Richard Nixon coined the phrase “the silent majority” to describe the body of Americans he saw as supporting his unpopular policies in Vietnam, while there was protest and unrest in the streets all around. Nixon’s “silent majority” were the classic WASPs – the White, Anglo Saxon, Protestants who duly delivered him one of the biggest ever landslide election victories in 1972, and who supported him loyally until almost the end of the Watergate Crisis that toppled him from power.
Today, around the world, there is a new, vastly different silent majority – the urban liberal. They are diverse, well-educated, informed, successful, internationalist, progressive and tolerant – and now disenfranchised. The rise of populist politics has led the political parties that stood up for them, and whom they traditionally supported in return, to abandon them in favour of the vocal shouting of sectional interests and minorities. Urban liberals, young and old, male and female, of varying ethnic and cultural backgrounds are being left aside as a non-cause because they are seen as doing too well economically and socially to be worried about.
The lack of reaction to last week’s disparaging, almost sneering, comments about “middle class welfare” from a former National Prime Minister shows just how far the pendulum has already swung. Urban liberals are on their own. Unlike other groups in society whose concerns are seen as legitimate and worthy of attention, their issues of concern are dismissed as self-interest. While they may differ in their specifics, social, family and economic issues affect urban liberal families in just the same way as they do everyone else. Moreover, as the group that pays most of the taxes, they have just as much right as every other citizen to the attention and support of the system.
The values they represent – compassion, tolerance, respect, inclusion and commitment to progress – used to be seen as core New Zealand values. Now they are dismissed as some sort of overly vague woolly thinking, out of step with the realities of today’s world. Standing up against discrimination and oppression is held to be soft handwringing, in a world where the threats of terrorism and the flood of displaced refugees are so great that hard-line intolerance has become acceptable. Promoting evidence based solutions to health and social issues is increasingly seen as a cop-out and an excuse for inaction, when it is so obvious what “really” works. Instinct and immediate reaction too often outweigh the calm and considered response urban liberals are used to. The appeal to unreason and prejudice is becoming the new norm.
Sadly, our mainstream political parties have been swept along by this new rising tide of populism, meaning neither of them are the bulwarks of reason and common sense they used to be. Left without a voice, urban liberals are now left having to look for new champions to represent them. Increasingly that voice will lie with the smaller parties – ACT, the Maori Party and UnitedFuture. Yet, for many, ACT is too ideological and flinty faced, and focused on the top income end of the income spectrum for whom whatever the government does is of little consequence anyway because they can afford to pay for the alternative. The Maori Party’s focus is understandably on its core constituency, whose support it seeks, and indeed deserves, as the genuine representatives of Maoridom.
This leaves UnitedFuture, New Zealand’s version of Britain’s Liberal Democrats, as the genuine, if currently small, voice of urban liberal New Zealand. Its stands on tolerance, diversity, support for immigration and refugee resettlement, and its empathy with the trials and tribulations of the middle classes sit comfortably with urban liberal concerns. Its challenge is to attract their support as a credible place to put their party vote to ensure their values are not only represented in Parliament, but can also be brought in numbers to the government table to restore balance and common sense. To do so, the silent majority will have to be roused to act, to use its party vote to affect change. Otherwise the silent majority will quickly become the alienated majority, and at a time of declining political involvement anyway, coupled with the climate of fake news and alternative facts, that could well be a body blow to our democracy.
Disclaimer: When I wrote last week about Labour’s looming train wreck, I was certainly not expecting it to come as quickly as this week’s list debacle!