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.