Sitting alongside questions of nationalism or internationalism, open or closed, populism or principle, a demand for authenticity has shaken up liberal democracies lately.
Politicians are asked: Do you stand for something? Do you mean what you say? Can I trust you?
How much can we attribute the astonishing tides of Brexit, Trump, Corbyn and Macron, to the rise of ‘conviction politicians’? Or do voters favour their perceived authenticity just because it sounds like the opposite of smooth political professionalism?
Is upheaval caused by substantive policy, or is tactical; a repudiation of perceived cynicism? Is triangulation becoming indistinguishable to voters from lies? Does an emphasis on ‘what works’ sound to voters like politicians putting themselves first?
Case study: New Zealand, where the population rates the country as being on the right track by roughly a two-to-one margin. A bland, sand-papered, mildly-conservative government is challenged by a Labour opposition either promising bland taskforces and working groups, or chasing green-left miserablism in the inner city.
The government has hung on to a solid 15-20 point opinion poll lead for a decade.
And then, 100 days before the next election to be held in late September, mirror scandals emerged.
The details are routine muckraking: A backbench government MP of singular in-distinction was forced to resign. His constituency staff had appeared to be plotting against him. The staffer alleged the MP had secretly recorded his own local office. Taxpayers’ money was used to pay out the staff.
The scandal engulfed the prime minister because, as the former MP for the seat, he had sent text messages which showed he knew about the recordings. Confronted by reporters the prime minister first claimed not to remember, despite having earlier given a statement to police. Then he changed his story. He couldn’t explain why the MP had kept his job after party leadership learned of the recordings.
The event was Bill English’s worst week since becoming prime minister, made awkward because it knocked a pillar of his core political brand as frank and unsentimentally authentic.
However, the day he was in his deepest difficulty, Labour responded with its own scandal.
News emerged that Labour had brought 85 foreign students to New Zealand on working holiday visas with the promise of a course in political organising that turned out to be mainly an exercise in recruiting free election workers. The scheme was dreadfully organised, raising alarming questions of basic competence. But integrity and authenticity played a decisive role as well: Labour has spent much of this year arguing that foreign students on dodgy courses should be banned, blaming them for taking New Zealanders’ jobs and even contributing to the housing crisis – at the same moment they were accommodating foreign students in shared communal quarters.
But a larger issue for Labour from the twin scandals was less obvious: Both issues had the politically-active chattering, but were largely ignored by voters. As the scandals dragged on, voters stopped defining the issue as a choice between a fiasco and hypocrisy. Instead, the issue for voters became a matter of priorities. If you are attacking the government for a political scandal, then it sounds like you don’t care about everyday voters’ priorities: their jobs, families, homes, their lives.
And as scandals drag on, voters stop listening.
Policy matters. Voters want political leaders to take risks, to set out authentically what we really believe. They want politicians to talk about their priorities and to set out a plan, and be cheerful too.
When we play politics as a horse race, when we hold a contest over who can inflict the most embarrassing scandal, we distract our opponent and draw them off message but we also signal that we are more interested in the insider game than the stuff that people really care about. It chips away at trust in the government, but it also chips away at trust in Labour. And as faith in the incumbent crumbles, if the left has failed to make the case for a principled alternative, the only other option becomes a populist wrecking ball.