Steering By The Real: Chris Trotter responds to Paul Buchanan



WHEN ACADEMICS take to blogging the rest of us best be careful. And when they offer comment on the subject of dirty politics we should all pay attention. I will always remember my history lecturer, Dr Michael Cullen’s, confident dismissal of the challenge of representing the working-class Dunedin electorate of St Kilda after the 1981 General Election. Having secured selection, he told his admiring followers in Labour Youth that Parliament would be a welcome respite from the most vicious and dirty political environment of them all – the university common room.

Dr Paul Buchanan has more reason than most to endorse Dr Cullen’s comments, which is why I was surprised to see him describe what I regarded as an admirably realistic assessment of democratic politics as evidence that I had either lost my ideological bearings or had “consciously decided to join the Dark Side”.

In Why Throw In The Towel? – A Brief Response To Trotter’s Cynicism  I am thus dismissed by Dr Buchanan as either bewildered or a blackguard, and my offending essay Dirty Politics – Is There Any Other Kind? dismissed as “a cynical defence of dirty politics as being the norm”.

Unfortunately, Dr Buchanan’s critique does not engage with my essay’s essentially historical realist argument. He does, however, rehearse (in suitably dense academic prose) my inverted Clausewitzian characterisation of politics as “the continuation of war by other means”. Democratic politics, in particular, argues Dr Buchanan, must be “self-limiting” lest the “political game descends into a zero-sum self-interested maximisation of collective opportunities.”

The above sentence is not, however, how I would formulate the alternative to the self-limiting behaviour so crucial to democracy’s success. The historical record suggests that, in the real world, the “self-interested maximisation of collective opportunities” is the democratic norm, and that, historically, the descent from that norm is characterised by the decision of key political actors to abandon self-limitation in favour of popular of state violence. “Foul means or fouler” was how I put it: revolution or repression.

Bluntly speaking, Dr Buchanan’s uncharacteristically idealistic aspirations for democracy (in his discussions of international relations he has always struck me as a pretty staunch realist) cannot survive the taste-test of history. And it is this ahistorical idealism which largely explains his disinclination to engage with any of the many historical examples included in my essay – not even the all-American examples advanced by his compatriot Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

Whether it be the dirty political deal that abandoned Southern Blacks to their fate in 1876; or Joseph P. Kennedy’s dirty deal with the Chicago mob which secured the crucial electoral votes of Illinois for his son in the desperately close presidential election of 1960; or the low-down and dirty theft of the 2000 presidential election by the Bush clique and their Supreme Court allies; the historical proofs for the universality of dirty politics are legion.

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Nor can Dr Buchanan escape this reality by shovelling all the blame for dirty politics onto the “elites”. The shenanigans I have observed in union elections do not bear repeating, and even in the idealistic Green Party the ruthlessly ambitious have been known to reach for the contents of the self-composting toilet.

Democracy has always danced upon the back of the monstrous interests composing the capitalist state. It does so, with the lightest of feet, because it knows that the monsters beneath prefer to govern by consent rather than force. To preserve at least the illusion of that consent, the political writers of the 1920s, were quick to reassure the powerful that, properly managed by astute politicians, a responsible media and the new (dark) arts of advertising and public relations, the millions of newly enfranchised voters would pose no serious threat to the status quo. For the likes of Edward Bernays and Walter Lippman, democracy without deception and distraction was a non-starter.

These are not pleasant truths, but those who locate themselves on the Left would be most unwise to ignore or dismiss them. Navigating by the starry eyes of the idealistic all-too-often lands left-wingers on the rocks. I prefer to steer by the real.

But there is dirty politics that works, and dirty politics that doesn’t. The manufacturing of popular consent increases in effectiveness in inverse proportion to the voters’ proximity to the factories where it is made. What Nicky Hager has exposed in his book is the failure of the National Party leadership to recognise in Cameron Slater and his comrades a political cadre too protean, too volatile, and much too much in love with the smell of napalm in the morning to be allowed anywhere near the Prime Minister’s Office. What Nicky describes is Watergate writ small: a scandal precipitated by a general failure, at the highest levels, to understand that the essence of successful democratic politics is illusion; and the only thing you must never do is allow the mask to slip.


  1. The final sentence brings something to mind. A couple of years ago John Armstrong pompously and arrogantly talked about what the legacy would be to confirm the greatness of John Key’s Prime Ministership.

    Any chance of Key’s claim to greatness to these eyes would have been limited to being great at politics. Playing that game. Not for some innovative, inspiring leadership getting the mass on board as a positive community.

    Ever mounting evidence is that even the mundane, albeit complex and challenging task of playing the game, has been beyond him. In a sense it has been pushed beyond him by himself and his hubris.

    The growing observation is that it has just been a game for him. The mission was just a hobby he wanted to play his way. It’s taken a while for that realisation to be seen by others. Maybe he won’t stay the next three years.

  2. Perhaps when the history of this election is written it will be agreed that the tipping point came when the media tried to save what it could from the damage caused by its fawning adulation of the “Key is great” days. Over the last 6 years the MSM refused to find any fault with John Key, find any good in the opposition ranks or policies, or even allow the opposition fair publicity. The bias was breathtaking.
    Even when the “Dirty politics” book erupted into the political arena the instinct was to bury the reality, downplay its importance, and try to shift the moral odium onto the Left Wing. However they are not stupid. They will have read the book, can see that it is dynamite and that it may be uncontrollable.
    They will have a Plan B in the event that their tactics of blame-shifting fail. And it has failed. The first and obvious move was to pass the buck to Judith Collins. Virtually all the MSM has openly stated or suggested that she quit politics. She will be missed by no-one (except Slater) so the sacrifice costs little.
    Incredibly John Key has, for whatever reason, missed his cue. If John Key ever was the brilliant tactician that he is claimed to be, it looks as if his mojo has stopped working. Perhaps in despair, or perhaps to force his hand, the MSM has recently subjected John Key to a grilling that, just 3 months ago, would have been unheard of. I get the impression that the media can see that the game is lost; that saving their own reputation is all that matters now. The prize goes to the first rat to desert the sinking ship (without it being too blatant) . If the recent shift in the mood of the MSM reflects its new assessment of reality, John Key is past saving.

    • “Over the last 6 years the MSM refused to find any fault with John Key…”

      The 2011 TV interview shown today was instructive. MSM were at a formal situation and tried to ask searching questions, well questions to elicit reasonable explanation, and were treated with disdain. A different style than Muldoon but in reality the same. The group of reporters was just that, not a pack gelled by the seeming inconsistencies and the languid body language of a liar. He got away with it as the single hound was ritually descanted. And that has been the way.

      The same meekness and obsequiousness attends interviews with Steven Joyce. He appeals as affable, matter-of-fact and on top of what he’s talking about. A question, “Since the cost benefit analysis suggests that road is not effective use of the funds will it go ahead?” could be answered by the wily Minister, “Three twos are six and I reckon Roger Federer will go close at the US Open and, by the way, I’m making banana fritters tonight.” The interviewer would simply say, “Thank you Minister.”

      That’s how it happens with him, he talks nonsense which is accepted.
      Of course any forcing of the issue in the example is likely to only be questioning the number of bananas! Then that well practised, “What I can say to you…”

  3. Scientists say that everyone lies -white lies or otherwise. However in “a recent paper published in Human Communication Research found that many people are honest most of the time, that many are honest about their lying, and that some lie a lot”. We have are degrees of corruption and a spectrum of lying.

    Yes unions can be corrupt, but from my experience, there are fewer Jimmy Hoffa’s than those that try do the right thing. We know that there are degrees of corruption and crime. Contemporary legal codes, however imperfect and biased towards white rich men, are based on that fact.

    In no way have I found that the left in modern democracies have stooped to the same level of lying and corruption as the right wing (of which the Very NZ Coup within Labour in the 80’s is included).

    John Key (and Chris Trotter?) says that both sides are equally culpable and equally sleazy. That is simply not true. The left don’t have to lie and cheat to the same degree to pursue their interests since their interests more often than not is aligned with the majority of people. Tax breaks for the top 10%, while selling assets and introducing higher regressive GST to pay for this…or lowering the average wage while the top pay scale sky-rockets is not in the interests of most people. One has to manufacture consent. And the forth estate, which is owned and operated by the right wing and the “liberal” center right, with few left sympathises is generally willing to do so. It was greatly accelerated by the black ops of the Nats exposed in Dirty Politics.

    • Britt, although I agree in general, can you please use median wages when talking about income, otherwise you play into the hands of this devious government. Average wages are much higher than median wages because they are artificially inflated by those with income in the millions. As many people earn above a median wage as earn below it. The average full time annual wage is about $44,000; the median wage is about $30,000. This is not a petty distinction. In the next few weeks you will hear National candidates say repeatedly that the average wage has risen, (whereas the median wage has not). Also beware of employment statistics. In the Mickey Mouse world of statistics a person working just 1 hour per week is regarded as employed, so more people working fewer hours shows up as a plus in employment statistics. You’ve got to watch them all the time!

      • Denis, I agree. my mistake. You are right – the recent Housing Report made the same mistake. Also many pundits made a similar mistake when lumping household income with wages. More (or less) people in a home could be working in the household for more (or less time) so it did not provide an accurate gage of wages. Yet many reported it as such. And many neglected to report that the bottom half had wages “remain static or declined”.

    • You don’t have to manufacture consent. All you have to do is manufacture silence. There was a time at which silence meant dissent, but vested interests of the powerful (from the entire political spectrum) long ago turned that one on its head, realising that if silence was to worst that could happen, they could get away, yes, even with murder.

      So silence, whether of consent or dissent is taken invariably as consent, and there you have it. Silence is not consent, and never has been consent. If politicians could be forced into an honest acceptance of this meaning, the world would be a much happier place. But that will never happen: too much rides upon the licence arrogated by the powerful to do anything they goddam please, because to be other than silent, these days , is to be (labelled) an activist, a protester, a terrorist.

      Show me any politician these days, and I’ll point out to you one richly deserving the fate Frederick the Great wished upon Prime Minister Bute.

  4. What I can not understand is why it is hard for those to understand that the Prime Minister is duly answerable for his cabinet especially his office. He claims he was not brief but the office was, is he not the head of that office? From my understanding of security you don’t just brief the office it is suppose to be the Prime Minister only then (him) to the office.

    I never like National as a government? I find that if you raised an issue they will dig up dirt about you and they are not afraid to air it because no one has challenge them before. Thank you to Dirty Politics now it is all out in the open.

    Their bully tactics and the people they associate with is a disgrace to the people of New Zealand and we have a Prime Minister that never knows what is happening with his own cabinet/office. That has to go down in History.

  5. Loving the fireworks in what could have been a boring election season.
    Appreciative of the spirited work that a whole army of soldiers is doing.
    Has not been lost on me that Key likes to be treated a bit differently to everyone else and he does not look smart at the moment. A bit of a muppet in fact.
    Crusher is a bully and should go – I don’t believe that Key will want to play if he can’t win. Like a spoilt child he will tip the playing board over and retire to Hawaii.

  6. Brit: You’re incorrect

    Under National the % of revenue paid by the top 10% has actually increased when compared to the previous Labour government.

    The reason for this was the closing of the tax gap for LAQCs.

    This was a thing that the previous Labour government could’ve done but many of that Labour Cabinet were heavily invested in rental property….

    So was your post in ignorance or was it a lie from the Left? 😉

    You choose

    • They could also have introduced a capital gains tax. But didn’t. Fortunately the next government will.

      • I’ve got no personal objections to CGT. It would be unlikely to affect me in any way. However there are significant issues with it:

        1/ It will gather no revenue for many years. All the assets already owned will avoid it. The next generation will pay it.

        2/ It is enormously complex and expensive to implement. It will result in an expansion of the IRD and require a complete revamp of their IT capability. Because it will initially gather virtually zero revenue and have high implementation costs, for the first few years it will have a negative impact on government revenue. They may have to put up taxes to pay for the new tax! 🙂

        3/ Cunliffe has promised to make “the family home” tax exempt. The Tax advisors of the wealthy can drive a coach and horses through this gap. They will have lots of time to structure their clients assets to avoid this tax for the foreseeable future. (The same thing happened with Clarke’s hike in the marginal tax rate. None of the really wealthy paid it – only higher end salary earners. Some say total revenue actually dropped – a classic example of the ‘Laffer Curve’ in action.)

        4/ It will likely have a negative effect on productive investment. Average people without a tax expert at their side will be less inclined to invest in productive assets. Instead they will buy a bigger and fancier “family home” – just what we don’t want! This runs contrary to Labour’s stated aim of increasing investment in manufacturing and job creation.

        With all these serious caveats one wonders what his real intentions are. Is it just an cynical election promise, knowing he’d never actually implement it even if he were elected? Or is he just ill-informed and grasping at straws?

        • This is a heap of work for a posting no one is likely to read!

          The purpose of a capital gains tax should not be to gather revenue, in my view, but rather to create a playing field where it is preferable to invest in the productive sectors, with the concomitant skilled-job dividend and value-added export dividend. It is typical of a left-of-centre programme to aim for a multiple bottom line. This may be confusing to people such as yourself, Andrew, as it is typical of a Right-of-centre politico to know the price of everything and the value of very little.

          By the way, Chris, although no side of politics is immune to the lure of dirty tricks, in New Zealand this kind of activity is more likely to be found on the right, because here the divide is more between Interventionists on the left and Laissez-faire leave-well-enough-alones on the right. Interventionists are more interested in promoting a variety of corrective policies, while the right side of politics, uninterested as they are more likely to be in developing transformative policy, are more easily led into idle-hand mischief.

          Although your oft expressed class-struggle analysis of the mechanisms guiding politics in New Zealand probably has some validity, I doubt that it is at the front of the minds of most participants. I don’t believe it is necessary to characterize a feral battle to the death to understand the recent events. I still believe that most citizens on either side would prefer a civil politic. The only question will be how far they will change their usual behavior to achieve it.

          • Nick: “The purpose of a capital gains tax should not be to gather revenue, in my view, but rather to create a playing field where it is preferable to invest in the productive sectors, with the concomitant skilled-job dividend and value-added export dividend”

            I agree with you on this aspect Nick: Changes in tax & welfare policy should be designed to be drivers for better decisions in the future – encouraging people to undertake activities that are going to benefit the nation in the long term. CGT may do that, I’m not sure. Can you cite overseas examples where it has done this? I know the UK has CGT and their housing prices are absurd. It certainly hasn’t helped there.

            • The price of houses are affected by a change in taxation emphasis to the degree that there are alternatives available for the allocation of available funds. Because house prices are also subject to many other constraints, it is impossible to quantify to what degree this or that provision should be given the credit or blame. What is certain is that any perceived distortion in the market will attract a rational investor. It is therefore prudent to correct those imbalances.

              It is also possible that a CGT might have an impact on rental prices, however the CGT rate proposed in the tax proposed by Labour is still less than the corporate taxes currently in place, while the need to keep rentals occupied will serve as another constraint. However, it seems likely that those investors with a current bias towards property will seek to balance their portfolio, with a minor downward effect on property prices, while industrial and other growth stocks will have a greater appeal.

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