09 November 2011

Election Day

There’s something fabulous about Election Day. Just for one day, the political order dissolves, and ‘the people’ make their way into the polling booths to take representation into their own hands, for one moment each.

The results may be perplexing, as ‘the people’ never speak with a common voice. There isn’t always a clear winner once the votes are counted, as we saw in the most recent elections in Australia and the UK. But I’m perplexed by the question: ‘Who will win the election?’

For many New Zealanders, the ‘winner’ on 26 November will be either Phil Goff or John Key – most probably the latter, it seems. This is the pseudo-presidential image of politics that has become common in our country.

‘The winners’ after the election may really be those individuals who can confidently approach the Governor-General with a claim to be named as his ‘responsible advisers’ – for the time being. That is, the winners are those elected representatives who win the privilege of deciding on his behalf.

‘The winners’, one hopes, are ‘the people’, though, as a democratic election is supposed to be an expression of their will, their values and their preferences.

But everyone knows that that last statement is nonsense, because there is no common popular will, value or preference. And the will, values and preferences of the myriad individuals out there who will vote have already been influenced and formed by messengers more powerful than most of us.

The idea of ‘opinion polls’, for instance, is sheer fantasy – but nonetheless effective at shaping the choices of the people. They would have us believe that the political opinions of people are relatively stable mental constructs, belonging to the people ‘out there’, and waiting to be elicited and counted. But, beside the fact that not all survey respondents are able to express an opinion clear enough to be recorded as such, political opinions are no more than expectations of other people’s expectations.

Holding a political opinion is like holding money. You only do so because you expect that most others expect that it will have much the same value next month as it has this month. A loss of confidence in the value of money leads to a run on the banks, rendering money worthless anyway. The same can happen to opinions – only worse, as money is a state-mandated institution, whereas opinions are free to compete.

The political opinion poll is merely one of the signals of other people’s expectations that help to shape and maintain our own expectations. Add to that the confusing televisual game of claims and counter-claims that the average (poorly informed) voter has to contend with in forming an opinion upon which to vote on Election Day, and we have a very peculiar self-replicating machine indeed.

This has all been an indirect way of describing (as I see it) the problem of why (I estimate) 20 per cent of voters on 26 November may vote for policies that are calculated not to help them to meet their needs. And who will the winners be?

It’s a strange day indeed, Election Day.


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