By Chris Trotter*
It really was the best of times. The brief recession of the late-1950s was over. The United States was led by a young, Harvard-educated, war hero with the dashing style and good-looks of a Hollywood movie star.
The Kennedy Administration had made idealism sexy, and politics heroic. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” John F. Kennedy had declared in his Inaugural Address of 20 January 1961, “ask what you can do for your country.”
The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, and its peaceful resolution, offered proof positive that “the best and the brightest” of the “Free World” were more than a match for the hard men of Soviet Communism. There was a confidence and purposefulness about the United States that not only lifted the spirits of Americans, but fuelled the hopes of people all over the world.
Even the great American scars of racism and poverty no longer seemed beyond remedy. Dr Martin Luther King’s non-violent civil rights movement was galvanising young Americans of all colours in ways not seen since the Civil War of the 1860s. It recalled the high idealism of the Abolitionists: that extraordinary fervour for racial justice reflected in the words of The Battle Hymn of the Republic: “As [Christ] died to make men holy, let us die to set men free.”
Kennedy had also invited Michael Harrington, democratic socialist and author of the 1962 best-seller, The Other America, to the White House for a briefing on those pockets of poverty Roosevelt’s “New Deal” had left in place, and how, finally, they might be eradicated.
Underlying all this optimism and idealism was a rising tide of Keynesian-inspired economic prosperity that had lifted all boats high enough for the usual hardscrabble, hand-to-mouth priorities of ordinary Americans to be temporarily set aside. If the United States was rich enough to contemplate putting a man on the moon by 1970, then perhaps the elimination of racial inequality and poverty could be overcome.
Paradoxically, Kennedy’s assassination only hardened the resolve of Americans to meet the challenges their fallen leader had set before them.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson pledged unreservedly to make good his predecessor’s promises. In January 1964, just weeks after the tragedy in Dallas, “LBJ” used his first State of the Union Address to declare an unconditional “war on poverty”. In November of that same year, Johnson handed Barry Goldwater, the presidential candidate of a Republican Party hi-jacked by its far-right lunatic fringe, a stunning and humiliating defeat.
In his most effective campaign ad’, Johnson said, simply: “Either we must love each other, or we must die.” Less than sixty years ago, an American President had secured a landslide victory on a platform of delivering racial justice, ending poverty, and keeping America at peace.
In the bitter aftermath of the US Supreme Court’s revocation of Roe v. Wade, the above history lesson should serve as a sharp reminder of just how tenuous, and temporary, political progress can be. In the space of just four tumultuous years, the United States had retreated so far from its progressive high-water mark, that Richard Nixon was able to re-take the White House for the Republican Party. Nothing in politics is ever “settled”. The hands of History’s clock can go backwards, as well as forwards.
Nor are such dramatic political reversals peculiar to the United States. In 1972, the New Zealand electorate swung sharply left, propelling the Labour Party into power with 48.4 percent of the popular vote and a whopping 23-seat majority. The professors and the pundits of the time were unanimous in their opinion that a majority of 23 could not be overturned in the space of a single term. Labour, they insisted, was good for at least six years.
They couldn’t have been more wrong. Between 1972 and 1975, the mood of the New Zealand electorate soured to the point where National’s right-wing populist leader, Rob Muldoon, was able to exactly reverse the 1972 election result. Politically and socially, New Zealand voters had swung as sharply to the right as, only 36 months before, they had swung to the left.
Fear was the key: fear and its associated need for reassurance and protection. Muldoon’s success was built on the sudden failure of the New Zealand economy. Rampant inflation, rocketing petrol prices, and the widespread conviction that something very serious had gone wrong with the stable (some might say smug) New Zealand so gently mocked in Austin Mitchell’s in/famous Half-Gallon, Quarter-Acre, Pavlova Paradise.
Which is why, when professors and pundits glibly reassure us that there is no way New Zealanders could turn against a woman’s right to choose an abortion, we are entitled to a small snort of derision.
Four years ago, approximately 65-70 percent of New Zealanders were in favour of decriminalising cannabis. That’s roughly the same percentage of the population that supports the current abortion law. After 18-months-to-a-year of extremely sophisticated campaigning by the anti-cannabis lobby, however, the percentage of voters supporting marijuana law reform had plummeted to just under 50 percent – a fall sufficient to cost the reformers the 2020 referendum. Public opinion doesn’t just change, it can be made to change.
With most economists predicting an imminent recession, many New Zealanders will enter 2023 in fear of what lies in store for them, and resentful of a Labour Government they believe has let them down. If extra-parliamentary forces like the Family First organisation are able to associate Labour’s political leadership with an ideology that despises and derides the beliefs and values of ordinary people, linking their lack of empathy with New Zealanders’ declining economic fortunes, then the chances of them producing a dramatic shift in the electorate’s thinking are relatively high.
In a commentary-piece written for The Conversation, the Auckland academic Suze Wilson warns New Zealanders against placing too much stock in Opposition Leader, Christopher Luxon’s, reassurances that National would not pursue a change to this country’s abortion laws should it win government.
“Even if Luxon’s current assurance is sincerely intended,” writes Wilson, “it may not sustain should the broader political acceptability of his personal beliefs change. And on that front, there are grounds for concern.”
Wilson draws particular attention to the sharp rightward drift set in motion by the Covid-19 Pandemic and the measures adopted by Jacinda Ardern’s Labour-led Government to protect New Zealanders from its worst effects. The early success of those measures, sufficient to secure Labour’s landslide victory in 2020, has not been maintained. Voters who, just 18 months ago looked upon “Jacinda” as a national hero, are daily falling prey to extreme right-wing conspiracy theories depicting her as a power-crazed tyrant.
“If these kinds of shifts in public opinion continue to gather steam, it may become more politically tenable for Luxon to shift gear regarding New Zealand’s abortion laws”, Wilson warns.
The same America that gave us JFK, also gave us Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. The same New Zealand that gave us Norman Kirk, also gave us Rob Muldoon. Except they weren’t the same countries, were they? Because, when Prosperity leaves the building, Empathy is seldom very far behind.
Nothing in politics is ever settled.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.