Tribal Politics



Chris Trotter last week (Capitalism Kills: Why, for the Right, the Left is always wrong) both criticised and participated in tribal politics. I would substantially disagree with him, in part because there are lefts and rights, not simply Left and Right. But, inasmuch as there are rival Left and Right tribes, my view is that it is the Left tribe in New Zealand that sees the Right tribe as bad, whereas the Right tribe sees the Left tribe as mad. As such I think that the tribal Left can be somewhat more uncompromising, and less likely (than vice versa) to engage constructively with the Right.

Indeed in history we see that changes brought about by parties (small-p and large-P) of the radical left have generally been retained and embedded by subsequent governments of the right. (In the case of anti‑nuclear New Zealand, this was the policy of the radical left that was embraced by a then-regressive Labour Party because the anti-nuclear issue provided a distraction. And embraced by National because – like Mt Everest – it was there. Lunchtime is a long time in politics.)

For me, tribal politics is rather sad, because it focuses on the negatives, the problems rather than the solutions, the put-downs rather than the pull-ups. While I think that most people are motivated more by the issues and policies, and want all governments to do the correct things regardless of their colours, tribal politicos seem to only want their side to do their good things, and feel more at ease when the other side is doing the bad things (or the mad things) that bad guys (or mad guys) do.

I want the real issues to be discussed, and always around the context of solutions. If something really is insoluble, it probably isn’t a real issue. Indeed a problem that cannot be solved is not really a problem at all. (Death for example is probably not a problem; however premature, negligent and purposeful deaths certainly are problems. Indeed, a society without death feels like a dystopia; death must then be the reality that prevents such dystopia.) Tribal politics makes people more engaged with (and enraged with) what they are against than with what they are for. So tribalism itself becomes an essentially conservative force.

One of the most important pieces of legislation ever introduced in New Zealand was the 1982 Official Information Act. This could easily have been criticised as a Rob Muldoon vanity project. (Indeed, Muldoon later did name this legislation as his legacy accomplishment.) If Mr Muldoon had put it to the people as a referendum, both the Left tribe and the Right tribe were so trenchantly anti-Muldoon that the proposal could easily have been voted down.

In 2013, National Party people were probably more amused than annoyed when the “Marriage Equality” proposal was drawn as a Private Member’s Bill. Certainly the substance of the proposal could have been dealt with as an amendment to Labour’s Civil Union legislation. But it was the symbolism that mattered, and many people from the Right tribe engaged constructively and in good humour. Mad, possibly, they thought; so much political energy was being invested by the left in this proposal at a time that other issues were being neglected. But hardly bad.

It’s so different with the issue of the New Zealand flag. (I raised the flag question with PM Jack Marshall at a political meeting in 1972. The Seddon flag that perfectly represented us in 1900 is so ‘not us’ today; so not us in 1972, in the year that we abandoned God Save the Queen. The soldiers’ graves that I later visited at Cassino had ferns engraved, not Union Jacks. The many Canadian graves were also easily spotted. The silver fern is a symbol of Aotearoa that even the Labour Party embraces; see The Daily Blog, 10 November. There must be worse things in our future than having a flag with a fern.)

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The Left tribe seems so uncompromisingly annoyed that the Right tribe has stolen one of its issues, that it is determined to support the Seddon flag of empire rather than have any other flag – including the lovely Red Peak – represent us. Any replacement flag stands to be seen as the Key flag, the flag of the other side. If we cannot be the progressive Republic, then we must be the Empire of the past. (In the past – especially in our past – the word ‘progress’ meant economic growth. In the 1890s – the conservationist MPs such as A.K. Newman, for whom growth was not everything – were conservatives.)

Political memories are short. How many of us realised until now that the Official Information Act was Muldoon’s legacy project? In 2050, how many of us will have even heard of John Key? Remember Jim? (He gave us MMP, his legacy. At the time Jim Bolger opposed MMP.) Remember George? (Winston Peters does; George was the last PM to have presided over NZ at a time when more MPs were from another party. Indeed, George Forbes’ United Party was, I understand, the third largest in the 1931-35 Parliament. Labour was the largest.) Remember Sid? He abolished the Legislative Council, New Zealand’s House of Lords. These are leaders whose good deeds we appreciate, even if we’ve forgotten who they are. We don’t appreciate their bad deeds, such as Holland’s enforcement in 1951 of the 1932 Public Safety Conversation Act. (George’s deeds were so few that we could count them on one finger.)

What will we say to our grandchildren in 2050 when they ask which flag we chose in 2015? And in 2016? Would we have to admit that we spoiled our ballot papers? Maybe the Right are right; maybe the Left is mad?

One of the really big political problems today is the lack of political engagement of young people. May I suggest that what so many of our young people see today are tribes who talk past each other; and oppose, because that’s what tribes do. A bit like Israelis versus Palestinians. Or Sunni versus Shia. (What’s the odds on those problem being solved within the next 2000 years?) Yet the disengagement over the flag issue is very similar. The Left tribe does not connect with the people promoting the change process, just as the young have difficulty connecting with mainstream politics. If only the young would vote for whom they dislike the least.

One final point that worries me. I’ve heard people from the left ‘Liberal’ tribe in the United States saying that they will be happy if Donald Trump becomes the Republican Presidential candidate. They should be careful what they wish for.

A Hillary Clinton presidency is not a foregone conclusion, just as the retention of our present flag is not foregone. If you are a New Zealander, vote ‘5’ for the flag you dislike the most (eg the black and blue fern that John Key says he will vote for). Then a ‘4’, then a ‘3’, then a ‘2’, and then a ‘1’. Engage now so that you don’t regret it later; so that, just in case we get a new flag, it’s a flag you helped to select. If you are an American, join the Republican Party. Vote in the primary election in your state. Vote for the candidate most likely to defeat Donald Trump or Ben Carson. Vote out the baddist and the maddist, at the first possible opportunity.


  1. As such I think that the tribal Left can be somewhat more uncompromising, and less likely (than vice versa) to engage constructively with the Right.

    I can only conclude that you have never heard of the Republican Party in the USA nor observed how they operate, particularly in comparison to the ‘roll-over and capitulate’ Democratic Party in US Congress and Senate.

  2. the flag process was textbook “manufacturing consent” inclusive of the “John and Richie” spin, two barreled referenda, and did not follow much of accepted design practice

    the fact that the change is not related to a republican initiative makes one suspicious if you support resolving post colonialism, for that reason the “butchers apron” should stay on our flag for a bit longer rather than go down the memory hole

    • The butchers apron should remain until we are mature enough to become a republic, we are currently heading towards a dictatorship like North Korea or the old East Germany.

  3. I see both left and right at their worst as being unable and/or unwilling to engage in pragmatic bi-partisan work because to do so would be to acknowledge that the devil on the other side of the House is right about some things after all.

    But in the U.S. it is different. You have two right wing parties – there is no true left in the U.S. political spectrum. Even the U.S. Greens are comparatively further to the right on the spectrum than the Green parties in most other countries. The Democrats, I once heard are roughly equivalent to the National Party in terms of spectrum location, which should be saying something about the U.S Republican Party.

    As for whether or not they can work, you need to have their moderates in charge and not the Freedom Caucus or the Tea Party. Those two fringe lunatic mobs are blind to reality, blind to anything that might be good about the Democrats or Democrat politics. They are so completely blind as to not notice the Republican moderates who must wonder some days whether the devil has hijacked their party.

  4. It is not the ‘lefts’ job whoever the ‘left’ is to promote a flag change. Who exactly does Keith Rankin think should be doing this heavy lifting -Labour Party volunteers putting up flags, door knocking, discussing this proposed change with the public, unions, liberal clubs and societies, who?

    John Key is the most successful politician since Helen Clark. It was his decision that this was the time to change the flag, where is he? Other than insensitively using Jonah’s death what has he done? How has he engaged in a conversation with us -the people of NZ -on the symbols and institutions of our nationhood.

    John has in other circumstances talked over the media and his own party directly to the public, why is he not doing that now? I have heard one speech on the radio explaining why we need a new flag from John and that is it. Where is the rest of the conversation? What about the listening part -like asking us first, whether we -the public think this is the right time to change the flag.

    Maybe the problem with this flag change is not tribal politics -that the left thinks the right is bad but that the process has been flawed? Maybe the public want a genuine conversation not a flawed manipulative process.

  5. What a tedious load of twaddle!

    Basically right wing in progressive clothing. This little screed is essentially why the middle classes have doomed us to this repetitive unimaginative shit for what feels an eternity. The art of the ‘possible’ whatever the fuck that night be.

    Try posting it at Whaleoil…

  6. An interesting essay, Keith…

    There were elements to it I could nod in agreement, and others where I could posit alternatives to your assessments.

    …my view is that it is the Left tribe in New Zealand that sees the Right tribe as bad, whereas the Right tribe sees the Left tribe as mad

    Aside from the rather nifty alliterative nature of bad, mad, and sad, I wonder if it’s an accurate descriptor of how the Right and Left view each other?

    My own feeling is that the Left view the Right as primarily Individualistic, even if it counters community and social interests.

    The Right, I am guessing, view the Left as interfering busy-bodies who support anything and everything other than the pursuit of economic growth and individual responsibility.

    Those descriptors don’t roll off the tongue as easily as bad, mad, and sad, but I venture to say they might be more accurate.

    Then again, in terms of one-word summations, I guess bad, mad, and sad might be as good as any other. The only thing is, they are inter-changeable as to how Left/Right see the other.

    In the case of anti‑nuclear New Zealand, this was the policy of the radical left that was embraced by a then-regressive Labour Party because the anti-nuclear issue provided a distraction. And embraced by National because – like Mt Everest – it was there.

    The anti-nuke legislation was retained because, in an MMP environment, National would have been committing political suicide to have monkeyed with it.

    Even then, Key is pushing the boundaries with kite-flying the possibility of a visiting US warship.

    The US ambassador on ‘The Nation’, this morning reiterated the American position of neither confirm nor deny. In fact, he went on to make this eyebrow-raising comment;

    Lisa Owen: If you were to send one, would you send one that complied with our laws?

    Mark Gilbert: We will always stay with our ‘neither confirm nor deny’ policy.


    When you analyse that comment (which Gilbert makes twice), what the Ambassador is saying is that the United States will pay no heed to our laws.

    Will Key still extend an invitation for a visiting US warship?

    You bet he will. He is gagging to undermine our anti-nuclear legislation, just as he was to send troops to Iraq for “training purposes”.

    National does not necessarily dump Labour’s legislation (eg; the rapid dumping of the healthy food in schools law –, instead, they chip away at it, bit by bit. Kiwisaver is a prime example (

    National has learned the lessons of the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s; right-wing legislation should be implemented gradually; by stealth; and without raising the public ire.

    The Left tribe seems so uncompromisingly annoyed that the Right tribe has stolen one of its issues, that it is determined to support the Seddon flag of empire rather than have any other flag…

    Not at all, Keith.

    The reason many on the Left (including myself) are so hacked off is that at a time when many community organisations are being starved of funding; when Housing NZ properties are lacking in maintenance and waiting lists continue to grow; when people continue to wait for surgery (and waiting lists are manipulated to present a rosy picture –, and other critical problems confront us – that Key has “found” $26 million to spend on a bit of fabric.

    I doubt if Women’s Refuges having to reduce services are thrilled at the prospect of the “red peak” fluttering atop the Beehive rather than “Old Blue”.

    Or kids scavenging in bins for food.

    Or schools with leaking, rotting classrooms.

    Or families living in garages or cars.


    I think you get the idea.

    If Key wanted to leave a legacy, it would have made more of an impact had his government increased the supply of Housing NZ houses and eliminate the waiting list.

    Instead, National is not only flogging of State Houses – but is demanding high dividends from a non-commercial ministry that should, theoretically, be looking after the poorest people in our country.

    Instead, Housing NZ has to pay tens of millions of dollars so Bill English can post his first-ever Budget surplus:$118m-dividend

    That is why so many of us view Key’s vanity project with utter contempt.

    If you are a New Zealander, vote ‘5’ for the flag you dislike the most (eg the black and blue fern that John Key says he will vote for). Then a ‘4’, then a ‘3’, then a ‘2’, and then a ‘1’. Engage now so that you don’t regret it later; so that, just in case we get a new flag, it’s a flag you helped to select.

    No thank you. I’d rather vote to end poverty, homelessness, and clean up our filthy, polluted rivers and lakes. The things we once took pride in.

    • And it is Keith’s complete missing of those issues Frank, that betrays his middle class values. They just don’t notice the shittiness us lower castes have inherited.

      Nice to sit in your own home and pontificate on others. Some of us are more preoccupied with finding a decent motorway bridge to sleep under…

  7. Nice post Keith.

    My personal view of the Left is that they’re mostly just naive and ill educated in the ways of the world. Most grow up and get over it. Those that don’t are just slow learners.

    We see it here plenty: Someone raging against a perceived injustice or inequality but rarely do we see them proposing a practical solution that wouldn’t do more harm than good.

    • …but rarely do we see them proposing a practical solution that wouldn’t do more harm than good.

      Really, Andrew?!

      Ok, here’s an example then.

      Problem: a shortage of Housing NZ homes for poor families.

      Solution: build more houses.

      Result: (a) more houses (b) poor families with homes (c) work for the building industry (d) good for the economy

      There you go, mate. Four years of blogging condensed to a few sentences. Hope it wasn’t “too naive” for you.

      • If you look at the economy as a capachino (ok so this example dosnt hurt Andrews argument so bare with me) the double shot of coffe, that’s government, regulations, investment, deficit spending, bridges highways ect.

        The hot foaming milk, that’s the private sector, factories, heavy machinery that goes on roads ect.

        The chocolate sprinkles that every one sees and tastes great. That’s all the factory goods every one buys, food, what ever. By now Andrew can not see the importance of big government and why it is important for government to spend money into existance because all he sees is factory goods, aka chocolate sprinkles.

        No one wants a double shot capachino, or one full of bland milk, or a mouth full of sprinkles. I hope y’all get the enology.

      • Yes, well, there you go.

        No thought of who is going to pay for it. Someone else’s money, right?

        When robbing Peter to Pay Paul, you can always be assured of the support of Paul.

        • When robbing Peter to Pay Paul, you can always be assured of the support of Paul.

          Are you referring to the 2010 tax cuts which saw the greatest portion of benefit go to top income earners, whilst GST was raised, taking disproportionately more away from low-income earners? Paul, in this case being the poor bugger whilst Peter’s surname was Dunne. Dunne and his mates did very well out of that tax “switch”.

        • So Andrew, when National took money from the poor to give to the rich, is that what your referring too? Tax cuts for the rich and increased prescription charges for the poor?

          Or selling off state houses while the rich get away with making huge windfall gains, tax free, with property speculation?

          Shall I go on?


          Pity. There’s more.

          • ALH84001 you need to get your facts straight.

            When this National Party government came into power they INCREASED the taxes being paid by the most wealthy in NZ. Although they slightly reduced the marginal income tax rate, they closed tax loopholes which were previously used by landlords to avoid paying tax (LAQCs)

            It is no surprise that the two leading lights in the previous Labour government (Clark and Cullen) both had sizeable property portfolios…. 😉

    • And how is propping you Andrew, against the bullet riddled wall doing more harm than good?

      It’s all to do with perspective and not having hydrophobia… 🙂

    • My personal view of the right is that they are selfish and greedy. They know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

      • I’ve sometimes wondered if their is a correlation between single child nuclear families and right wing viewpoints.

        In the western world extended families are already consigned to history as (often) are close knitted village environments.

        I believe data exists that single child families encourage self centred attitudes in children and wondered if this spills over to later adult political attitudes. If so, we may be in trouble as family sizes continue on a downward trend.

        • there =/= their
          (a genuine typo, the edit fuction on TDB is hopeless, sometimes you see it – but most often, you don’t).

          • My constant spelling “blind spot” is ‘to’ and ‘too’. ‘There’ and ‘their’, not so much. The transposition of ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ really grates with me (especially by our American cuzzies)… (Probably the result of a dumbed-down Charter School “education”.)

    • Oh God . I tried . I really did. I tried to read your Post @ Keith Rankin but I got the giggles.

      I was having an excitable conversation with a friend once some years ago through a haze of pot smoke and up and over a building stack of bottles about existentialism, nihilism, quantum mechanics and women.

      He’s very much a thinky-thinky fellow whereas are I’m more , shall we say, tactile. Hands on. That’s why it surprised me when he said , after some vigorous speculation on the likelihood of parallel Universes bent around time, that if you believe our Universe is mostly space between matter put your balls on the end of my kitchen table and let me whack them with this book and see how much space you have.

      Banging on about wondrous theories is fine if one’s not hungry or in dire and immediate threat of death and/or disease as a lot of Kiwis are.

      Your Right and Left tribes theory is as sound as well-read balls on a table.

      This is it. In a nut shell. ( Hahah! I wrote ‘nut ‘ )

      Keeping it local; who earns our money Keith?

      Who spends our money ?

      Who goes hungry and unlearned ?

      Who is Left ? Who is Right ?

      Generally, the problem is I think that the Left are good people. To ‘ good ‘ for their own good. It’s that simple actually. Let me expand on that theory. x
      The political Left are good people. They care about things and others . They make and create . They worry about the sanctity of life and entertain the idea that all living things , not just wee beasties, are sentient. The Left, well some of them anyway , I agree , wear sandals and homespun vests. They do enjoy cider and smile annoyingly as they clean their specs on their shirt tail. They have lovely homes surrounded in busyness . Flowers come out of plants which smell agreeably while others still grow to be consumed then shat out to be recycled into into yet more food.
      That’s fundamentally what the Left are. They are good.

      The Right are, in fact, not good. The thing I’ve come to understand about the Right is that they are frankly just a bit useless. And here’s where the book starts to fall toward the cringing testicle. They, the Right, for those of you who’re finding it hard to keep up and stay focussed, live in the stark light of day. They have no ‘ imagination’. The Right can only ‘ take advantage ‘ of the creative mind of the Left. The Good Left remember. The Right copy. They counterfeit but never actually create. They scheme and plot . They manoeuvre and manipulate . They trade the work of others and profit from creating shortages . It’s not flash brain thinkies . It’s just simple tricks to manipulate and control. It’s binary. It’s the thin line of bulshittery.

      The trouble begins when the Right, like the scavengers they are , who prey upon their host with gay abandon. They take what they need , then they take more than they need. And then ! They sell what they’ve taken too much of , thus depriving the Good Left of those things the Left built and grew in the first place, of their own belongings.

      But that’s not where the real, book crushingly excruciating conundrum lies . No siree.

      The real problem is that the Lovely Old Left can’t bring themselves to stand up and fight back against the ghastly tyranny of the Ridiculous Right . The soulless Right with no qualms at all about destroying the very planet they excrete upon so long as they can consume in order to do their on-going excreting. Because hey ! Like hair tugging, shitting’s fun in the right circles .

      The gruesome fact remains. The Right needs the Left more the Left needs the Right . That’s the secret the Right desperately don’t want you to know. If one were to strip away the Bentleys and the caviar , the perfumes and the designer butt plugs , the arsehole bleaches and the lattes and champagnes you’d be left with tired old haters hoisted by their own petard as they cry over something they can only know they’ve missed out on but could never really know.

      At risk of a falling book I’d speculate that the Right should just sit quietly and take their corporate handouts like the terminally useless they are and stop making life so difficult for the rest of the Left of us .

      Let the Left, the good people, take humanity into tomorrow . The Right are just fucking it up for everything and holding us all back so could I be forgiven for going tribal while wanting their arses frying on a camp fire ?

      The turn a round will come the day the Left can deftly remove the heads of the Right without a qualm , feel good about it and move on.

  8. Excellent article Keith. I managed to convince my mother to vote in the first round the other day (albeit she only ranked 1 flag). The second round ballot is where people can decide not to support a new flag.

    There is no logical reason for not voting in any election where you understand the choices presented unless the process is rigged, which is the case in Egypt for example, but clearly not in NZ.

    Watching the left tribe try to suppress voter turn-out has turned me off them, it’s disgusting.

    • And what is your evidence for it not being rigged?

      My evidence for it being rigged is the number of silver fern flags available and the total lack of experts on the ‘committee’ as well as the majority reaction to the final selection considering it being a very poor collection compared to what was initially submitted.

      Spoiled votes are legitimate and I do NOT need your permission to take such action.

      You are perfectly free to vote for John Key if you wish…

      • Ah yes the rubber stamp committee stage has been a total joke, but the actual voting won’t be rigged. You can reject the flag in the second referendum if you want to.

        And don’t forget the three most popular flags made it through (including Red Peak), I don’t see anyone proposing an alternative flag, oh wait they did and it was included and you still want to spoil your ballots!

        I didn’t say you can’t spoil your ballot, just that it would be illogical.

        Oh and I hate John Key, I will never vote for him, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still have a very small overlap of things we agree on.

    • Watching the left tribe try to suppress voter turn-out has turned me off them, it’s disgusting.

      “Suppress voter turn out”?!

      Can you be more specific, Korakys?

      Because the Left would luv the Missing Million to turn out in force at the next election.

    • There is a very logical choice in not voting in an election which has no meaningful purpose or choice. A majority of New Zealanders has repeatedly shown that the flag referendum is not wanted and not needed at this time, and that the choices available are unsatisfactory. But does this make any difference to an arrogant John Key? No, therefore if you disagree with this sham democratic process forced on New Zealand at the cost of more than 26 million dollars then it is perfectly logical to decide not to take part.
      If you want to take part in John Key’s personal ego trip then you can do so. I don’t want to.

      • Just because you didn’t want the vote doesn’t mean you shouldn’t vote, because there clearly is a meaningful outcome to this referendum – what our flag will be for maybe the rest of your life.

        • You seem to be deliberately misconstruing what Mike and I are both trying to tell you but I shall point it out again.

          I am spoiling my vote so my criticism of the sham democratic process is recorded. That is the crux of it.

          None of the flags are what I would have voted for. The flag I would have voted for was dismissed by the sham committee of “experts”.

          If I put any number on any of the flags, that will be counted as a vote toward that flag because they have chosen the very undemocratic rank-them-in-order (Transferable Preference) method of counting rather than the more democratic vote for one flag (Single Vote).

          This has been chosen because Dear Leader has already determined which flag will win. This method will simply give him the dubious statistics to get his wish.

          I do not wish to contribute to his choice of flag.

          By spoiling my vote it is recorded as a spoiled vote which gives political clout when the large number of spoiled votes is noted.

          I shall certainly excercise my right to vote by voting for the Stars and Jack in the second round but please notice that that vote is a single choice vote between the Stars and Jack and whichever flag is “chosen” in the first round.


          If you vote for any flag in the first round you ARE enabling John Key’s choice whether you like him or not.

          My choice of action is dazzlingly logical.

          Yours is of the wanting the cake and eating it type.

          And you’re STILL completely free to do as you choose AS AM I…

          • Even though I don’t really like any of the political parties I still vote for the least bad one each time I get the chance.

  9. What does compromise look like? When Labour MP’s sell-out to Neoliberalism, is that “compromise”? Perhaps the Right are more willing to compromise. They represent the economic elite. It’s always much easier to compromise when you are the side with all the power.

    On the flag, context is everything. Do I think the current flag is a colonial remnant that fails to represent us? Yes. Do I think it’s worth spending $26 million changing it when there are so many better things we could spend that money on? No. In THIS context, the new flag will be a symbol of the Right’s contempt for spending money on anything that actually helps people.

    On U.S. politics… sheesh. There is no Left-wing party and Right-wing party; there is just a Right-wing party and a basket-case party (a situation that developed due to the Democrats’ willingness to compromise/sell-out, by the way). If you think voting for one of the other Republican candidates (to make sure Trump and Carson don’t win) will change anything, you might want to look at the actual policy positions and stated beliefs of those other Republican candidates. You’ll find that their views are little different to Trump and Carson; they’re just more tactful on when and how they express them.

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