(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, February 6.)
Politics in the 21st century is often characterised as a contest between the elites and the populists.
The elites – often referred to as the metropolitan or inner-city elites – are Leftist idealists who prefer to describe themselves as “progressive”. Leading global figureheads include the two HCs, Hillary Clinton and Helen Clark.
You could almost call the elites the new ruling class, since they have power and influence far beyond their numbers. They predominate in the universities, the media, the arts, schools, the churches, the public service and the not-for-profit sector – that vast and perpetually busy plethora of organisations, mostly taxpayer-subsidised, that lobby for politically correct causes.
The elites also beaver away behind the scenes in local councils, where the elected representatives of the people, the councillors, often seem powerless to control them.
The elites are big on climate change, racism, women’s rights, multiculturalism, gender and sexuality issues and the rights of aggrieved minorities. These are not issues that keep ordinary people awake at night.
They are often described as liberal – a misnomer, as it implies tolerance of other opinions. There is a streak of totalitarianism in the way the elites attempt to suppress dissenting views.
Their supposed liberalism is also selective. They heartily approve of liberalised drug laws, for example, yet they have a decidedly prudish streak when it comes to alcohol and think the state should be far more active in restricting what we can eat.
There’s also a striking inconsistency in the way they champion the rights of vulnerable minorities while simultaneously insisting that women should be free to terminate the lives of the most helpless minority of all.
A central article of faith with the elites is that ordinary people can’t be trusted to make the right decisions for themselves. The path to Utopia requires a supposedly benign interventionist state which knows what’s best for us.
The influence of the elites is all-pervasive. For the past two decades they have largely controlled the public conversation. Even supposedly centre-right governments, terrified of getting offside with the elite commentariat, have fallen into line with their agenda.
The corporate sector has been captured too, with its timid capitulation to codes of corporate social responsibility created by the Left with the aim of emasculating capitalism.
But there are some things the elites can’t control. They can’t dictate what people think or how they vote.
The magic of democracy is that the vote of a shop assistant or farm labourer carries the same weight as that of a university professor or government mandarin. Hence the rise of so-called populism, which can be seen as a pushback against the ideological agenda of the elites.
It was the populist vote that got Donald Trump elected in the US in 2016 and Scott Morrison in Australia last year. Both results came as a profound shock to the elite media commentariats, isolated in their self-absorbed metropolitan bubbles and unable to see past their noses.
An even more devastating blow to the elite agenda came with Boris Johnson’s triumph in the British elections, which emphatically settled the bitter argument over membership of the European Union.
The concept of a European superstate was a project dear to the hearts of the elites, with their dogged belief in the virtues of big government. But after all the rage and agonising political paralysis, no one was left in any doubt that the majority of the British public wanted out – not because they had a racist aversion to immigration, as the elites insisted, but because they had a perfectly rational desire to govern themselves rather than submit to rule from Brussels.
The only way the elites can make sense of such outcomes is by concluding that voters have been manipulated by the dark, malevolent, nationalistic force they call populism. It confirms their suspicion that ordinary people can’t be trusted to vote sensibly.
In the glossary of the elites, the word populist has become a pejorative synonym for the far Right, which is how they classify anyone mildly right of centre. But a populist politician, by definition, is one who seeks the support of, or holds the same views as, ordinary people. Isn’t that what democracy is supposed to be about?
So what about New Zealand? We tend to think of Winston Peters as our own example of a populist politician, but the Great Tuatara won only 7 percent of the vote in the 2017 election and lost his own seat.
It follows that he doesn't represent ordinary people in the way Johnson or even Trump can claim to. He occupies a position of power only through his ability to manipulate a dodgy electoral system to his own advantage.