Unpicking the appeal of the populist right

It does not take a miracle of intellectual analysis to realise that we live in challenging times, locally and globally. Geopolitical tensions are running high in the face of war in Europe, the brutal and unconscionable Israeli assault on the people of Palestine, and the gob-smacking possibilty of a second Trump presidency. This list is not exhaustive and the escalating threat of climate catastrophe looms over us all.

Right-wing populism has become an increasingly potent political force across the world over the last decade. It is instructive to think about why the associated narrow and simplistic ideology has found such fertile ground. This is less puzzling if it is remembered that political beliefs are often fueled by emotion rather than reason. People are attracted to simple solutions for complex problems. In times of uncertainty, there is comfort in clear and doctrinaire messaging: migrants are taking your jobs, climate change is a lie, Māori are being given unfair privileges by the woke left. The fact that these claims are false doesn’t matter to those who profit from them.

Although this analysis goes some way to explaining this phenomenon, there are political forces at play which expand and exploit the current climate of insecurity, generating something of a self-feeding politics of fear and loathing. In the Aotearoa New Zealand context, via the recent coalition agreements, we currently have a particularly odd synthesis woven from divergent strands of right-wing ideology. Winston Peters’ New Zealand First Party has never been averse to the exercise of state control, which should be anathema to the libertarian values allegedly aligned with David Seymour’s ACT Party. There are, however, some surprising intersections, and the conservative Luxon National Party seems to be trapped as a kind of piggy in the middle, never quite able to catch the ball.

New Zealand First is the ideological heir to the spirit of the old morally conservative and  interventionist National Party of the Muldoon years. Readers may recall the ludicrous Code of Social and Family Responsibilty which proposed that all decent Kiwi households sign up to a contract for good behaviour, as determined by the state. Silly as this seems in retrospect, Peters can be an asture political animal. If you need reminding of this capacity for populist gymnastics, recall his statements at the outset of the 2018 coalition with Labour, proclaiming the necessity to return to capitalism with a human face.

It is, however, the field of nostalgia politics which is the bread and butter of New Zealand First: harking back to the imaginary days when we were all fair dinkum Kiwis having a fair go – Māori and Pākehā. Men were men and women brought a plate of asparagus rolls to the footy prize-giving.

Yeah, right. There are some subtleties within the weave. Most deceptive political narrative begins with some superficial colour of truth which it then systematically distorts. Peters intermittently targets carefully demonised sites of privilege and elitism as enemies of the Kiwi dream. The corporate nature of Iwi structures and lack of te Tiriti settlement trickle down to the urban poor is one such target. This ingenuously ignores two hundred years of settler colonial capitalist exploitation, accomodation and resistance, but why let the complex truth cloud a persuasive political narrative?

Then there is the rise of the ACT Party. This political grouping explicitly advocates for the interests of the rich and privileged. It replaces, or colonises, the desire for social equality with the notion of economic freedom. Workers’ rights should not compromise profit. The right to private ownership and accumulation is sacred. Social democracy is a communist plot. I had thought we’d seen the high-point of this ideology in the neoliberal 1990s.

But this is perhaps the lesson in the current conjuncture: just because the liberal left win the odd battle never means that the forces of social regression are dead and buried: they are apt to fly back in with a vengeance.

There are very likely ACT voters who genuinely believe that giving everyone, regardless of race, place, gender and class position, the same chance to make self-interested economic choices is only fair and natural. The gaping hole in this political philosophy – the huge structurally-determined gaps in wealth and opportunity between, say, children from Manurewa and Epsom – are not permitted to muddy the waters. Life may be like a game of football but in contemporary Aotearoa it is being played on a perpendicular paddock. ACT, of course, intend to rachet the slope up a few more degrees.

It is, perhaps, its insistence on a somehow comforting ‘one-people’ commonality in a society riven with structural inequality that brings New Zealand First into the ideological orbit of the ACT Party. The social disparities affecting Māori and the associated history of colonial oppression gives the lie to our persistent (if increasingly mythical and unobtainable) illusions of nation-hood based on pavlovas, buzzy-bees and cray-fish for all. In this way, the recognition of Māori realities and the promise of self-determined development is constructed as a threat in the populist narrative.

In health services and in my own field of theory and practice, child protection social work, we have painfully come to the realisation that decolonised and devolved services ‘for Māori by Māori’ will deliver better, fairer and more equitable outcomes. This requires time and investment and the approprate recognition of Māori authority under te Tiriti o Waitangi. It also requires spending in housing, education and community development, if, to borrow a phrase from the nostalgia narrative, this country is to become what it might have been.

Unfortunately we are being washed backwards on an incoming wave of right-wing populist politics. Resist we must, and if I am reading the signs right, we will.

Image credit: Sophie Angold

8 replies on “Unpicking the appeal of the populist right”

Thanks Ian,
We need to also be giving attention to the conditions that sustain and feed the appeal of the right. What does our best social work practice tell us about how to listen to, understand and converse with people who hold different views to us?

Kia ora David – yes, important food for thought. We need to work out our own understandings and be clear advocates but we also need to enter into dialogue with those who see things differently – get off the high ground, listen and talk if we are to effect change with and for the people we serve.

Kia ora Ian and David,

One of the great things about a democratic system is that the will of the people comes through in the end.

One of the bad things about a democratic system is that the will of the people comes through in the end 🙂

I personally think that we have this coalition because the NZ public just doesn’t think about politics all that deeply and is really quite uneducated about the ramifications of their choices.

How many NZ First voters (as an example) would have really voted for Repealing the Fair Pay Agreement legislation or Starting work to establish a new regulation agency to improve the quality of regulation or Repealing amendments to the Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products Act 1990 and regulations (as examples).

My take is that they would have just voted for Winnie because of something he said in a sound bite on TV 1 or his smile or his hair!

In a world of (a maximum of) 2 min Youtube videos and social media people have been dumbed down and the politicians know that and play to it.

I mean, if you’re a renter – why would you vote for a party that (when they enter into a coalition) puts forward a law that allows your landlord to evict you with no cause. And, plenty of people renting voted for this through their uneducated choice!

Just nuts.

And I’m not 100% sure people will resist. When your main goal for the day is to pay the rent, pay for food and pay for petrol – there isn’t much energy to resist.

We need to become educated and smarten ourselves up. Only then can we make the right choices and resist this populist wave.

Cheers Luis – yes a lot of us – social workers too – don’t think too much about how politics works and about who’s interests are served. The old anarchist thinker Noam Chomsky talked about necessary illusions and the power of emotionally potent oversimplifications. Not everyone gets access to a critical education and there are different ways of learning and knowing … and all sorts of layers of privilege … but social workers are meant to be on the side of those without a seat at the table and I think that is always a good starting point when thinking about how we educate ourselves and use our voices – and sleep reasonably well at night, lol.

Ian, thanks for the thoughtful piece. It is up to us to collectively and individually impact our spheres of influence so that we do not lose more souls to the depths of right-wing populism. “Equality” has become weaponised as to disable efforts towards equity. Helping our whānau and friends to understand this is a good starting point I reckon.

Thanks for your comment Bex – you are dead right – words in the mouths of weasils are dangerous things indeed. And yeah the kool-aid of deceptive populist discourse can be pretty intoxicating – you know, the old ‘some person or other has risen from disadvantage – so we can all do that and state support is disabling’ story. Not to mention the idea that the self-interested consumption and accumulation of ‘stuff’ is a hollow quest built on the labour of others at the end of the day. So … we need to be articulate, ask the awkward questions, name the fallacies, look after one another and suport the interests of people who are shut out of the liberal capitalist dream – in fact all the socially generated suffering that social workers see more than most. I guess we also need to choose our battles at times while remembering that silence is often complicity, even if disrupting the populist narrative can come at some cost.

Reading through this excellent article I was cheering you on … until the penultimate paragraph which flounders in familiar but tired narratives. In my field of child development and protection, with practical application in multiple continents/countries, the realities of ethnic, cultural, religious, and historical (and a long list of other potential underlying causes of inequities) are by no means unique to New Zealand. To close the gap on inequities always requires approaches that are sensitive to – and incorporate mitigating strategies drawn from – those underlying causes. But the process is not the goal. Optimal child development and protection is!

It is unquestionable that in New Zealand all social services require a greater sensitivity to the physical experience, the spiritual engagement, and the state of being of its citizens. Often this may be achieved through services ‘for Māori by Māori’ and the appropriate recognition of Māori authority under The Treaty of Waitangi. But not necessarily!

If these latter points are allowed to become the end goal, social services – including optimal child development and protection – will be vulnerable to compromise and even abuse. The church is a classic example of how an institution or frame can become more important than its fundamental tenets and purpose. In some instances, the resulting child abuse has been horrific.

To give predominance to ‘for Māori by Māori’ and appropriate Māori authority above development and protection will inevitably result in social discord and division. Children will become shields for advancing alternative agendas. Again, New Zealand is not unique on this score.

However, we have the advantage of learning from the mistakes made elsewhere. My concern is that the advantage will only remain theoretical while the narratives of alternative agendas are the primary focus.

Hi Doug – I think the thing with child development and protection is that it needs to be seen in the context of social and family development – and, of course, care-givers who are stressed need to trust those who offer support. In other words support from people who can understand their experience / walk in their worlds if you like – and this is where ‘for Māori – by Māori’ approaches are likely to lead to better outcomes. Don’t get me wrong – ethnic service matching is not the only element needed for good child protection social work. I know the complexities of this work well. However, in the Aotearoa context there is a present threat (from the resurgent political right) to the maintenance and development of indigenous identity and authority guaranteed by Te Tiriti o Waitangi. This is an extension of the politics of colonisation and will be / is being resisted as it has always been.

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