I’ve thought for some time that social cohesion will be a key election issue – perhaps the key election issue – next year. If it isn’t, it should be.
This belief may simply reflect my own anxieties, but it gained some weight this week when Victoria University politics lecturer Bryce Edwards reported a survey that showed mounting concern among New Zealanders about social division.
Even during the 1981 Springbok tour, generally regarded as a high-water mark of polarisation in New Zealand, the country wasn’t split in the way it is now.
On that occasion there was a clean, sharp fault line over a single issue. After the Springboks went home, things slowly settled down. It even became permissible to enjoy watching rugby again. And of course the battle over apartheid eventually became a distant memory after the transfer of power from whites to blacks in South Africa.
But in 2022, there are multiple social cracks spreading in all directions, and no promise that the fractures will heal.
Where Bryce Edwards and the respondents to the survey he reports may be wrong, I suspect, is in identifying inequalities of wealth and housing as the key factors “tearing the country apart”, in Edwards’ words. I think there’s much more to it than that.
Certainly those glaring economic disparities exist and are growing more obvious. They are in large part a long-term consequence of the country’s economic restructuring during the 1980s.
I was one of the many who broadly supported those changes, some of which were essential and long overdue, but there’s no denying they fundamentally re-arranged New Zealand’s social furniture in ways that I don’t think were foreseen. What we thought of then as an unavoidable but temporary social dislocation ended up becoming structurally embedded.
New Zealand pre-Rogernomics could fairly claim to be an egalitarian society. No one could pretend that’s still true. Extremes of wealth and poverty become more marked with every year.
Almost as disturbingly, a status-conscious, consumerist culture celebrates conspicuous, ostentatious displays of wealth – in everything from clothes to food, cars and houses – in a way that was unthinkable 50 years ago. I find it hard to reconcile this new New Zealand with the country I grew up in.
But economic inequality is only one contributor to the worrying decline in social cohesion that Edwards wrote about this week. At least equally insidious, although far harder to measure, is the pernicious effect of identity politics.
This encourages us to think of ourselves not as a community with shared interests, values and aspirations but as a collection of minority groups with disparate and often conflicting goals.
Identity politics promotes a neo-Marxist view of society as inherently divided between the privileged – for which read white and male – and a plethora of aggrieved groups struggling against oppression and disadvantage. These include women (even though they make up half of Parliament and occupy the country’s three most powerful positions), Maori, immigrant communities, religious minorities, people with disabilities or illnesses (including some that are avoidable, such as obesity) and those asserting non-mainstream sexual identities.
We are told these perceived disadvantages are the result of structural imbalances of power that can be remedied only by a radical reconstruction of society. It’s effectively a zero-sum game in which power must be transferred from those who are perceived as having it to those who feel excluded. This creates conditions in which society runs the risk of going to war with itself.
Even traditional liberal democratic values that most of us thought were unassailable are under attack. These include freedom of speech, which the proponents of identity politics condemn as a tool of oppression and an instrument of hate against vulnerable minorities, and the principle that no group of citizens should enjoy greater rights than any other.
These trends have been evident for years but have greatly accelerated under the Labour Party government, the more so since Labour was given power to govern alone in 2020. The government itself is a symbol of the ascendancy of identity politics, with a powerful Maori caucus that functions as a virtual government within a government.
Identity politics originated in the Marxist social science faculties of universities but has penetrated all corners of the community. No sector is immune to its reach.
Its spread has been greatly assisted – albeit accidentally – by events such as the Christchurch mosque atrocities, which activists unashamedly exploited as an opportunity to promote the canard that New Zealand is a haven for hateful white supremacists, and the Covid-19 pandemic. The latter event, although initially conducive to a message of national unity, exposed a yawning divide between those in authority and those whom the political establishment viewed, to use Hillary Clinton’s infamous term, as deplorables.
A striking feature of many of the loudest voices promoting identity politics and rebuking New Zealanders for their supposed failings is that their accents identify them as arrivals from other countries. For saying this I will be labelled as a xenophobe, but I welcome the fact that New Zealand is now home to multiple ethnicities. Multiculturalism has greatly enriched and enlivened our society.
What I resent is the disproportionate influence wielded in New Zealand affairs by vociferous, highly assertive relative newcomers – in academia, the bureaucracy and politics – who see New Zealand as a perfect ideological blank space on which they can leave their imprint. I suspect they can’t believe their luck in stumbling on a country with a population that’s either too passive, too naive or simply too distracted by other things – jobs, mortgages, sport, bringing up kids – to realise their country is being messed with. We have always been suckers for articulate, confident voices from overseas; it’s part of our national inferiority complex.
The news media’s role in all this upheaval should not be underestimated. Social division has been promoted and magnified, deliberately or otherwise, by media outlets that relentlessly focus on issues that highlight perceived differences and supposed inequities.
The mainstream news media formerly served as an important agent of social cohesion by providing a public space in which issues could be civilly explored and debated. They have largely abandoned that role in favour of one where they constantly promote ideological agendas and hector readers, viewers and listeners with their own radical, unmandated vision of what New Zealand should be like.
In the process they have alienated much of their core audience, betrayed their trust and driven them to online channels that serve only to accentuate, and in some cases exploit, the deepening stress fractures in New Zealand society.
The result is that what was previously a unified and, by world standards, generally contented country is now a sour, rancorous babel of competing voices. Distrust, fear, resentment and sullen anger have displaced the broad consensus that sustained New Zealand for decades regardless of which political party was in power. Where all this could lead is impossible to say and frightening to contemplate.