation, has been embedded by the neoliberal economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s. Those reforms devalued the idea of society itself, partly by cutting the top rate of income tax, undermining collective institutions like unions, and denigrating beneficiaries rhetorically and through policy. The reforms had values of their own, but they crowded out space for a values-based politics to grow in the future.

A hollowed-out democracy doesn’t inspire people, including young people, to get involved politically. 

It is also unable to deal with pressing long-term problems. These problems include the over-representation of Māori in prisons (since the 1980s, more than 50 percent of inmates in New Zealand prisons have been Māori) and the institutional racism that is one of the key causes of such over-representation. They also include insecure work, climate change and persistent inequality. 

We need to centre values again in our politics: in particular, the values of care, community and creativity.

So when we’re asked, “what’s the worst that could happen?” or when we’re asked to imagine a dark future, I think we should reply that the worst that could happen is not some distant doomsday. 

The worst that could happen is that our political system fails to deal with problems that are staring us in the face — and, in particular, problems that have been with us for decades. Without arresting the trend toward a hollowed-out democracy, we will find ourselves in a society that continues to grow apart, where we cannot understand or empathise with each other. We are not far from that society today.

But I think there are ways back from this. We need to centre values again in our politics: in particular, the values of care, community and creativity. All of us in politics — campaigners, politicians, people having political conversations — could be more motivated by values and more willing to make sure there is follow-through on values in political practices and outcomes.

Care is about looking outside of ourselves, showing deep concern for others and the environment. Community is about recognising we’re interdependent and committing to not drifting too far apart.

Creativity is about opening our imaginations, experimenting and listening to the perspectives of artists, musicians and new voices in our politics — since art, broadly viewed, is so often “thought from the future”, as academic and philosopher Timothy Morton has said.

Underpinning, or lying close to, these values is another value — love or aroha or alofa — I think we might talk about a little more in our politics. A politics of love is a politics of other people. It might sound idealistic or lofty. But we might just need a few more ideals, and a bit more dreaming, in our increasingly nightmarish present. 

We’ll be doing better if we at least speak openly about the values we want in our politics and evaluate our politics against these values.

These values will be best secured with a genuine commitment to people power, a return to a robust role for the state in politics (supported by community action away from the state), and an ongoing process of decolonisation — of acknowledging and undoing the effects of colonisation and recentring Māori worldviews.

What flows from a values-based politics — and specifically a values-based politics grounded in care, community, creativity, perhaps even love — is up for debate. In my view, as I say in my book The New Zealand Project, a politics of this kind might lead to a reassertion of an independent foreign policy, a commitment to decarceration and significantly reducing our prison population, and a Universal Basic Income pilot, among other things. But I think we’ll be doing better if we at least speak openly about the values we want in our politics and evaluate our politics against these values.

Yes, things can almost always get worse, in life as in politics. But that optimistic mantra shouldn’t blind us to social, economic and environmental challenges that have been neglected for far too long. Nor must we let the gravity of those challenges paralyse us into inaction. Imagining a different future, based in values, will help us to build a better present.

Max Harris is a panellist for the discussion ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’, also featuring University of Canterbury Associate Professor of Politics Bronwyn Hayward, the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre Chief Executive Officer Professor Simon Jackman and  former MP and author of The Whole Intimate Mess: Motherhood, Politics, and Women’s Writing Holly Walker, at Victoria University of Wellington on Friday 4 August at 12.30pm, as part of the University’s Democracy Week.

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