Friday, January 27, 2023

Bryce Edwards: Time for a sober discussion about toxicity and personality in politics

Since her shock resignation announcement, Jacinda Ardern has been at pains to point out that she isn’t leaving because of the toxicity directed at her on social media and elsewhere, rebutting journalists who suggested misogyny and hate may have driven her from office.

Yet there have been dozens of columns and articles, both domestically and internationally, blaming toxic public criticism for Ardern choosing to step down.

Rising toxicity and polarisation

Although some of the claims about Ardern being hounded from office by “deplorables” are questionable, they reflect the reality of rising toxicity and ugliness in New Zealand politics in recent years. And in terms of the hate that has been directed at Ardern, a substantial proportion of this is clearly gendered.

We do need to take a “moment for some national self-reflection” as some have argued, and we certainly need solutions for how to deal with rising polarisation and toxicity in New Zealand.

Ardern was the target of an extraordinary amount of abuse, but the toxicity extends further than the outgoing prime minister. Over the last decade or so, any public figure or politician – regardless of their politics, gender, and ethnicity – has become increasingly targeted for abuse, especially online. It began well before Ardern’s prime ministership.

Any sober observance of John Key’s time as prime minister shows the incredible hatred and abuse directed his way in the eight years he was at the top. This included his family, and Max Key claimed in 2016 that he received “death threats twice a week”.

Some of the aggression towards Key wasn’t even widely condemned. When gallows and death threats were cartoonishly made in leftwing protests, they were generally contextualised as expressions of anger and contempt for some of his policies as Prime Minister.

But a line was crossed in Key’s time – encapsulated by leftwing rapper Tom Scott’s “Kill the PM”, which spoke of assassinating Key and raping his daughter. At the time, the song and its artist had plenty of defenders on the left.

Since then, New Zealand society has become much more polarised. A survey published by the Herald in December showed 64 per cent of New Zealanders believe the country has become more divided in the last few years.

The impact of Covid and the Government’s response obviously played a key part in this division. Growing inequality and social dislocation have caused considerable damage, leading to bitterness and anger – some of which has been politicised and directed at politicians.

The role of gender in the rise and fall of Jacinda Ardern

Was the decline in Ardern’s popularity due to her gender? There is something of a strange reading of politics to suggest that Labour and Ardern’s poor polling in the last year was due to the Prime Minister being a woman. As journalist Graham Adams wrote this week, such narratives ignore how popular Ardern was: “Against reason, we are effectively asked to believe that a nation that gave Ardern an unprecedented majority in 2020 — alongside personal popularity ratings in the 70s that outshone anything John Key achieved — has become a deeply misogynistic nation in just two years.”

Yes, there were and are huge numbers of vile, sexist putdowns directed at Ardern. But the story of her rise to great heights has shown that her gender or becoming a mother while in office haven’t held her back in the slightest. If anything, New Zealanders strongly celebrated the progressiveness of having a prime minister become a mother while in office.

And the fact that the New Zealand Parliament now has a majority of women says something very striking about how gender is not the barrier for electability that it once was in this country. It could be argued Ardern’s gender and motherhood have been an electoral asset rather than a liability.

The personalisation of politics has accentuated toxicity

Political parties now market and emphasise the personalities of their leaders more than ever before. In New Zealand the “presidentialisation of politics” has reached a whole new level under the leadership of Jacinda Ardern. Since 2017 she became Labour’s biggest electorate asset, and so the party leveraged Jacindamania to win government in 2017 and 2020 – during which time she took the party from 24 per cent in the polls to the historic win of 50 per cent.

The leveraging of Ardern’s personality and star power epitomised the trend in politics for election manifestos, policy, and ideology to be de-emphasised. In fact, politics has become “hollowed out”, and substance and depth are now missing in democracy.

Few people join political parties, and the historic ties between parties and traditional constituencies have been eroded. Without the social anchors of strong ideologies and ties to social class and other demographics, elections are more about personality and the attributes of leadership than ever before.

Ardern was perfect for these times. Labour was able to focus their whole campaigns around her personality, with winning results.

Likewise, the Ardern-led Labour government since 2017 has been all about Ardern. She has towered well above any minister in projecting what the administration is about. This was particularly evident during the Covid crisis, when she was the almost-total voice and personification of the Government’s response.

The unfortunate flipside of having one personality embody and represent a party and government so entirely is that when the popularity of that institution plummets, it’s the personality at the top who becomes the magnet for all the discontent. Unfortunately for Ardern, by having her personify the Labour Government so totally, this has meant that she has been the recipient of, first the adulation, and now the blame.

Labour’s spindoctors might well have been smart to push Ardern to do the cover shoots, and develop a big media presence around her personality and charisma, but ultimately it became a double-edged sword.

The lesson is that the hyper-personalisation of politics is deeply harmful and unhealthy for all involved. The antidote is to shift away from personality politics. New Zealand political parties must rediscover their soul and substance, and not be based so much around leaders. They need to recruit members again, encourage their participation, and focus on policy development. Politics should not be an elite activity.

The media, too, could learn to focus less on personalities. The total concentration on Ardern’s star power was such easy journalism. But it came at the expense of a policy debate. A look back at the 2020 general election campaign shows how little policy and ideas were actually debated and examined. It was a policy void that few commentators were willing to challenge. The prime example has been the momentous Three Waters fiasco, which Labour didn’t even feel the need to foreshadow and persuade the electorate about – ultimately leading to a major backlash.

Hopefully, in 2023, the election campaign is less about Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon, and more about the significant problems in New Zealand that need fixing. Although ideology and visions are now deeply unpopular, we actually need more of a big-picture focus than on the personal ethics, competencies, and personalities of leaders. And it would help if the political parties are actually able to present properly differentiated policy options for voters – something that has been in short supply in recent years, which has merely fuelled the focus on individual politicians instead.

Weaponisation of claims about political abuse

We need a debate about polarisation and toxicity in New Zealand politics. An increase in toxicity, and especially the gendered and racial nature of it, is likely to increase. We need to find a better way forward.

But this is very different to presenting Jacinda Ardern as a victim. As some commentators have pointed out, this desire to turn her into a victim of abuse is somewhat paternalistic and patronising. Former prime minister Jenny Shipley has warned, for example, that “If we overemphasize the abuse question, it implies women can’t do this job and that’s not true.”

Even worse, is if partisans and liberal-leftists attempt to use Ardern’s departure to provoke a culture war. By painting a picture of “the deplorables hounding the Prime Minister from office”, such voices are just increasing the toxic polarisation in a way that prevents a sober discussion of the problems.

An unsophisticated condemnation of political opponents just drives up tensions and looks like petty opportunism rather than a genuine concern to help find a solution for a real problem. Instead of reducing the hate and rancour, such “call out culture” methods tend to be counterproductive and are a dead-end.

Instead, what is urgently needed is a better understanding of what is driving social divisions, and an acknowledgement that the increased abuse of politicians comes largely from our unhealthy personalisation of politics.

This focus on individual politicians and New Zealand’s shift away from collective ways of doing politics is fuelling a hyper-individualisation by which political careers live and die, leaving us all the poorer.

Dr Bryce Edwards is a politics lecturer at Victoria University and director of Critical Politics, a project focused on researching New Zealand politics and society. This article was first published HERE


Anonymous said...

Facts: any political leader has the duty to be transparent with voters especially on sensitive issues (such as co-governance for NZ) and to produce sound policy results. Ms Ardern did not do this. Spin will propose various spurious narratives, distribute blame etc - and permit her upward path.
The country must address the impact of failed policies.

Anonymous said...

It doesn’t help when politicians in the house are seen behaving like children and abusing one another. They then expected the public to be perfectly polite when the policies they hoist on said public are damaging to the country and the people.
Ardern implored us to be kind and was herself anything but.
Hypocrite in the extreme and no policy to boot

DeeM said...

As Graham Adams points out, the whole misogyny angle is a red herring.
We can't be a nation of women-haters when less than 3 years earlier we elected a woman to be the first leader of NZ under MMP with an outright majority. Or indeed, we earlier elected Helen Clarke for 3 terms.

Maybe Bryce, you should analyse what Ardern did to NZ over these past 3 years. And all without any mandate whatsoever!
- Focusing almost exclusively on Maori
- taking woke politics to a new level where everyone is pigeon-holed into their gender and ethnicity boxes
- threatening free speech and encouraging cancel culture
- coercing people to be vaccinated then vilifying those who wouldn't get the jab (there's some real shit coming her way on that score, I suspect)
- trampling all over local councils and forcing through a blatantly racist water infrastructure plan
- dividing the health service during a pandemic into 2 bodies which now focus primarily on race not need
- enacting a ridiculous plan to "fight" climate change (realise you're a big supporter of this particular cause, Bryce) which will only increase emissions

Once you've done that it is hardly surprising that huge numbers of Kiwis spoke out against Ardern.
Quite rightly she copped a lot of flak and ultimately it shot her down. A small minority got very abusive and that's not OK but it also isn't unusual when you push people too far.

Ardern caused her own downfall and only has herself to blame from the time she falsely uttered those immortal words in Nov 2020 - "I promise to govern for all New Zealanders".

Anonymous said...

Very well said Dee M. Also there was considerable over exposure of Ardern in the media. When you have someone that people can't stand the sight of (because of all that Dee says) staring at you every time you open a news site or on TV it becomes irritating to listen to the garbage and spin and lies. Repeated daily with lashings of mixed language it is annoying.
I say this as a former member of the Labour Party who attended conferences and met Jacinda and thought she was going to do some good. I have never been so disappointed about anything considering that she had a majority government and could have made the sun shine in so many lives but let darkness into so many instead. I still think Labour are burnt toast.

Anonymous said...

Swapping NZ Virtual Reality Show for UN / WEF Virtual Reality Show….Jacinda was schooled by the masters of Marxism …Jeremy Corbyn, Gordon Brown and the third man himself Bryan Gould..aye…always a trail says George Orwell.


Ricardo C said...

This time I'm with you MC (and Dee M).
Where I think Bryce hits the proverbial nail head is in his section starting "Political parties now market and emphasise the personalities of their leaders more than ever before." I think this exacerbates the "I only vote Labour / National - Democrat / Republican - Labour / Tory (because the family always has?) with this person represents my values" Sadly it's more whoever said, "Belief is the death of intelligence" These folk do not look beyond the persona and what they actually stand for.
Jacinda blew it by believing her own bs / communication abilities would triumph uber all. However as noted today by NZ Herald opinionista, Matthew Hooton, Jacinda's (predicted by some) exit has been stage managed perfectly.

Clifford j said...

Get a grip. Ardern pulled the pin, resigned because she had failled at virtually every turn. Yes she had nothing left in the tank. The fulfy words of aspiration had been exposed as just that. The people were screaming at her to make somethimg actually happen for the better. She had no answer but to pull the pin and walk away from the mess she has created, and then has the gall to blame those that pointed out her short comings for her departure.

Doug Longmire said...

Much has been made in the government-funded Left wing media of the various crises that Ardern had to handle.
What is seemingly forgotten is that John Key, in his time at the helm, had to contend with the Global Financial Crisis, TWO Christchurch earthquakes, The Pike River Mine disaster plus a swine flu pandemic.