The term ‘personality politics’ has been thrown around this election more than in previous elections.
I can see why people don’t want politics to be all about personality. Our age is dominated by a celebrity culture that’s often superficial. People rightly don’t want superficial selfishness to seep into our politics. We want politics to be a contest of ideas – an informed forum for debating how our country can be better.
But I think some of what we label as ‘personality politics’ is legitimate, even essential. That’s because part of what we call ‘personality politics’ is also about a politician’s personal values and ethos, as Jess Berentson-Shaw has pointed out. And values – commitments that reflect our view of what a good life is – matter in politics.
Don’t just take my word for it. Here’s British writer George Monbiot, in his just released book, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis: “Values are the bedrock of effective politics. They represent the importance we place on fundamental ways of being, offering a guide to what we consider to be good and worthwhile.”
Politicians don’t just represent us – they affect us. They’re role models. President Donald Trump’s bullish, aggressive style is legitimising bullish aggressiveness in the American population.
We see the values of politicians in the policies they talk about. But we also see their values in how they carry and conduct themselves personally, and how they interact with others. Here’s where ‘personality’ can be relevant.
At a concrete level, having politicians with good personal values matters because they’re meant to represent us. They should make us proud, not just in how they represent New Zealand overseas, but also in how they are as people around the country. People were confident that Helen Clark, when she was Prime Minister, took seriously New Zealand’s commitments overseas. Many liked John Key’s relaxed but affable way of interacting with people domestically. It is not too idealistic to hope that politicians should reflect the best of who we are as a country.
Relatedly, politicians don’t just represent us – they affect us. They’re role models. President Donald Trump’s bullish, aggressive style is legitimising bullish aggressiveness in the American population. We have many sides of who we are as people, and politicians draw out certain qualities in us. Canadian writer Naomi Klein has said we must recognise “our inner Trump” that’s being tapped into by the current US presidency.
Maybe most importantly, personal values matter because part of politicians’ job is to react under fire. They have to respond to emergencies – foreign affairs flare-ups or natural disasters – and they sometimes have to act fast. In the furnace of pressure that politicians face, we want their ethical and intellectual instincts to be good. We know that those instincts are shaped by the lives they’ve led, and that’s why politicians’ life experiences can be relevant, too.
I’m worried because there’s now a pattern of porkies on National’s side, with Patrick Gower saying yesterday that National was “guilty of the biggest campaign lie.”
This is why I’m concerned when I see moments of dishonesty in politicians. I was concerned when Bill English said in last night’s final TVNZ leaders debate, after being told that no economists agreed with his allegations of a $11 billion hole in Labour’s budget, that “they all agreed there’s a hole” in Labour’s budget. The economists that refuted National’s allegations about a fiscal hole didn’t “all” agree that there was some general hole in Labour’s calculations. That statement was untrue – a major slip at best.
And it wasn’t just this moment of dishonesty that had me worried. I’m worried because there’s now a pattern of porkies on National’s side, with Patrick Gower saying yesterday that National was “guilty of the biggest campaign lie” on the issue of income tax, and economist Shamubeel Eaqub noting that Paula Bennett’s claim about inequality staying high because of the Christchurch earthquake was “patently untrue”. The thread of false claims that we can now see makes me wonder whether Bill English – someone who I’d previously thought of as a person of integrity – has the instincts we need under fire. It makes me wonder how a National government would represent us and affect us as people.
If truth-stretching has become a normal part of politics, then I think we need to reset our politics.
Now, you might say that there’s been dishonesty from other parties this election.
Well, first of all: if truth-stretching has become a normal part of politics, then I think we need to reset our politics. People – especially young people – are disillusioned with politics partly because they’re sick of politicians not following through on promises or being squinty about the truth. We need a new normal in our politics, where game-playing and truth-stretching aren’t okay.
But secondly, I don’t think we’ve seen the same levels of dishonesty on all sides this election. It’s our job as voters to decide when dishonesty or callous statements get to a level that a party is not worthy of our vote, however much we might like their policies.
So: by all means think about policy this election. I want a government that will tackle our long-term challenges with creativity. But if someone tells you that personality is irrelevant, tell them that personal values matter.
And vote with your values.
We have different values. We’ll have different interpretations of whether politicians have lived up to them. But let’s not leave our values outside when we go into the voting booth on Saturday.