You Had To Be There: National's Rob Muldoon campaigning in the 1970s. Digital political communication will feature hugely in this year's general election. But can the solitary experience of on-line politics ever match the powerful feelings of solidarity generated by the mass events of an active and participatory democracy?
THIS YEAR’S ELECTION will be won and lost in private. People seated in front of PCs, or, more likely, caressing their smart phones, will be the ones who decide between National and Labour. On both sides of the great political divide some very smart people are already working on ways to bring their followers together – alone.
What a contrast with the campaigning methods of the past. Right up until that most pivotal of election years, 1984, the opening of an election campaign was an unequivocally public event. Political parties typically hired the largest covered venues available – town halls, theatres, opera houses – from the stages of which their leaders addressed audiences of one-to-two thousand energised supporters.
And some determined opponents’, too. Because this was the era in which the noble art of heckling still boasted many proud exponents.
When Rob Muldoon kicked-off National’s official campaign in Hamilton’s Founders Theatre in 1975, a clutch of seasoned Labour hecklers were lying in wait. As the pugnacious Opposition Leader was working his way towards his oratorical climax, one of those hecklers cried out in a voice that echoed around the auditorium: “Who stabbed Jack in the back!?” [Jack Marshall had been deposed as National’s leader by Muldoon barely twelve months earlier.] It took the great counter-puncher more than a few beats to recover his composure.
All good fun! With the entire spectacle broadcast live on the state-owned radio and television networks. Political leaders truly earned the right to rule us in those far-off days before auto-cues, headset microphones and carefully screened audiences waving pre-printed party placards in front of the cameras.
None more so that the revered Labour leader, Michael Joseph Savage, who barnstormed the country in 1938. Diagnosed with colon cancer, Savage disregarded the advice of his doctors to conserve his strength, and hit the campaign trail. Faced with near-universal press hostility, he knew he would have to sell his party’s ground-breaking Social Security legislation face-to-face. Town halls could not contain the crowds that gathered to hear him. Labour stalwarts in Dunedin recalled wonderingly the rain-swept afternoon that Savage spoke to an audience of 20,000 at Carisbrook. It wasn’t even his largest.
The mandatory broadcasting of campaign openings was a legacy of Savage’s prime-ministership. Like the social-media of the twenty-first century, these live broadcasts allowed political leaders to execute an end-run around the conservative gatekeepers of the privately-owned media.
The live broadcasting of Parliament was instituted for exactly the same reason. Working-class families gathered around their radio sets were able to hear Savage describe Labour’s Social Security legislation as “applied Christianity” – as he said it. They were also able to hear National’s leader, Adam Hamilton, dismissing it with a sneer as “applied lunacy”.
Paradoxically, the generation raised on Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter, will find more to respond to in this celebrated Labour legend than their Baby Boomer parents. Millennials need no instruction in the galvanising effect of instantaneity: the extraordinary privilege of being able to monitor events as they happen. A single tweet can reach 20,000 people in a millisecond – and none of its recipients are required to stand for hours in the freezing Dunedin rain to receive it.
Hence the sustained effort of all the major parties to craft their messages to the specifications of our digital age. Tweets, text messages, Facebook postings, YouTube videos, and personally addressed e-mails will increasingly complement the old technology of snail-mail-shots, robo-calls, pamphlets, posters, TV/radio/print ads and, of course, all those bloody billboards.
Parliament itself has bowed before these new digital imperatives. The mandatory broadcasting of the political parties’ opening and closing election statements has been discontinued. State subsidisation of party-political communications will continue, but now it’s to be applied across all platforms.
New Zealanders should, therefore, prepare themselves for an onslaught of algorithmic politics. Messages pitched with unnerving precision at our entire demographic profile: gender and ethnicity; marital status and family composition; level of educational attainment; occupation and work history; income-bracket – all the stuff Facebook and Google know already – will arrive, unbidden, in vast numbers.
Will they work? You bet your life! You’ll be blown away by their sky-high production values and will thrill to the uncanny resonance of their messages. What’s more, you will feel caught-up in something much bigger than yourself: a movement for change; a people’s crusade! Your determination to cast your vote on 23 September (or before!) will grow ever stronger.
But will it be the same as standing in a rain-swept stadium listening to a frail and desperately ill old man asking you to vote for applied Christianity? Will the sound-track in your ear-pods produce the same reaction as 2,000 people chanting Mul-doon! Mul-doon! Mul-doon!? Will your computer screen meet your eye with a flash of solidarity, or join with you in wild applause?
Can citizens truly be together – alone?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 16 May 2017.