The country is changing. And in contrasting herself from her predecessor and advocating for this change, the PM is wielding her awesome and terrible powers of virtue-signalling. It’d be odd if she wasn’t, writes Danyl Mclauchlan.
As The Spinoff recently documented, virtue-signalling is the opposition’s favourite attack line against the Labour-led government. Why “virtue-signalling”? It’s popular among the online right; also, National has a tradition of evidence-based messaging: if all of their front-benchers are repeating the same phrase it’s probably because it focus-grouped well. And the term is compatible with a long-standing rightwing critique of the left: that progressive politics is mostly just empty gestures and hand-waving; meddling politicians and activists feel good about themselves but wreck the economy without helping anyone.
We’re only six months into the new government and who knows: maybe it will go down as a chaotic, messy threesome of good intentions and policy disasters: only time will tell, as the old-school columnists like to say.
But in that six months we’ve seen Jacinda Ardern transform from an inexperienced leader and soft-media darling in the John Key mould into a prime minister who is increasingly skilled at finding ways to communicate her values to the public through images and symbolic gestures – spending a week at Waitangi, wearing a Korowai to Buckingham palace, being visibly pregnant while running the country – in other words, through virtue-signalling.
Public opinion changes: a majority of New Zealanders used to support the outright criminalisation of homosexuality; now a majority supports gay marriage. The most powerful influence on the changing moods and values of the country are what social psychologists refer to as “elite cues”. Because few people have the time or inclination to form coherent ideological worldviews we tend to pick a few people we trust and admire and simply adopt their positions on social and political issues. So we listen to people like Mike Hosking or John Campbell and absorb their values; or read sternly worded Herald editorials or woke takes on The Spinoff, or clickbait on social media feeds, or indulge the deep thoughts of our many celebrities and sports stars.
Or we listen to political leaders. Politicians – especially heads of government – are well placed to be the most persuasive influencers of public opinion. But Helen Clark was not a great persuader (why make the arguments when One is simply Right about everything?) While John Key mastered the art of connecting with New Zealanders via soft media – breakfast radio, women’s magazine cover stories, lite infotainment TV – he invested most of his energy into building his personal brand and endorsing the status quo, endlessly insisting, “We’ve got the mix about right”, or, in the increasingly rare situations in which his government was doing something, “We’re kicking the tyres.” His third term attempt to persuade the country to change the flag was a failure. Judith Collins and Paula Bennett were probably the most effective virtue-signallers for the National government’s values, each of them declaring they were going to crack down on beneficiaries or get tough on criminals, or vice-versa, on an almost weekly basis until even they seemed to get bored of it.
Prior to this year Jacinda Ardern’s media strategy was similar to Key’s: soft media; apolitical; favourite colour; dream holiday. But now that she’s prime minister Ardern is using her carefully curated brand to project progressive values and ideas in a way that’s still deeply appealing to soft media and the available voters that consume it. It’s a hell of a trick. Ardern hates the comparison but it is similar to Trump’s style: finding simple, symbolic ways to make political statements (“We’re going to build a wall!”). It’s also very effective. Anyone can put out a press release or give a speech: only Ardern could make a statement about biculturalism by wearing that cloak. It said almost everything progressives want to say about their cultural values – and which intellectuals are constantly demanding we all have “conversations” about – without saying anything; which means it couldn’t be litigated. Not all of Ardern’s symbolic statements are calculated – like being flagrantly pregnant while prime ministering – but they’re no less powerful for that.
New governments often start out as reactions against the previous administration. “Let’s be the opposite of those clowns.” So this is a government that is determined to deliver substantive change. There are major policy announcements almost every day (few of which seem very planned or coordinated). The cautious pre-budget stories about how little money there is for the health sector and how constrained the finance minister is by his Budget Responsibility Rules look like a classic Helen Clark style underpromise-then-overdeliver routine, suggesting the nation’s hospitals are about to get firehosed with taxpayer cash.
The country is changing. And it has a prime minister who wants to contrast herself from her predecessor and advocate for this change by wielding her awesome and terrible powers of virtue-signalling. If she’s successful then the alteration in public opinion could be just as significant as the policy changes, because the very window of what is and is not politically possible will shift. But this is a delicate thing. If Ardern and her government try to do too much too quickly, or if the prime minister gets too far ahead of the voters then the entire project will fall apart. National will get back in and simply wind everything back. Too much virtuous change too quickly could doom everything to remain the same.
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The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.