Trevor Landers: Why the left needs to reject feral political tribalism

Trevor Landers: Why the left needs to reject feral political tribalism

For the health of the political left, a more democratic and tolerant ethos is badly needed. This is the argument of longtime activist Trevor Landers, who in this discussion piece reports on his experiences as an activist participating in some sometimes toxic and dogmatic political forums.


A staple of a vibrant democracy is the presence of forums and crucibles to debate political ideas and to advance our political views. These articulations of political self-expression are inalienable to the vibrancy and colour of our political landscapes. From Karl Marx to George Orwell, both moderate and radical leftists  have traditionally campaigned for free speech and political freedom. Yet, some elements of the contemporary left are hostile to the ideas of a vibrant clash and engagement of contrasting political ideas, and instead embrace various forms of censorship and modern cancel culture. Such an intolerant leftism is an anathema to the best traditions of social democratic and socialist thought, and is in fact linked historically with totalitarian and idealist Maoism. This illiberal form of ‘Marxism” became popular with elements of the new left of the 1960s. Although much of the radicalism of this new left dissipated and morphed into a form of politically correct neoliberalism, the original embrace of a Maoist derived illiberal position on political pluralism and political freedom remains.

Feral political tribalism

With mounting trepidation, I have been watching the burgeoning of a phenomenon I call ‘feral political tribalism’, first amongst Trump supporters, but more recently this scourge has made itself known in New Zealand too. Gone is the dispassionate debate of countervailing views, and in its place has come seemingly unassailable positions, demanding blind loyalty and fealty, rather than a capacity to critique. In an era of Dirty Politics, what we have witnessed is the mainstreaming of tribal feralism and attempts to cancel inconvenient truths.

Feral politcal tribalism can be defined as a dogmatic and often fanatical loyalty to one’s own political side. This can include a blind loyalty to a political party, regardless of its shifts in ideology and policies. An example of such tribalism was evident in the 1980s when the New Zealand Labour Party took a decisive turn to the economic right. Despite this break from its social democratic roots, the most loyal Labour supporter kept on defending their party despite of the pain that was being heaped out on Labour’s working class base. And those who broke from Labour to form the more leftwing NewLabour Party (which later became part of the Alliance) where often labelled scabs and traitors by such feral political tribalists.

Drawing on my recent experienced amongst avowedly Leftist supporters in online discussion forums, I want to show how the corrosiveness of feral tribalism is actually undermining political debate today and weakening both our democracy and political sophistication. My experience is derived from a Facebook group that is emblematic of discussions on the right and left. What they share is an intolerance for challenging political critique that asks interrogative questions of our own ‘side’.

Political tribalism on social media

Social media is now a central arena for political discussion as well as partisan propaganda. I embrace this new medium as an important platform for political discourse and activism. Yet, my experiences of leftwing groups on platforms such as Facebook has been one of frustration, disappointment and concern. While the encomiums of praise to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern flowed like intoxicating libations, my position on leftwing social media was uncontested, unchallenged and largely unremarkable. Things took an appreciable downswing, when as the election approached, the under-performance, under-delivery and comparatively meagre achievements of the Ardern administrations came sharper into view.

A strong criticism of National supporters is that they are fanatical, unthinking and simplistic.  Growing up on a farm in South Taranaki with a father who was a former Electorate Chairman, and with a cousin as a senior Minister in the Key/English administration, I figured I am reasonably knowledgeable about National supporters. There are good people, and tainted operatives. What came as a greater surprise is the degree of suspicion and hostility that being critical of the Labour-New Zealand First coalition government’s performance engendered.

The need to be critical of one’s own political side

The coalition government is in desperate need of critical friends. That is, for Labour to lead a truly transformation regime, it needs to be pushed hard by its support base to implement real progressive change. Merely cheerleading for Labour regardless of its results will amount to the same old same old. So where has this government failed to achieve transformative progressive change?

By any objective measure, the Government’s KiwiBuild policy was an unmitigated disaster. Whilst it does provide some first homes for middle-class New Zealanders, (and that is a good thing) it has done little to resolve the housing crisis for the majority of us, and nothing to address the drivers of homelessness.

The propensity to commission Working Groups was widely criticised on the right of politics. My view was reserved. With such a broad agenda of change, gaining expertise insight into a farrago of issues is not without merit.  However, convening these groups and not responding to their recommendations seems like a series of lost opportunities. The Taxation Working Group and the Welfare Working Group are two sentinel examples, where clear improvements were identified in order to make the system more equitable and fairer, but no substantive action has yet been seen.  These are legitimate nodes of critique and criticism for anyone, regardless of their position on the political spectrum. The idea that if ones “own team” occupies the hallowed halls of power, then that gains them immunity for scrutiny, enquiry and debate is a notion I find bizarre.  I can understand a political need to mitigate and mollify criticism to some extent, but in a vital democracy, the cut, thrust and parry of political debate is the lifeblood of our democracy.

Many of us who voted for Labour in 2017 are a little disillusioned with the inertia, slow progress and failure to launch the promised ‘transformation’. There are legitimate questions to be asked of the lack of progress with this government. Asking such questions should not be seen as an act of treachery. Indeed, accountability and public scrutiny within the Westminster tradition means ‘interrogation’ of the government is warranted, regardless of the enquirer’s political leanings. It is the right, and some would say a duty, of every citizen, in order to create a fairer, more equitable, less plutocratic society.

Praise and criticism for the Government’s Covid19 response

The Government’s management of Covid19 is a particular issue that deserves both praise and critique from supporters of this government. Yet any criticisms from the left of the Jacinda Adern-led government’s handling of the Covid19 crisis is dismissed by the tribalist left on social media. The government’s Covid19 response, particularly during the phases of lockdown, was generally widely applauded, including by me. However, the performance at the border was initially sloppy, roughshod, and potentially calamitous.

To have only 884 of 2159 people in quarantine tested, when there had been evidence of intermingling between people at different stages of quarantine was an unnecessary and cavalier risk. To release 51 of 55 people released under compassionate grounds without testing them first invited disaster. Thankfully, no community transition resulted. That there has been no community transmission was partly serendipitous, not the result of robust policy and best-practice implementation.   It was an anxiety that could have been eliminated entirely by sound management practices to begin with. On the most tribalist zones of New Zealand leftwing social media, criticism of the Government’s response was treated as being tantamount to treason, or a higher form of treachery.

Promoting good policy

As a leftwing critical supporter of the Labour-led government, I am interested in promulgating good policy, and matching achievement against the implementation of that policy. My response is based on measurable performance, not sweet sophistry or beguiling rhetoric.  I expect other parties to act politically (even disingenuously) so I am more likely to hold an administration who touted for my vote, and who secured it successfully, to a higher standard.  That is a political right at the heart of representative democracy.

The lack of movement on, say taxation or social welfare reform issues, is not because of a dearth of ideas or recommendations, but simply, in my view,  an enfeebled political will which is more interested in keeping their largely middle-class centrist base satisfied than enacting policies would make for a more equitable and egalitarian country. This is particularly galling, given before the 2017 election, Ardern raised expectations that long-standing inequalities would be dealt to. Even allowing for the machinations of coalition management, it is difficult to given Arden’s government more than a middling pass mark.  That is by no means advocacy for a change of government, as the rabid and feral members of the Left group I am referencing, assumed.

Groupthink Labour

The most virulent and aggressive apologists and defenders of Groupthink Labour, with their unthinking assumptions, reminds one of the uncritical  defenders of Stlain and Mao in the 20th Century. Unfortunately, the left has not always been consistent in defending free speech and political pluralism. Under Stalin, members of Soviet society were not permitted the luxury of dissent, much less the ability to articulate differences, stridently, publicly or otherwise.  Having just completed a book-length study on aspects of the historiography of Stalinism in the West, the tactics of intimidation and personal harassment are very familiar, and this totalitarian streak is equally as troubling as the rise of the illiberal right.

‘Political essentialism’ demands that anything that runs counter to one’s limited ideological understandings has to be suppressed, eradicated or demonised as the ravings of a ‘neo-liberal apologist’.  Shooting the messenger, not responding to the message is much easier, but not very illuminating, and the antithesis of democracy. The goal is to “cancel” the person making criticism, not to respond to the criticism intellectually, or even intelligently. De-legitimisation is part of the feral tribal political playbook. The unwillingness to contest ideas, or defend under-performance is most troubling, regardless whether this tendency is found on the left, the right or wherever.

For a transformational Labour Party

My argument that the Labour Party has not been remotely socialist since the Kirk/Rowling years is contentious, and contestable, and highly debatable. That is the nature of political debate. Ideas can be debated, the proposer of them should never be the object of scorn or opprobrium. Others can dispute my assertions by assembling their evidence to disprove my contention, or support it using other reinforcing documentary or testamentary evidence.

To only support an idea because it is raised by a party we happen to support is a monumental foreshortening of our own political vision. Each government must defend its own record. Jacindamania and a stellar performance during Covid19 aside, it is precisely those who voted for Labour in 2017 that should be critiquing their performance. The price of support is not silence or blind loyalty; the key to political engagement is it must be part of active and robust debate with many countervailing views permitted. In a contest of ideas, analysis of policy and not who shouts the other down the loudest should be our measure of political health.

Echo chamber politics

That the amateur commentariat has become so feral and tribal on either side of politics diminishes the robustness of what passes for democratic debate in New Zealand and is a major warning sign. That the open hostility to some journalists and the ascription of ‘fake news’ to anyone one personally disagrees with their view is a disturbing new polarisation of the New Zealand electorate. If cleaved into two irreconcilable positions, there is little chance of understanding one’s political opponents except through sloganeering, cheap denigrations and unflattering caricaturisations. Politics is about consensus building, co-operation and courage.   Instead of genuine dialogue and the interchange of a diverse array of ideas, we see the loudening of one’s own echo chamber. We do not want parties full of sycophantic supporters who are unable to form their own views, but who merely respond meretriciously or magnanimously simply depending on what colour the rosette their parliamentarian wears.

Let’s get critical

Voters traditionally only get one opportunity each year to judge a government’s performance but being open to critique is a hallmark of learning, and a progressive democracy. Evaluating the views of politicians of all stripes on the basis of what they espouse, and then what they implement is a far sounder basis than simply mindlessly cheering on the green, red, blue, or black rosette. For one thing, it demonstrates that we as citizens are not as engaged as we should be, and politicians are not kept under enough public scrutiny.  Their accountability to the Parliament is one thing, but their accountability to the people is weak, and needs to be stronger, and that is our collective responsibility.

It was Ardern herself who raised expectations with a farrago of promises prior to the 2017 election. Not all the hiccups and roadblocks can be sheeted home to the obstructiveness of New Zealand First. Again, that Labour has underperformed is not a call to change the government, but a call to improve it, and to keep its promises.  In my own view, this is a fair political assessment based on the gulf between rhetoric and reality, and between promises and what has come to pass. Others can and will differ, and from their fruitful dialogues can begin if we are open to examining our own assumptions, biases, and positions.

For democracy

Political intolerance is an enemy of a free and open society based on democratic ideals, and we need to have renewed vigilance to allow free expression not an open season for partisan culture-cancelling.  Governments traditionally do some very good things, and some very ill-advised and injudicious things. In a functioning civil society, the ability to commend and criticise a government is paramount. In the highly polarised political milieu in the USA we have seen the dangers of unthinking fanaticism and blind loyalties, and that it damages the political fabric per se, not just the Republican right. We do not want to emulate that in New Zealand, in online or real-time communities. What we do want is an engaged populace generating solutions and ideas, more actively engaged in decision-making, rather than leaving it to the parliamentarians. Each must place their part to ensure good, responsive government. This election needs to be a contest of ideas, and a well-informed citizenry is better placed to demand this from our political parties. We should be setting the agenda, but we are altogether too passive, and we need to be more critical and be open to fresh ideas not wedded to old shibboleths. Party sloganeering might make us feel better temporarily but does it serve the interests of improving life chances for the many or reinforce the privilege of the few?