How can we avoid a Trump or a Farage? Listening to each other for NZ political change

Amongst the fear, loathing, rage and acceptance of my Twitter feed (that was mostly my tweets), @LewSOS from over on kiwipolitico asked a compelling question that I have been pondering myself for a while. What can we do here in Aotearoa New Zealand to avoid our own Brexit or Trumpocalypse. What lessons are there?

First and foremost, we need to actually understand what those lessons are. There is an echo chamber that is so loud it will bust your eardrums claiming that the election was lost for Hillary Clinton by white people, rednecks, Bernie bros who voted for Trump, selfish ideologues voting for third party candidates, and by misogynists. That is partially true. Those communities do exist and they did not vote for Clinton. But they did not lose the election for Clinton. Clinton and the Democrats lost the election.

They (fatally it turns out) assumed that blue collar Democrat voters in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania (the charmingly named Rust Belt) would be loyal to the establishment. The same establishment that has been at the helm when those workers’ jobs shift overseas, wages dropped, and industries just straight up closing. An establishment full of elites, including Clinton herself, who profited from those economic changes. Their assumption meant they never campaigned with any vigor in those major urban communities, and indeed aimed their message at gaining support from moderate Republicans (a mythical beast). That’s not speculation; that’s a confirmed strategy of the Democrat campaign. The establishment was right in this respect: those blue collar Democrats did not vote for Trump. They didn’t vote at all. Which meant Trump triumphed in all four states with less votes than Mitt Romney received in 2012.

Clinton and Democrats also lost the election because they misunderstood why people voted for Trump. Exit polls give us a pretty accurate read on Trump voters. They show that Trump voters were not moved by the FBI emails; they’d already made up their minds. Four out of five voters whose top issue was wanting a Presidential candidate who be bring change voted for Trump. Nearly half of Trump voters said his treatment of women bothered them ‘some’ or ‘a lot,’ but they still voted for him on other issues. Trump got more votes from African Americans and Latinos than Romney did in 2012. 53 percent of Trump voters don’t support deportation of illegal immigrants. The majority of voters who were concerned about terrorism voted for Trump.

Clinton and Democrats lost the election because they didn’t represent change and weren’t listening or responding to peoples’ genuinely held fears. Listening and offering change are the real lessons of the US election for us. Bernie Sanders listened, Trump listened. They heard different things, but they offered change based either on fear and anger or hope. This has parallels with the Brexit vote as well.

Who is listening in Aotearoa New Zealand?

Both Labour and National poll frequently, but that’s not listening. Every year, one of the organisations and groups I am involved with gets a visit from a Minister, or a government MP, or an opposition MP, or a wannabe MP, but that’s not listening. They ask what your concerns are and then tell you what is on their policy schedule. People are screaming into the void on Twitter and Facebook, and people push Like or that heart button thing and sometimes repost or retweet, but that’s not listening either. Even Garth Morgan’s new party, which will base policy on well researched solutions, strikes me as too focused on evidence, themes and findings, rather than listening.

Listening is what John Campbell and the Checkpoint team did in South Auckland with families of the working poor, doing multiple jobs, with no security of tenure, and still unable to afford to meet their living costs. Listening is what they did at Te Puea Marae when they went for a day and sat with families, staff and volunteers to let them talk about trying to meet the need. Listening is what Mihingarangi Forbes and the Native Affairs team at that time did when they advocated for the concerns of kōhanga reo about the National Trust. Listening is what Nigel Latta has consistently done in episodes of Hard Stuff to try and help us understand what is going on around us. Listening is what Mike King has done for youth suicide and mental health destigmatisation. They are all leaders and their capacity to listen has built their reputation and the trust of our communities in them.

We need leaders who can listen in Aotearoa New Zealand. I can think of no-one in Parliament or our local councils who I regard as a listener. They are leaders with ‘ideas’ who want you to follow them, not listeners going where you lead. If we want to avoid our own Brexit or Trumpocalypse, we need listening leaders who spend more time in our local communities than they do in offices or meeting rooms and represent the views of our communities, not the party. If our leaders could listen in this way, then perhaps they could embody change.

In listening, they would hear what needs to change. They would hear that families are living homeless and this is a housing crisis in every major urban area in the North Island that needs resolution now. They would hear concerns that that the sheer number of immigrants is too high and poorly supported. They would hear that wages and salaries for the majority of workers have not risen in years so we have a large number of stressed, working poor. They would hear regions failing as industries and workforces leave. They would hear deep concern about rivers and waterways, and over-fishing. They would hear concern about water security and safety. They would hear that people want dairy farms but are concerned there are too many and that’s ruining our national image. They would hear concerns about youth suicide and mental health.

Imagine building a policy platform on what was heard, instead of the status quo of elites and their policy wonks writing a policy platform and then polling people about it. A policy platform built from what communities need only comes from an actual representative model of democracy where our leaders are in our communities, not hidden in Wellington or inner city offices.

Listening and change. I don’t think it’s that hard, but a key challenge is we’re on this train of an economic model with an engine made up of growth and profit and everything else – people, land and quality of life – are just fuel. The train drivers, the elite, the 1 Percent, the rich have done well on the journey. Most have not. But Brexit and the Trumpocalypse are warning signs at the end of the line. Here in Aotearoa New Zealand the response to date has been decreasing voter turnout and civic involvement, but the Northland by-election is a little indicator of what a fear-mongering populist could potentially achieve among dissatisfied voters. We have an opportunity before the end of the line to change. We can still actually transform the system so that growth and profit are used in service of people, land and quality of life. Yes, it would mean the elite would need accept less growth and re-distributed profits, would need to accept the movement of some of their private wealth into public hands, but better this than voters reach the point where they just want to see the world burn.

Change is inevitable. We can all see it coming. If you can’t you’ve built the fences too high around your mansion. The only true choice we all have is how that change will occur. Listening or not-listening is the choice. If we support listening leaders, it can be a transformation full of hope and possibility. If we stay the current path, it will be an end determined by fear and anger, both spectacular and disastrous.