Political Business

Lessons on political strategy

Posts tagged ideology

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Honesty is cultural, not political

New Zealand’s rating as the world’s least corrupt society is due to its culture, not its politics.

Our low-corruption society is a precious thing. It gives each of us certainty and  security - the factors most valued by humans.

It protects the elite from revolt. It protects the middle class from crime and elitism. It protects the working class and poor from crime, hardship, and lack of opportunity.

Honesty is a cultural thing. People are innately honest, but remain particularly so when that is expected of us, when those around us act that way, when we are conscious of close connections to others in our community, and when we believe we are being observed.

These things are true of small, prosperous, countries where you find strong levels of employment, enterprise, self-reliance, sport, participation, strong commonalities in values and experience, and small scale community activity.

Honesty is rooted in cultural values we might never fully appreciate. Research has shown, for example, that the higher the rate of tipping, the more corrupt the country.

Honesty is not a political thing. It is not something that is mandated, although it can be reinforced. It is not something that is made by laws on crime, or institutional transparency. It is not led by rhetoric from politicians. It is driven by action of ordinary individuals.

Our politicians are not corrupt - because they are generated from our culture. But politics has the power to poison culture.

Honesty can be knifed by politicians blurring the lines of probity; by saying one thing and doing another; by taking convenient options rather than hard ones; by acting as if words and vainglorious ideas are hard graft; by talking as if no one can be trusted without authority’s sanction; by creating structures that dominate or replace community organisation; by dividing society into victims and abusers; by pushing an ideological agenda at the expense of others; by fueling dispute and disparity; by bureaucratising charity; and by adopting the rhetoric of community bonds as a campaigning tool, as if they’d invented it.

We must step extremely carefully into our future, because if we weaken our culture of honesty, we lose what makes us a very special and unique place.

Filed under honesty culture ideology corruption

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Liberals aren’t as unique as they think

A new study explains why liberals have more trouble with each other.

Research has shown that liberals tend to think of themselves as more unique from their peers than they really are. Conservatives tend to think of themselves as more similar to their peers than they really are.

It’s a tantalizing explanation for the apparent difficulty in left-wing movements coalescing, while conservatives clump together disturbingly easily.

It matches with my observation of the easy “oppositionality” of left-wing people. They seem to readily find or create differences between them and their peers, as well as anyone else.

It has been noted that the New Zealand Labour Party is regularly riven with factions. In contrast, while differences of opinion exist within the National Party, they hold together.

The researchers think the findings explain the difficulty of the “Occupy” movement in finding common ground. The Tea Party, in contrast, has held together remarkably well despite a disparate and self-selected membership.

What is most fascinating is the suggestion that ideology is actually based on ego. The liberal ego is wants to be different from others. The conservative ego wants to be more like others.

So is politics, and difference, all in the mind?

Filed under ideology liberals conservatives oppositionality unique difference

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Labour’s feel-good list

Labour’s intent to manufacture social outcomes is as strong as it ever was.

Labour’s next conference will vote on a remit originating from the highest levels of the Party that it “pro-actively” select Party List members so they represent special interests.

This means the list will need to cover sexual orientation, tangata whenua, gender, ethnic groups, people with disabilities, age and youth.

The Party is also looking to move to a 50:50 gender split among future candidates.

The General Secretary, Tim Barnett, says the matter is about “stuff which is internal”.

That’s partly true because this represents a struggle for influence and control over the Party. 

The reality is that the matter is very public. It affects New Zealand voters, particularly Labour voters, because the list will be ‘stacked’, resulting in a very particular type of Parliamentary Party. Are these people representing the life styles and biology which get them onto the list, or the interests of people who vote for the Party?

A stacked list shifts the Party firmly into ‘symbolism politics’; where support is gained by appealing in symbolic ways to special interest groups. It moves away from holding values and policies designed to appeal to people who share a common ideology.  

A Party which believes that it can manufacture a social outcome for itself, is very likely to believe it can do so in society at large.

Filed under labour list symbolism ideology political symbolism gender politics special interest

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What makes a good political blog?

A study of top US political blogs found left-leaning sites collaborative and campaigning, and right-leaning sites exclusive.

The research, detailed in American Behavioral Scientist (April 2012, p459-487), looked at 155 different blog sites.

It found that left-leaning blogs have more likely to be co-authored, allow user contributions, don’t differentiate between originating and externally sourced content, and include longer posts and discussions.

The authors claim that “the practices of the right suggest that a small group of elites may retain more exclusive agenda-setting authority online.”

It appears to me though, that both approaches, collaborative and exclusive, can be successful.

The left-wing blogs undoubtedly made a contribution to the aura of the first Obama presidential campaign.

The right wing blogs have resurfaced recently. So much so that the Republican Party is becoming concerned that the blogs and those running them are driving ideology and policy, rather than the Party.

Collaborative political blogs can succeed because they share a common purpose and language. Exclusive political blogs can success through the attractiveness and cohesiveness of the ideas they espouse.

Filed under blogs ideology social media internet

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Political labels

Is labeling yourself with an ideological position or political party useful or limiting? 

My take is that a label is useful shorthand to describe complexity. It helps yourself and others understand you. But we forget that behind it sits human complexity.

Labels are damaging when they define your position before you have one.

Filed under political labels party politics ideology

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Obama appeal to the middle class

Yet again a politician ‘appeals’ to people he thinks call themselves “middle class”. Ugh.

It looks like Obama is aiming for an “I believe” Presidential campaign. In the speech he moves from a belief in the free market to belief in military might, in welfare, to a belief in considerable government intervention.

To get there, he needs an opponent, so he has created what he calls ‘social Darwinism’. He calls it the biggest challenge of this era. He says this ideology wants society to allow people to lie where they fall. He says he is against that.

Filed under obama social darwinism ideology

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Can politics be rational?

Politics is the art of balancing the irrationality of voters with the irrationality of politicians.

An intriguing TedX talk from US political philosopher Michael Huemer makes a pitch for rational thinking in political decision-making.

He says that voters and politicians should attempt to be rational (I’ll outline his guide below). But his idea of rationality is largely economic. He misses the larger point of politics, which is establishing common values for a society. Many politicians, in their urge to win an ideological point, miss this as well.

There’s plenty of evidence of irrational politics across the ideological spectrum, for example; Dog licensing or chipping to stop dog attacks (it hasn’t); tax breaks to stimulate economies from movie making (it returns less than it costs);  re-examining welfare recipients (core unemployed stay the same).

The way public and political life circles round and round these sorts of problems is frustrating to those who think there is a rational answer to everything.

What is really going on with irrational debates and policy making is that society is venting its collective frustration with the untidiness of life. In the dog attack debate, for example, we’re expressing and establishing a common set of values about safety of our young people and the innocence of childhood; we’re allowing those scared of dogs to be heard; and we’re expressing a dislike of people who own, abuse or fail to train, the sort of dogs more likely to be aggressive.

Dog licensing and chipping may make no difference to the problem, but it does express a societal “value” - an attitude, if you like, about the problem. This expression has a moral role which keeps certain people in check. The fiscal, emotional and time cost of chipping may actually be worth it for this expression. 

Then again, I contend that moral expression of a society’s position through debate is often sufficient. An actual piece of legislation, programme or expenditure is not always needed. 

Most political issues are not actually solvable. Unemployment is a natural occurrence of a market economy (remember Geoffrey Palmer’s ridiculous “zero unemployment” goal?). People like dogs, so they will always have them. People get angry and hurt each other. People have circumstances or states of mind that lead them to steal. The base cause of the problem, or the belief that there is a problem, is irrational in itself. There is no rational answer to that.

There is something much deeper in the human psyche that makes Huemer’s rationality ultimately impossible. There is a deep rooted preference inside each of us for either a “tidy” society or individual choice. This influences our belief system beyond where rationality can reach.

Politics therefore is the art of juggling irrationality so it does not imbalance society.

Politicians need to be wary of being contributors or leaders of irrationality. This could over-balance solutions or society’s moral expressions toward an unfair or unworkable bias.

Here’s some of the questions Huemer thinks people (and politicians) should ask themselves, to establish whether they’re thinking irrationally. It’s illuminating.

  1. Do you become angry during political discussion? If so you are likely to have a bias
  2. Do you have strong opinions before acquiring empirical evidence?
  3. Do your opinions change as you gather evidence?
  4. Do you collect your information from sources you know you will agree with? (you learn most from people you disagree with).
  5. Do you think the people you disagree with are evil or harbour bad intent? (it’s unlikely that a large section of society with a different view are in fact inherently evil).

Answering those questions myself, I have indeed been made angry by the opinions of others. It happens, but less often as I get older. On the plus side, I can identify issues where I’ve changed my mind as evidence mounts. I definitely prefer people that I agree with (that’s a very human thing, and absolutely unchangeable), but I do actively seek opinions and evidence from other perspectives to form robust understanding and opinions.

From that list, the biggest alarm would be if you feel a group of people who disagree with you is inherently bad. Fortunately, I’ve never felt that. I think we generally all have good intentions, just different ways of being irrational.

Filed under political irrationality irrationality ideology decision making

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Government never ends

The underlying psychology of politicians and those who seek to influence them is that they are trying to put a problem right, finally and forever.

My corporate clients sometimes believe that if they could just change one aspect of regulation or legislation, their operating environment would be improved. Or, they think that if agree to a particular idea mooted by Government, that would be the end of the matter.

The reality is that there never is a solution that fixes everything. Solutions don’t work, or people’s expectations change, or the problems change.

So I often find myself counselling to clients that “Government never ends” - because it’s not in the nature of humans to be satisfied.

For example, about five years ago I helped private businesses fend off a proposal that would make their financial accounts public. I warned that the motivations of the people behind the proposal were not going away. Sure enough, a few years later, the proposal reappeared under a new Government. We shut that one down as well.

Similarly, I helped a food client water-down, but ultimately agree to, a government proposal related to obesity-reduction.  I warned the client that the government would be back for more. Sure enough, a few years later, the original proposal re-emerged and we had to bat it away again.

What brought this topic to mind today was the battle in the US over Obama’s plan to enforce contraception as a component of employer-provided healthcare plans.

The irony I see there is that a private healthcare system is being manipulated to bring about a social objective. Those who seek private or market systems often think that they’re freeing themselves of the interference of Government. The reality is that no system is immune from the reach of political interests and the shifts of cultural values.

Central to any political strategy must be a realisation that the current project and objective is at best buying time. It’s unlikely to ever be the end of the story. That shifts strategic thinking in important ways.

That is why I urge clients to concentrate on what I call “public advocacy”, not only political advocacy. What I mean by this is that the only way to change political motivations is by going to the source of political power and motivation: the public.

The great battle of political ideologies is actually a social battle. If you change attitudes among the wider public then the political drivers are changed more fundamentally, and probably, for longer. 

Filed under political strategy ideology psychology defensive strategy

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The myth of the dying voters

A twenty year old political truism has being exposed in the saga of what John Key said to John Banks over a cafe table.

The idea is that there is a group of embittered voters over 60 years of age, and that this group is dying out. The concept is not only wrong, it is patronising of the values of many people, and ignorant of what motivates voters.

The myth rose among the political classes over the 1990s. I recall hearing it, as a young press secretary, told as a consoling tale among Labour MPs at the start of that decade. 

This group are said to be embittered by age, and disaffected by a working life that was largely low-income and hit by successive recessions and radical political policies. Political cliques say this group tends to be nationalistic, and haters of the poor and of the rich. The story is that they are like this because they are poorly educated (or not smart) and unworldy (from small towns). Thus, they are regarded as supporters of Winston Peters.

The myth holds that ‘fortunately’ this group is diminishing over time because they are dying. It is repeated by politicians to each other, and by political pundits.

It is a myth because humans are psychologically pre-disposed toward different perspectives on life. Even if supporters of Winston Peters are dying off, supporters of his brand of political and social thinking will remain a feature of society. ‘Conservative’ ideas are not unique to a particular cohort or age bracket.

Some of the simpler expressions of the concept claim that age has embittered this group, but they’re dying out. Well, older people are not dying out - they are increasing in numbers. although older age can generate a very small shift acress the spectrum toward conservatism, the bigger impacts on attitudes are experiences while yery young, and the attitudes of parents.

Those who express the myth are really using it as a way of elevating their own belief set. They are saying that their attitudes are superior to expressions of nationalism, and cynicism toward corporate and financial life.

Politicians who want to believe that these ideas are dying out are very mistaken, and by pretending they don’t exist, are missing out on the votes of a significant cross section of society. 

Filed under political strategy voters political myth older voters retirement ideology voter beliefs voting psychology voter psychology