Monday, November 28, 2011

Land Values

They resemble aerial bombardments,


or hex grids in a boardgame,

Scoltand and Northern Ireland

or quarantined areas in an epidemic.


But they’re just different ways of representing the outcome of elections, according to polling station results or electorate winners. The last picture in particular corresponds to a mode of representation that has come to signify the existence of two nations within one, a red one and a blue one, producing a split that cannot be recomposed – in the notable case of the United States – except in the uniting figure of the President.

I don’t recall these visualisations being at all popular in Italy when I was growing up. We did of course refer to certain areas or regions – notably Emilia and Tuscany – as being ‘red’, and conversely Veneto was ‘white’, which connoted it as much for its Catholic fervour as for its steadfast allegiance to the Christian Democratic party. But we had a fully proportional system with no winner-takes-all contests, and so while the relative strengths of different parties in different parts of the country was of course noted and discussed, it made no sense on election night to demarcate one region from the others nor indeed (more importantly) to colour any one of them in anything but a mixture of those primary colours, and there would have had to be as many different shades as regions, rendering the whole exercise pointless.

I polled my friends on Twitter – there is no great research behind this post, I’m afraid – and it seems that in New Zealand the practice has far deeper roots, no doubt as a result of the first-past-the-post system that was in place until 1996 and whose vestiges survive in the form of the 63 general and 7 Māori electorates of MMP. Cheryl Bernstein has noted that the local electoral maps of previous decades ‘resembled those maps of the world with all the pink bits belonging to the British Empire’ – an interesting lineage in and of itself.

Digging through Timeframes I’ve unearthed a map from the 1896 general election that predates this model. It is a very interesting document, not least for the thick patchwork of wonderful advertisements (‘There is something pleasing to an Englishman’s Eye about the Warwick Bicycle’) that surrounds the map proper. In each non colour-coded electorate we find mention of the winner and second placed candidate, along with their affiliation, according to the following legend: G = Government, O = Opposition, I = Independent, C = Continuation (of licenses), R = Reduction, P = Prohibition. The North Island looked like this:

Whereas as of last Saturday night, according to The New Zealand Herald, it looked like this:

One map needs to be pored over, examined in detail, and will surrender the overall election results only after one has laboriously collated the information. The other conveys at a glance – but for the need to zoom into Auckland separately – the dominant political orientation of the electorates that make up half the country.

The second map is a more powerful document, but it also lies. The Tories won a decisive victory on Saturday, but it wasn’t remotely as crushing as the electoral map suggests. They stopped short of reaching an absolute majority, both as a percentage of the vote and in terms of the number of seats apportioned under the voting system. Yet the visualisation that tells this story – which is arguably the only one that really matters in a proportional electoral system – is the one of the chamber, which is a further level of abstraction up, one that isn’t overlaid on the geography of the country and is therefore far less persuasive: it doesn’t move us nor shape our perception of how consensus is distributed across the territory.

So we look at the other map, the one that lies. The one that locks us into a first-past-the-post logic, eliding all parties but four, two of which account for the quasi-totality of the electorates, plus two minnows who made it into Parliament solely thanks to their ability to colour a tiny bit of the country each of yellow and purple.

The so-called regions are all blue, with the sole exception of the West coast of the South Island, and it is a uniform blue, regardless of the extent of the National candidate’s victory, and completely irrespective of actual party vote, which is not what is being measured (although Keith Ng on Scoop went as far as to produce a map of the party vote as if it was first past the post). This allows us to think of the less urbanised parts of the country as a homogenous and irredeemable centre-right block, or, depending on what fuels your sense of moral superiority, an indistinct ‘redneck country’, a place immune to progressive political strategies and that won’t see past race or colour or class in the confirmation of its narrow bias. There is no place on this map for an event like the election of a transsexual left-wing politician for two successive terms as the representative in Parliament of any one of these amorphous electorates, for the map has no shades.

However this year the map of Christchurch (which actually downplays National’s result) strikes me as the most scurrilous of all, for it erases the population that was displaced by the earthquake, as well as the earthquake itself. There is no asterisk that will show up in the annals, no way to weave the events of the last 14 months in its crude narrative. This is your city, struggling to stay red.

It is hard to resist the pull of the local. The quirks of the system force us to obsess on a couple of electoral contests, and on the destinies of two small parties that just won’t die. We all think we know how we’d vote if we lived there. We all have thoughts for the residents, but always in an atmosphere of respect for the sacrosanct exercise of their democratic rights.

Since neither John Banks nor Peter Dunne carried anybody with them else on the strength of their parties’ vote, the effects of their bargained victories on the makeup of Parliament was mathematically quite slight, although far from insignificant in a finely balanced house. But we also hoped that the minister of welfare might lose her seat even though she’d still make it through the party list in order to send a signal, or win a small moral victory, but also and perhaps more basically to restore pride in the community.

It is hard to rest the pull of the local, or wanting to know how fared the neighbourhood. And so on Sunday morning I checked the results of our local polling booth and then tweeted the following:

By which I guess I meant to brag, which would be misguided enough, except noting that the government enjoys as little as 20% support on this side of Berhampore will be very little consolation when we become the target of their welfare reforms – as we most assuredly will – or the very school in which the voting took place will end up in a league table, its wonderful work devalued by a wrong, punishing metric.

That is just what those maps do – they measure the wrong things: the votes, but not the reasons; the outcome, but not process. And they flatten the political into electoral politics, generating ideas about the country that conform to their crude schematism. Ideas than in turn produce scintillating pieces of analysis such as this one, from director Taika Waititi:

Or this complaint about non-voters from Richard Pamatatau (whom I ordinarily have a lot of time for):

What these pronouncements and those maps have in common is that they are uncomprehending; they say both more and less than what needs to be said, overdetemining political reality and at the same time wishing it to be simpler than it is. But there are things that we don’t have maps for. We don’t have maps showing the apathetic versus the disaffected, or who is selfish and who is stupid, or committed, or hopeful, and where they all live. And so we need to find other, more meaningful ways of engaging with all of these social subjects, instead of painting them one of two colours, or calling them fools for not wishing to take part in that particular exercise, in the illusion of being counted and having a say.

Māori media and Māori politics both offer an alternative conceptual model, based on different mappings of the same territory. Mappings that not only follow different physical lines of demarcation, covering larger swathes of the country, but respond to different demands from their constituents. It is of course not surprising that switching to the campaign coverage on Māori Television should be akin to the experience of watching Te Kāea after a regular diet of news from the commercial networks; that the same viewers who appear to take a far greater interest in social knowledge should be better informed about their political representatives, and more inclined to listen to lengthy debates on substantive issues. But the contrast is instructive nonetheless, and timely. While the Labour party goes through it cleansing exercise and proceeds to elect another pair of leaders based on their popularity amongst their peers, and not whether they have a plan to win the next election or even necessarily a good enough reason for wanting to, we should talk with some urgency about public media reform so that we can produce another public like the public of Māori Television, and set about remapping the political and social debate for those who are stuck on the general roll. We’re not lacking for an example to follow.


Unknown said...

...and proceeds to elect another pair of leaders based on their popularity amongst their peers...

Picking teams in the playground at lunchtime.

George D said...

Your critique notwithstanding, Keith Ng's map does allow for all the shades and variations in party support, with a drop-down menu. The Herald's simple logic allows for no such differentiation.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Not quite - at least not the map I'm looking at. If you hover over each electorate it just shows the relative vote of the lists on the left. Which I'm sure is useful to some people. However I think a map that shows almost the whole country in solid blue when National has won only 48% of the overall vote - and 31% of the eligible vote - is a lot more misleading than it is useful, no matter how much you can play with it.

Giovanni Tiso said...

(And it's the default view on Scoop. Default views are a powerful thing.)

Ben Wilson said...

It's totally misleading. I saw that tweet from dimsie too, but also the one a bit later on consoling herself that actually in Waitakere Labour+Greens had beaten National.

The geographical maps are about as misleading as they would be if you also tracked the international special votes, and if Labour got the most in the USA, coloring the entire USA red.

It is FPP thinking, totally, and it's pervasive in our papers - I'm still quite amazed that the Herald is frontpaging discussions of Goff's successor before the votes are all counted, and reporting on Key's speculations about who it will be.

It's also thinking that will collapse, very soon. The nation had it's referendum and MMP seems to clearly have been chosen. That puts FPP to bed once and for all, I hope. We already have the more canny rightist commentators, such as Hooton, pointing out that National is highly likely to go out next election. I think he's right, but it's not going to happen without a lot of work in the meantime.

One of the biggest things that needs to change, IMHO, is FPP thinking. National has actually killed the political right this election - there are no viable alternatives. If Labour can bite down disappointment that their party vote was reduced, they'll notice that a broad coalition into which they could possibly rule the country, came damned close to winning this election. To me that means that the strategy of cobbling together big coalitions is a long term winner, and actually Labour killed itself when it swallowed up so much of the left under Clark.

This is a REAL change in thinking because it means constantly engaging (not just in election years) with both the leadership and the constituency of the potential coalition partners. It means accepting that you can't actually represent some people, but you can ally with them. It means throwing bones to the allies. It means talking them up, even, just so that the constituent either votes in a way that doesn't support National.

That leads to more targeted parties. In the battle of broad churches, National wins hands-down, because that kind of battle is presidential, and always plays to the big money. Clark did it reasonably well, but she alienated and killed off many potential allies, and structurally disabled the Left.

It also means talking up this way of thinking. National spinmeisters like Hooton are desperately trying to say that something is structurally fucked in NZ because National hasn't managed to rule outright, and he uses maps like what you (Gio) are showing here to bolster this point. That has to be countered by every means possible. This election should be the death rattle of FPP style thought.

I'm still quite undecided about whether Goff should go. To be honest, he surprised me in the last few weeks, and I think the fact that the clamoring for his head is coming very largely from the Right betrays a real sense of fear. They noticed, of course, that Goff has learned how to land telling punches on Key finally.

I think they should start this cycle as they mean to continue, and reach OUT to find out whether to keep Goff, rather than "soul search", which tends only to confirm internal party prejudices.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I think we're all invested in what Labour does now, whether we directly support the party or not, so I'll say mine: I find the prospect of their choosing the leader again through a straight caucus count instead of working out the strategy first utterly demoralising. What is needed is some high level thinking, and to challenge the conventional wisdom and rationalisations - which to be fair are only partially borne out of this map business.

Shooting Grant Robertson out of a cannon for saying post-facto that this election was unwinnable would be a great start. But what do I know.

Ben Wilson said...

You know a lot. Your post on the well-adjusted has been on my mind a great deal, caused a tremendous mental upheaval. Without saying I like it or not, that alone is a powerful reason to keep speaking the way you do.

You should probably not underestimate your ability to influence powerful people, too. Truth cuts through to the intellects of the powerful. If not Labour, note that half of the people who aren't National voters are also not Labour voters, and if Labour continues not to listen, they aren't necessarily bleeding to National, and there is hope in the minors.

People who write forthrightly and without alignment to parties are becoming a bigger and bigger part of our democracy. It's real engagement. Keep it up, you inspire me, always did, probably always will, even if I reserve the right to strenuously disagree with you any time I think you're wrong.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thank you Ben - it's very generous of you to say that. Truly.

Andrew said...

Yes, Giovanni, I'd second Ben's comments. Your posts, whatever the topic, are thought provoking. And in the age of short attention spans and superficial thinking, they're a welcome antidote to the prevailing 'wisdom' that gets shoved at us through other channels.

I'm sorry to have read that comment from Grant Robertson though, since that is good reason why so many people are angry with Labour right now - they gave up on winning this election immediately after losing the last one. Even if he sincerely believed it, a political party that wants our votes is under an obligation to fight for electoral victory as hard as it fucking can, not just piss about in the last few months and then cynically say 'it was a foregone conclusion'.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Needless to say, that kind of talk also prepares the ground for a gallant defeat in 2014.

Unknown said...

I'd third Ben's comments as well. Gio you're not only very readable, you're vital.
As for Labour, they need to convince themselves why they are here.

Andrew said...

Yeah, and the fundamental problem is that they see it as a defeat for them, instead of a defeat for the people they're supposed to be representing, who will be the ones crushed underfoot by the destruction of the remnants of NZ's welfare system. The MPs themselves will be fine, since they're mostly in the top 10% (if not 1%) most well-off.

Giovanni Tiso said...

As for Labour, they need to convince themselves why they are here.

They could start by watching their own opening campaign address. I'd definitely start there.

Unknown said...

Indeed, the people, but as things have become so much more about ascending the hierarchy, the natural decline commences with winning.

Ben Wilson said...

I'm not trying to be generous, Gio, that would be patronizing. For me, the work of people like you is vital. It would be a sore blow to hear that you had stopped writing because you couldn't afford it, or felt no-one was listening.

Mostly, you ask powerful questions. You fall down, as most people do, as I do, when trying to commit to the answers to these questions, because that's really not the job of a single person.

My own modernist way of thinking is all about answers. That's arisen from being a computer programmer (or maybe it's just how I am and I chose programming because of it). Answer generators need answer testers, though, or they come up with answers to the wrong questions.

Currently, there is an answer I have been searching for in politics, and haven't found it, and I think it must be because it's the wrong question. It's the question "How can our economy grow, or even maintain in a globalizing world?". It seems so much of our political discourse is completely dominated by this question, and yet the answers are really thin on the ground. I think this is because we (NZers, but the same comment goes for most Western nations) can't accept that capitalist economics itself is driving us under by the simple logic of global competition. We don't have an alternative economics to work with, another paradigm by which to view how economic activity could be reformed so that it doesn't drive every nation towards industrial monocultures. Our own monoculture is industrial agriculture.

This is vital, because if it is true, it means the recession we face right now will not end until the poorest country in the world rises to our level, or we sink to theirs. If that is true we have to come to terms with what that means for the entire makeup of a society that was built around the idea of continual growth.

This is a huge question, far beyond me to frame or solve. But I think each country has to confront it, or they've got their heads in the sand. I think the ultimate issue is a philosophical/moral one, going right back to what the value of humanity actually is, in an age where the machine is the real source of the work for our basic needs. We're not machines ourselves and making our society into a machine and ourselves into cogs in it seems like a great leap backwards for everyone except the driver of the machine.

The movie Baraka parodies this powerfully. It's quite fascinating in the way it shows humanity in action under time dilation, how a woman working in an assembly line resembles a machine, sweeping back and forth checking chips like the head of a printer. Images of a New York Street sped up in time both visually and in sound look like a huge sewing loom, making a gigantic whoosing sound on each traffic light phasing. And shots that intersperse factory workers with the factory chickens send the director's message rather clearly. And endless scenes of appalling poverty.

Of course he doesn't show the factory worker at ease at home with her children after a day's work, or the people in the cars listening to music and talking to friends on cellphones. There's devils in all the detail.

Keri Hulme said...

Gio - any comment on what was general common knowledge within Kai Tahu last year- that we were very dis-satistified with the Maori party being foisted on us (not the same thing as loathing Rahui Katene) and that she was a goner?
And, notice in Te Tai Toka, a vastly increased party vote for the Greens (and a diminished vote for Labour.)
The ground is moving, from under our minds-

Ben Wilson said...

I think I waffled a bit in my last post and lost track of what I was trying to say. It was this: Gio, you are one of the people I place high odds on having useful insights into my questions. Even a question as out of your apparent specialty as the international political economy.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Keri: I don't have much to comment on that, other than to say that it was fascinating to see those issues being debated, and heartening to have another party laying claim to Kaupapa Māori in Parliament (although Mana didn't do well enough in the end to really establish itself. But it's a start.).

Ben: I don't think you were at all patronising there, to say kind things require generosity because, well, you could not bother to say them, and also they can be difficult to express - I really appreciate it.