It’s clear that fewer than 30,000 New Zealanders will end up voting for Prime Minister John Key in the upcoming elections.
It’s also clear that somewhere north of 1,000,000 New Zealanders will, after voting day, think that they have voted for him. But, just what is being voted for when people think they are voting for Key – or for any particular politician?
To begin to understand just who or what people vote for a good way to start is by asking one simple question.
Those intending to vote National on 26 November 2011 could ask themselves the following:
If John Key were not the leader of the National Party, would I still vote for National?
Imagine if a similar question were posed to the prospective voters for other parties – ‘If Phil Goff were not the leader of the Labour Party, would I still vote for Labour?’; ‘If Russel Norman and Meteria Turei were not the leaders of the Green Party, would I still vote for the Green Party?’; ‘If Don Brash were not the leader of the ACT Party, would I still vote for ACT?’
There are different answers to each of those questions, of course, and those answers depend upon the state of each political party, their policies and other personnel in the political wing of the party.
But notice what a broad ‘yes’ or ‘no’ means in each case: In effect it’s the difference between putting one’s faith in the perception of the nature of an individual, versus putting one’s faith in the belief that the policy programmes of political parties trump any perceptions of the nature of individuals.
The technicalities of the New Zealand electoral system mean that, in effect, the former preference (putting faith in one’s perception of the nature of an individual) is acknowledged in the electorate vote while the latter preference is acknowledged in the party vote.
This, of course, is why fewer than 30,000 New Zealanders will, technically, vote for John Key in this election. In 2008, John Key gained 26,771 votes in the Helensville electorate. It’s possible that he will exceed 30,000 votes in 2011, but it’s unlikely (as much as anything because of voter turnout).
It’s pretty obvious, though, that many New Zealanders outside of Helensville will be firmly of the opinion that they are casting their votes ‘for John Key’.
That’s certainly what Duncan Garner found on the streets of Newmarket:
I hit the streets in Newmarket last week asking voters what their major issue was this election. Overwhelmingly, it was asset sales. From young people to the middle-aged, to the elderly, they all said they didn’t think our power companies, airline and state-owned coal company needed to be flicked off.
They wondered why. They said it wouldn’t make the economy any better. They questioned the wisdom of it. Are they really worth $5-7 billion? Why do it? Who wins? Can Mum and Dads really afford it?
But then I asked who they’re all voting for. They all said John Key.
There are, in fact, arguments in favour of voting primarily for the person rather than the policies. Policies – and promises to enact policies – are, it can be argued, only as good as the person (or persons) supposedly implementing them.
This point was made by Stephen Franks in a recent piece on interest.co.nz. In fact, Franks recycled a point he had made in 2008, largely in relation to what he perceived as the dishonest practices of Helen Clark and Winston Peters. He claimed then:
after about 5 years in Parliament I concluded that ‘personality politics’ is much more important than policy politics. At its best, if the media are doing their job properly to expose the person behind the spin it is the difference between choosing employees on references and character on the one hand, and qualifications and resume presentation on the other.
as humans with life experience they [voters] retain sound instincts for assessing character. Hypocrisy meters are acute. But it does depend on the media doing their work diligently. I want gossip. I want tittle tattle and scandal. We need the unauthorised versions.
There’s quite a few points that could be made about these ‘personality vs. policy’ politics, but I want to focus on just one point that arises from Franks’ comments.
This point is the interesting sliding between two terms – ‘personality‘ and ‘character‘ – in Franks’ argument. His opinion piece repeatedly conflates these two very different notions when he defends the importance of “personality politics”, on the one hand, but seems to be principally concerned about “assessing character”, on the other.
Here’s a straightforward account of the difference from Alex Lickerman.
Notice that, while Franks argues that humans have a great ability to judge character, it would be truer to say that we have a great ability to judge personality. As Lickerman points out,
Personality is easy to read, and we’re all experts at it. We judge people funny, extroverted, energetic, optimistic, confident—as well as overly serious, lazy, negative, and shy—if not upon first meeting them, then shortly thereafter. And though we may need more than one interaction to confirm the presence of these sorts of traits, by the time we decide they are, in fact, present we’ve usually amassed enough data to justify our conclusions.
Character, however, is quite different:
Character, on the other hand, takes far longer to puzzle out. It includes traits that reveal themselves only in specific—and often uncommon—circumstances, traits like honesty, virtue, and kindliness. Ironically, research has shown that personality traits are determined largely by heredity and are mostly immutable. The arguably more important traits of character, on the other hand, are more malleable—though, we should note, not without great effort. Character traits, as opposed to personality traits, are based on beliefs (e.g., that honesty and treating others well is important—or not), and though beliefs can be changed, it’s far harder than most realize.
For Victorians, character (and the reputation that followed) was the stock in trade of measuring a person’s worth. Personality was routinely understood to be a superficial – though sometimes pleasant or amusing – ornamentation.
Furthermore, personality is generally understood as something that we can accept little credit for in the sense that we were either ‘born with it’ or, more realistically, developed it prior to any choice we may have had in the matter.
Character, though, is thought to be more a work in progress, subject to our personal efforts and responsive to the judgments of others (we feel shame, for example, if our character falls short in people’s estimation – including our own).
But why is the difference between ‘personality’ and ‘character’ important? Here’s Lickerman again:
The problem in forming judgments about a person’s suitability for important roles in our lives (employee, friend, lover, spouse) is that we all have an uncanny predilection for observing attractive personality traits and manufacturing out of them the presence of positive character traits (that is, if someone is outgoing, confident, and fun we’re more likely to think they’re honest, moral, and kind). But it’s far from clear that the one kind tracks with the other.
Assessing character takes time, effort and the ‘luck’ of observing people in situations that are relatively rare but are particularly revealing of character. Going with our judgments of personality as a proxy for character is a common and convenient tactic we all use – but it’s also one that can get us into difficulty. Personality does not translate obviously into character.
An extrovert, for example, may be seen as friendlier than an extrovert but it’s by no means certain that the extrovert is a better friend, in the full, morally-taxing arena of friendship.
So, back to politics and the election – and Franks’ conflation of personality and character.
The media provide most of us with a very partial – perhaps ambguous or even non-existent – insight into character; but they provide a strong lead on personality. Small video clips, a staged interview for which a politician has been carefully ‘prepared’ and trained or an ‘impromptu’ meet-and-greet are all prominent events in political campaigns.
They are also just the kinds of fleeting snapshots from which we can do a pretty good job of assessing personality but which provide next to no insight into character.
Staged PR events (e.g., ‘photo-ops’), which inform much media coverage of politicians, also front-load cues about personality – the ever-present smile, the vigorous handshaking, the laughter, etc. all coordinated within a pre-planned setting.
People may believe that from this media diet, or from other observations, they can get a sense of someone’s character. But it is just as likely – in fact, more likely – that they are actually getting a sense of someone’s personality and only believe that they are getting an insight into their character.
When people say they are voting “for John Key”, then, the more important question is whether they are voting for John Key’s personality, or John Key’s character. Exactly how the numbers on this pan out is anyone’s guess.
Of the 1,000,000 or so voters who will vote ‘National’ at this election presumably some proportion are voting primarily for National’s policies; the rest are voting “for John Key”.
It’s opaque to me whether or not phrases like “nice bloke”, “good guy”, etc. – used by prospective voters in relation to Key – are serious and considered judgments of his character, as opposed to supposed judgments of his character but actually just judgments of his personality.
Given modern campaigns and media portrayals, how can voters gain some real sense of a person’s character? The answer is obvious – by asking those who have either known the person for long enough to get a sense of their character or who have been in one of those relatively rare circumstances where the person’s character has been revealed.
I haven’t done a robust analysis of what others have said about John Key, but a few observations seem to be repeated. The following quotes are from the 2008 Sunday Star Times bio of Key.
One concerns the well-known nickname that Key had while working in the finance industry – the “smiling assassin”. (As he put it himself to Metro magazine: “They always called me the smiling assassin.”)
Another observation is that he had few enemies:
What is unusual, for a profession in which loathing is the standard social currency, is that it is hard to find any traces of enemies that Key may have made. His career appears to be devoid of the scandal, bitter feuds or outrageous ego-flaunting incidents that are typical of the profession.
And, the reason for making no enemies?
The high stakes and tribal nature of investment banking mean the head of a successful team, such as Key, is often hated by others in rival teams. And those with sufficient character to rise to the top are often aggressive, forceful individuals with polarising personalities.
But Key managed to make himself appear relatively inoffensive to the widest possible number of people. Perhaps this makes him bland, indeed, one former trader describes him as “a bit of a clone”.
He is likely, too, to have gained an extra layer of blankness from his training as a trader. Traders must learn the art of the poker face, to show no emotion even in extreme situations, and to guard their inner self.
It would seem that Key struck upon an inoffensive and relatively ‘bland’ persona in order to avoid making enemies. That personality (‘bland’, affable, inoffensive) is clear – less clear is the character beyond that personality.
In modern politics it has been pointed out that there is, increasingly, a “bait-and-switch” PR strategy being employed. Voters are encouraged to vote for a person (the ‘bait’) and, then, post-election, the previously under-emphasised policies get energetically pushed (the ‘switch’). This is one of the main criticisms of the ‘personality politics’ that Franks’ – perhaps inadvertently – defends.
But there is another layer to the bait-and-switch tactic. Even in voting for a person (rather than policies) the bait is a likable personality but, then, post-election, the switch can be made to the actual character that lay, previously, underemphasised. Someone, like Key, who appears inoffensive, relaxed and reasonable can then make decisions that are far from inoffensive or reasonable – thus revealing something of their character.
Having said all of that, here’s one final wrinkle in this area.
A recent Fairfax poll has reported that 34.9 percent of respondents thought that Key was more likely to lie than Goff (26% thought he was more likely to lie). This was curious, according to one political scientist, because of John Key’s pre-eminence on the preferred Prime Minister question.
Auckland University political marketing lecturer Jennifer Lees-Marshment said a preferred prime minister was normally somebody who told the truth. The poll showed voters had a nagging underlying fear that there was something to Mr Key they hadn’t yet seen.
Perhaps there is one possibility in all of this that I’ve overlooked – along with others. Perhaps many New Zealanders – as Franks’ claims – really do “retain sound instincts for assessing character“. And they are under no illusions about Key’s character.
It’s just that – after three decades of neoliberal ideology on the back of New Zealand’s colonialist, individualist past – New Zealanders might just quite like, and even admire, someone whom they believe is willing to lie to further his own interests.
So long, of course, as they are willing to appear – for all the world – as an ordinary bloke. (Something I’ve already discussed in relation to Key).