What is political populism? Here's an explanation of the new anti-Establishment politics, as well as ten reasons why a popular revolt could happen in New Zealand.

Political populism is on the rise - with voters worldwide becoming conscious of their power to use the electoral booth to blow the political consensus apart. First we had Brexit. And now we have the election of the populist and anti-Establishment maverick Donald Trump as president of the United States. So what exactly is populism and anti-Establishment politics? Could a populist revolt happen here in New Zealand?

Of course, the nature of such revolts is partly unpredictable. When it came to the mainstream media, academics, world leaders and political pundits, almost no one forecast the success of Trump or the vote for Britain to exit the European Union. So why are voters from America to Britain embracing political populism and rejecting the mainstream? And will we see the same phenomenon here in New Zealand?

Political populism

Political scientists define political populism as an outlook that presents a virtuous people against a self-serving and corrupt elite. Dutch political scientist Cas Muddle defines populism as having the three key features of being anti-Establishment, authoritarian and nativist. What do these three terms mean?

Anti-Establishment: Populist politicians like Trump, or our own Winston Peters, see themselves as champions of the people against the Establishment - the elite who wield political and economic power. In New Zealand this would include careerist politicians in Wellington, prominent bureaucrats in government departments and business leaders.


Authoritarian: Maverick politicians like Trump present themselves as strong decisive leaders who won't be held back by bureaucracy or the political system. They display a strong authoritarian streak, justifying their disregard for democratic procedures by the notion that they are the true representatives of the ignored masses.

Nativism: Nationalism is often at the heart of modern populism - as seen with the rise of far right parties in Europe such as UKIP in Britain and the National Front in France. "Nativism" is the idea that ordinary or true citizens need to be defended against "outsiders" and immigrants. The most obvious local political example is Winston Peters rallying against Asian immigrants.

Donald Trump encapsulates all three of these populist components, railing against the Washington political elites and their corrupt relationship with big banks and big business, presenting himself as a strong and authoritarian leader who will channel the needs and hopes of "the people", and articulating a deeply nationalist ideology which promotes a nativist outlook that supports the ordinary American citizen against Mexicans, Chinese competition, and Muslim religion.

The growing popularity of populist movements in western countries - such as UKIP in Britain and New Zealand First here - can be put down to two main factors according to American academic Pippa Norris: economics and culture.

The Economic factor: The economic insecurity explanation for rising populism suggests that the significant changes that have occurred in the economy, workforce and communities is fuelling discontent. The rustbelt of the US, or the declining industrial towns of Europe are related to globalisation, and those populations are receptive to politicians who blame global factors and promise revitalisation of so-called "heartlands".
The Cultural factor: The rise of populism can also be understood in terms of a backlash against the changing demographics, lifestyles, values, and the introduction of socially liberal reforms or "political correctness". A cultural backlash often has a geographical element - whereby certain towns, working class suburbs, or provinces feel out of sync with metropolitan elites and liberals.

Both theories - the cultural backlash argument and the economic insecurity perspective - have been used to explain populist phenomena from the support for Brexit to the rise of Trump as well as the Tea Party movement in the US.

In New Zealand the backlash against biculturalism, evidenced by the support shown for Don Brash's Orewa speech against "Maori privilege" in 2004, fits with both the economic and cultural explanations. Equally, growing anti-immigration sentiments, and blame on foreigners for rising house prices in New Zealand, are examples of populist sentiments being fuelled by economic insecurity and a cultural backlash.

With evidence for the existence of populist sentiments in New Zealand - such as a backlash against Maori policy and growing levels of anti-immigration feelings - could a more widespread populist revolt happen here? And who would be New Zealand's Donald Trump?


Ten reasons why a popular revolt could happen in New Zealand

1. The growth of anti-politics in New Zealand

Increasing numbers of New Zealanders express little faith in this country's democratic system. Earlier this year, a Colmar Brunton survey suggested that the trust of New Zealanders in MPs had fallen by 54 per cent since 2013, and that only one in ten have complete or lots of trust in our politicians. Very large numbers view all politicians negatively and see them as self-interested rather than acting in the interests of the population as a whole. Such conditions led to the rise of Trump in America, and could equally lead to an 'anti-politics' populist leader here in New Zealand.

2. Declining voter turnout

Over several recent elections the most popular electoral option has been "none of the above". That is, a million New Zealanders are choosing not to vote at all. For local government elections, this is about two million non-voters. Political scientists give several explanations for declining voter turnout - which is happening throughout the western world. A belief that politicians are dishonest and always break their promises is one factor. And the belief that politics is boring, meaningless, or has little effect on our lives is another. This decline in participation shows a dissatisfaction that could yet be channelled into some sort of rebellion.

3. The blandness and similarities of our political parties

Here in New Zealand Labour and National are often seen as the Coca-Cola and Pepsi of politics - political brands that are, in essence, very similar products. And parties like the Greens and even New Zealand First are seen as moving increasingly to the bland political centre. This declining choice for voters leads to a dissatisfaction with politics and a belief that little will change regardless of which party is government.


A political leader who can strongly differentiate themselves from the bland political crowd, and tap into populist concerns, could make a quite a splash in the political arena - as both New Zealand First and the Alliance have done in the past. A party that bucks against the consensus on economics or biculturalism held by Labour and National could rise to prominence.

4. Growing unease over immigration and foreign investment

Donald Trump tapped into fears over "outsiders" and immigrants - especially non-registered Mexican immigrants - to build himself up as a defender of the honest American. Here in New Zealand, fears over Asian immigration and investment in the economy are causing a backlash. The Labour Party have stoked up concerns about Chinese investment pushing up house prices.

Winston Peters' anti-immigration message continues to resonate with voters. Part of this is because immigration and foreign investment have been sold as necessary to bring economic growth and essential skills.

The large growth in the use of student and temporary visas for relatively low skilled and paid jobs, regular stories about rampant exploitation of (and by) migrants, immigration scams and the steady increase of assets (including farmland) and profits flowing offshore have seriously undermined that line. Expect this populist concern to be a prominent issue at the next election.

5. Economic inequality is a major concern

Since the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, economic inequality has become a hot issue. Rising living costs in New Zealand, especially in terms of housing, stagnant wages and salaries and the existence of a large so-called underclass, points to the conditions for a backlash of the economically dissatisfied.

The stock "inflation is low" response is losing credibility with most voters and their scepticism is backed up by recent research showing since 2008 the poor have suffered twice the level of price rises and the wealthiest. In the past both New Zealand First and the now deceased Alliance were able to tap into such unease over economic insecurity. The time could be right for a populist politician to offer bold and radical policies to tackle economic inequality, and that seems to be Gareth Morgan's focus in launching his new political party.


6. A backlash over perceived "Maori privilege"

Concerns over a perceived racial divide between Maori and non-Maori is an issue waiting to be given a new voice. And in this regard, we've already had our own "Donald" - Don Brash was previously able to catapult himself into the political arena with talk of "Maori privilege". A fresher and more articulate spokesperson for such racial concerns could make this a prominent issue once more - especially with renewed debate and backlash about the proposal to create Maori wards in local government.

As with Trump's demonisation of immigrants and Muslims, a campaign against "Maori privilege" could be a vote winner once again amongst middle and working class pakeha who continue to resent what they perceive as race-based privilege. The expansion of a (still very small) Maori middle and elite class, hailed by mainstream politicians as evidence of their policies working, is actually galling to many struggling pakeha voters. Watching those previously below you on the socio-economic scale rapidly surpass your own eroding status makes for politically combustible material.

7. Fears of violent crime being on the rise

Despite crime being on the decline, overall, for several decades now, most New Zealanders fear that violent crime is out of control. Media reports of drunken brawls on K Road and tragic cases of violence against children feed into the idea that we are becoming a more violent society.

Support has existed in the past for more police, more prisons and a general "get tough on the criminals" attitude. Populist politicians overseas have been able to link fears over crime with the growing presence of immigrants and an underclass. In New Zealand the conditions certainly exist for a populist politician to stoke fears over perceived growing levels of unlawful behaviour with the issue of race, especially with regard to violence against children.


8. The sense of unease for "Waitakere man"

The "Waitakere man" - defined by political commentator Chris Trotter as "the highly-skilled, upwardly-mobile working-class bloke" is a base for populist politics in this country. The Waitakere man's dislike of "nanny state" interfering politicians and bureaucrats, concerns about radical Maori, dislike of welfare "bludgers", and unease over "too many immigrants" is waiting to be given a voice.

Brash, Peters and even John Key have tapped into such concerns before. But Waitakere man has been "let down" by such politicians once in power. A New Zealand Donald Trump could well act to articulate the concerns of this segment of the population and tap into a cultural backlash against political correctness, biculturalism and perceived government social engineering.

9. Anti-political correctness

The label "politically correct" is a vote loser in New Zealand. Surveys show that New Zealanders are generally socially liberal - such as in regards to gay marriage or abortion - but there is still a considerable very socially conservative rump which Colin Craig and others have so far failed (narrowly) to translate into parliamentary power. Given the even balance between left and right voting blocks and our MMP system, it is likely only a matter of time before those voters are formed into a parliamentary political movement with real power.

New Zealanders generally don't like the sense that governments are trying to change how we think and act. Labour's perception as a nanny state and politically correct party has certainly been a vote loser. And although John Key is generally socially liberal - he presents himself as a pragmatist not swayed by PC ideology. But a new leader who is able to present themselves as a bulwark against political correctness and interfering politicians could tap into growing anti-political sentiments here.


10. Emerging populist politicians

Anti-Establishment politicians are already positioning themselves for next year's general election. Gareth Morgan, with the launch of The Opportunities Party, is being touted by some as our own Donald Trump in the making. Morgan is certainly presenting himself as an outsider ready to take on Establishment politics. And he might well alter this country's party system.

New Zealand First certainly has the characteristics of a populist party. The party continues to position itself against the mainstream parties and career politicians. This is despite Winston Peters being a career politician himself. Since New Zealand First's national conference earlier this year, Peters has been tapping into concerns over economic inequality and business elites with his call for a break from the neoliberal/free market policies of successive governments. Peters especially aims to build on discontent in the provinces, where the sense of being left behind by Wellington elites is growing. So we could see a second coming of Peters and his party, built upon a backlash in the provinces against urban elites.

But, of course, the lesson from other populist revolts around the world, is that often the populist leaders come from entirely outside of politics. The unexpected politicians are increasingly likely to arise from the worlds of entertainment and media. So, perhaps watch out for the likes of Paul Henry, John Campbell, Anika Moa, Willie Jackson, Bill Ralston, Duncan Garner, John Minto, Mike Hosking, or even Guy Williams. Their time to kick against the Establishment might be just around the corner.

* This piece was co-authored with John Moore, @JAZ_Moore