Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Why Winston Peters is the Kiwi Bernie Sanders

Not so long ago, national headlines were made by Attorney General Chris Finlayson's ribald and offhand comment that Winston Peters was the New Zealand iteration of one Donald J. Trump - the man presently leading the Republican field in the U.S. Presidential Primaries.

I had to hand it to one of my Party comrades who came up with the rip-snorting riposte: "So what, you think he's going to demolish everyone else in the next election, then?" ... but my own ardently leftist instincts for once decided to eschew witty repartee in favour of making a somewhat bold pronouncement in return.

Winston Peters is the Kiwi Bernie Sanders.

Consider the similarities: they're both physically aging figures who yet manage to move with the levity and rhetorical grace of youth. They run things around Establishment and big-money opponents who're often men and women closer to being half their age. They represent the fight-back and strike-back of a democratic and state-lead economic politics of the sort commonly practiced throughout the Western World for much of the latter half of the 20th Century (before we ditched it all and traded in our functioning social state for the hill of magic beans wrapped up in a Pandora's Package promised by Neoliberalist reform).

They stands for the ordinary, common man - his hopes, his dreams, his aspirations. They resolutely oppose what Sanders terms "Wall St Bankers", and what Winston derisively refers to as "Financial Derivatives Trading Wide-Boys" - in Winston's case, the one in particular who's presently propping up New Zealand's government almost single-handed ... one Hauraki interview at a time.

They're also wildly - perhaps surprisingly - charismatic, and capable of energizing audiences young and old to stand up, be counted, and vocally denounce the old economic order which holds us all down.

Perhaps due to this, into the bargain, they're often eschewed, ignored, and ridiculed by more Establishment-oriented media and broadcast figures.

But there are some differences, too.

Despite Winston's enduring popularity (some would say arguable political "sainthood"), he presently commands less than ten percent of the popular vote - impressive, but hardly the stuff of single-handedly remaking our political discourse. And regardless of Sanders' sudden surge in appeal, it seems still *FAR* too early to tell whether he'll be able to have anything like as much impact upon his own nation's upcoming shape of government as Winston seems almost certainly assured to be able to exert here in New Zealand.

Further, whereas Winston is shamelessly rather "old-school" in some of his attitudes (albeit often for liberally-defensible reasons ... which is often what I find myself seeking to explain), Sanders is a dyed-in-the-wool uber-liberal: a man whose Civil Rights record spans more than half a century, encompassing a time when Winston was serving a government which famously advocated for the necessary separation of politics and sport.

This last point is often where people start quibbling with my Peters-Sanders analogy. They draw attention to the allegedly yawning gulf between Sanders' liberal embodiment, and Winston's "'mere' appeal" to liberals.

And to be fair, it's a counter-point I have some time for. I still recall being the only man in a bar not yelling abuse at the screen when Winston spoke against passing Equality of Marriage without a Referendum back in 2013 (although it helped that he was quoting me in his speech; and that having first articulated the Party's position on the issue way back in 2012 with a Policy Remit to that year's Convention, it was effectively *my* position that he was representing - I'll explain all of that in a future post some other time). I somehow can't imagine Sanders doing that - his commitment is to economic democracy without necessarily *all* the trappings of democratizing social policy as well.

But then I read a most interesting article on Wednesday morning about how Sanders' was starting to broaden his appeal out to encompass conservative (and, indeed, Conservative) segments of the electorate as well as and in addition to his more natural and traditional liberal constituency.

Alternet quotes Sanders: "Sanders has been extraordinarily clear about the kind of shift he’d like to effect: Republicans “divide people on gay marriage. They divide people on abortion. They divide people on immigration. And what my job is, and it’s not just in blue states. . . [is] to bring working people together around an economic agenda that works. People are sick and tired of establishment politics; they are sick and tired of a politics in which candidates continue to represent the rich and the powerful.”"

That's powerful stuff.

And it's also (with the obvious exception of the immigration bit) what New Zealand First rhetoric under Winston is all about: uniting people, rather than segmenting them, behind a rational, somewhat radical anti-neoliberalist and NATIONALIST economic agenda.

It's why we *have* Referendum positions on issues like equality of marriage or the legalization of marijuana in the first place. Because while we recognize the merits of doing either, a lot of New Zealanders don't necessarily agree (rightly or wrongly) - thus creating space for (distracting) debate ... whether we like it or not.

Meanwhile, parties like National get to use spurious logic and diversionary tactics to advance fallacious causes like the Flag-referendum in order to take our eyes off the prize and our attention away from serious issues like the signing of the TPPA and the ongoing deterioration of our economy. It's hard to demand meaningful change as a polis unless we're united, rather than disparate and tearing ourselves apart over other issues.

So this, I think, is the great shining strength of New Zealand First - that we're able to bring people together from a whole raft and diversity of differing backgrounds, social positions and even political standpoints to fight for the *same overarching economic vision*. Where Labour seems to be set to continue imploding and The Greens appear to be pre-occupied slowly inching into upper middle class and businessman segments of the electorate ... New Zealand First alone has a genuine movement that's capable of reaching Kiwis from minimum wage urban factory and shop workers out to neglected farmers and other struggling out in the Regions, and quite literally from Cape Reinga in Northland, to Invercargill in the depths of the South.

And that's something special - not least because it gains for the Opposition the ability to actually hew into National's support and win over people - voters - from across the Aisle. We don't get to change the Government if we're merely trading votes amongst ourselves, here in the nominal Left and Center ... and that's exactly what the Alternet article talked about the Sanders Campaign starting to do with marked success.

So too, with another important idea the piece talks about: that of waking up and energizing voters to the idea that "their economic distress was something for which voting could make a difference."

Whether it's because we've been denied economic good governance for so long (it's been nearly a decade since the Great Financial Crisis began - and more than thirty years since the onset of Neoliberalism here in '84) - or just because Key's political managers and spin-doctors are doing such a good job at presenting both the government and the economic decline it presides over as "inevitable" ... I genuinely believe that a fundamental reason why large numbers of Kiwis utterly fail to turn up at the Polls year after year and election after election, is simply because they've stopped believing not just that their vote counts - but, more insidiously, that their vote is actually able to meaningfully *do* anything regardless of which Party it goes to, to create and effect change.

The explanation in answer to the question of why the "Missing Million" is yet to materialize in polling booths, in other words, is that they can't meaningfully connect many of the policies of other parties being promoted to an improvement in their own circumstance ... or they simply don't trust those whom they're being enticed to vote for to actually deliver meaningful change.

Where Winston and Sanders are different, however, is they appear to have a unique ability to connect voters with their vision - to bring complex economic truths down to simple, easy-to-understand kernels that make real improvements in our lives and our Nation seem to be a genuinely graspable reality rather than a chartable abstraction.

That's powerful. That's important.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is - beyond the obvious surface-level exterior similarities in political persona and packaging ... beyond even the core, fundamental coterminities between their policies and politics ... the core overarching symmetry between Winston and Bernie (apart from the fact they're both first-name brands) is their ability to connect with people (even from outside their 'natural/home/core constituencies'), to energize people, and to make the real change we so desperately need seem possible.

That's why, as something like half my friendslist start frantically online banner-waving for Bernie all across social media and the internet (perhaps as part of some sort of cargo-cult mentality of desperation that doing so will help bring about a similar 'moment of hope' here) ... I'll keep pushing my Winston-Bernie comparison to any who'll hear.

Because, as Winston says (and Bernie would no doubt like to): "Help is on its way!"

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