Saturday, April 13

Election 2023: A totemic & charisma failure? The D&W analysis.

Given the apathy, disengagement, disillusionment, and all-round ennui of this year’s general election, it was considered time to bring in those noted political operatives and spin doctors D&W, the long-established consultancy firm run by Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. Known for their incisive sociopolitical analysis and insights D&W have carved out a niche as one of the go-to firms when political leaders falter or fail to make a necessary impact. Responsible for many political leadership coups and electoral victories globally, D&W have generously cast their eye over the 2023 election and the party leaders, delivering an astute and withering analysis. They have enjoyed considerable – if unrecognized – success in New Zealand politics, because being nonpartisan in their analysis D&W sat behind the rise of Rob Muldoon and Norman Kirk, the sackings of Jack Marshall and Bill Rowling (sometimes their insights are unheeded for too long…), the rise and fall of David Lange, the eventual success of  Helen Clark, and the shorter runs to success of John Key and Jacinda Ardern. Minor parties have also made use of them, or deliberately ignored them in acts in hubris. However, parties which ignore the findings and suggestions of D&W tend to find themselves either in a state of leadership churn or experience a lack of traction with the electorate.

Being a European based firm firmly grounded in the socio-political changes wrought by modernity, D&W are not bound to the Westminster first past the post forms of politics nor to the American bipartisan presidential political system. This means D&W were very well positioned to offer advice into the various forms of multi-party politics long experienced in Europe and so have also been very useful operatives in New Zealand since we transitioned to MMP in 1996. Of course, as noted, their advice has also not been sought or, if sought, not necessarily taken by various parties over the decades because of what it entails.

So, what do D&W do? Their analysis is based on the two strengths of its founders, the identification of the totemic leader by Durkheim and the analysis of charisma and its implementation by Weber.  But before they undertake this analysis D&W first seek to undertake a functionalist mapping of the society the election is occurring within. Durkheim and his team do this, noting society and the electorate is more than the sum of parts. If all the parts function well and are connected then a new society occurs; this can be as simple as the continuation from one term of government to another. However, if they don’t function and aren’t connected, then society and the individuals within it can suffer a breakdown in morals, values and meaning. This is called “anomie”  and is where the collective consciousness of society fails to hold together and provide meaning. Anomie is when political change occurs and while attempts can made to halt such dysfunction during a government by changing the leader, this is rarely successful. 

Durkheim also provides the totemic analysis.  Because society is abstract and complex we create “totems”, or in politics elect “totems”, as expressions of collective identity and values. These become the objects of veneration and the expression of the collective consciousness. These totems operate in two ways in contemporary New Zealand politics. There is the societal political totem who becomes Prime Minister and there are the lesser totems of the various parties. Durkheim warns that if the totems fail, the parties and the wider society are seen to fail. The government, politics and society then goes into decline.

Weber and his team are focused on the issue of charismatic leadership which is both the source of authority and the ability to inspire others. Weber distinguishes between what he terms “priestly charisma” which is the charisma of the office that maintains the status quo and the rarer form of “prophetic” charisma which challenges the existing status quo and enables the growth of support for change. D&W warn too many political leaders confuse the charisma of party office with the charisma of totemic leadership; for only charisma of leadership results in a successful totem. Therefore, what makes the insights of D&W so unique and sought after is their ability to analyse the success or failure of both totemic and charismatic leadership.

So what do D&W make of the current party leaders?

Starting with the Labour party,  D&W noted the ground-breaking totemic success of Jacinda Arden and her charismatic leadership that resulted in the Labour party success in the 2020 election. However, they warned that this success was also due to the totemic and charisma failures of the National party in 2017 and 2020 and the collapse of totemic status of Winston Peters who again failed to translate personal charisma into the charisma of office as Deputy Prime Minister. D&W also warned that the 2020 Labour government also discovered that an overreliance on totemic and charismatic leadership without engaging in the everyday work of the social functioning of society leads to widespread anomie. In such cases both the party and the wider electorate begun to very quickly distance themselves from the totemic leader and the charisma of office falls away, even if the personal charisma remains. The problem for Labour is that the charisma of office has become severely tainted and the personal charisma of Hipkins is not recognized by many in his own party, let alone the wider electorate. In totemic terms, very few seem to want to be ‘Chippyites’. D&W warn there currently seems to be no one who could offer totemic leadership for the party, let alone for the nation, as there seems to also be a charisma deficit. While Michael Wood and Kiri Allan were once both spoken of as future totemic and charismatic leaders, hubris seems to have limited them.

In D&W’s analysis, National have suffered a series of totemic and charisma mishaps and misjudgements over recent years. National are now attempting to replicate the success of their suburban New Zealand totem John Key who, by coming into politics from business, offered the prophetical charisma of the outsider that transitioned very easily into the charisma of office. However, D&W note that Luxon as totemic leader is failing to repeat Key’s success as far fewer in both suburban and business New Zealand wish to be ‘Luxonites’ while (despite – or rather because of his evangelical Christianity) he also fails to have the prophetic charisma of Key. There is also little sense that the status quo of anomie will be significantly changed under Luxon.

Winston Peters is one of the most fascinating cases D&W have come across because, as they describe him, Peters is the most longstanding example of prophetic charisma in Western politics. He is also the most singular example of totemic leadership in New Zealand politics because New Zealand First is Winston Peters. A vote for NZ First is, and foremost always, a vote for Peters; but also, D&W note, a vote versus NZ First is primarily a vote versus the totemic leadership of Peters. Peters also never translates personal charisma into the charisma of office, because if he did, he would have been far more successful over the past 30 years. A perpetual highly charismatic outsider, his totemic status is largely separated from his charisma; that is, only a small portion of the electorate ever wish to be  ‘Winstonites’ – even if they recognize his charisma. Rather, the fear is that he will bring in anomie, even if he has made a career of saying he is the only one who is able to restore the proper functioning of society.

In D&W’s analysis,  David Seymour is a fascinating example of a totemic leader succeeding because of anomie. His charismatic leadership is of a particular and limited kind, being that of and for the most disaffected and the self-marginalized, yet also being in many ways the anti-totem for much of the New Zealand electorate who believe that his response to anomie will in fact be to increase it for all who fail to recognize him as totem. What will be interesting is how the rising counter-totemic status and charisma of Brooke van Velden can be balanced within the party.

For D&W the Greens will always struggle to reach their full potential due to their twin leadership because no society wants a double totem. Having offered that insight, D&W note that if a double totemic leadership has any chance at all  to succeed it also needs to express a shared and equitable charisma – both prophetic and in office. D&W mentioned the anomaly that while Chloe Swarbrick is the one Green MP who potentially offers both totemic status and charismatic leadership, she is not a party leader.  D&W also warn that like other minor parties, the Greens struggle to convince the wider electorate that they will restore the social functioning of society, not increase or maintain anomie. For in an MMP electoral system a voter can – and is in fact often expected to – split their vote between a totemic/charismatic leader vote and a social functioning of society/anti-anomie vote. D&W  reminded the Greens that coalition government requires totemic and charismatic leadership and social function results, even if a minor partner.

Te Pāti Māori also experience the issues of twin leadership and in their case the issues is that of an excess of prophetic charisma coupled with a failure to translate that to wider totemic status once they enter parliamentary office. They also note that the name of the party does not reflect its political reality, because only true totemic leadership could see it live up to its name and attract a significant cohort of voters nationally. Like many minor parties in the New Zealand political system, they also suffer from a wider electoral suspicion that they will decrease the social functioning of society rather restore or increase it. For while societal anomie tends to be the outcome of the failures of either of the two main parties, the minor parties currently lack the social functioning trust combined with broader charismatic and totemic leadership necessary to ensure the success of effective coalition government.

This analysis is why D&W have labelled the 2023 election ‘the anti-election’, because leadership seems to be expressed, exercised and experienced in negative terms. 2023 is an election without a clear offer of totemic leadership nor, with the exception of Winston Peters, charisma that is recognized across and beyond party lines. The concern D&W note is, with the exception of Chloe Swarbrick, there seems to be no current politician capable of combining totemic leadership with prophetic charisma;  yet the Greens, like all minor parties in the New Zealand political landscape, always run the risk of being accused of pursuing societal dysfunction.

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