Thursday, 17 November 2011

Towards a Political Alignment System 1: Red vs. Blue

In fiction, it's usually pretty easy to tell the "Goodies" from the "Baddies."

Whether the cowboys are wearing black hats or white hats, or the Jedi are wise and noble warriors or wizened husks of men kept alive only by machines and spite, books and movies have developed an array of tricks and techniques to let the audience know who they should be identifying with.

Real Life, however, is much more complicated. And in politics, every party spends a lot of time trying to tell everyone that they are on your side, regardless of what your side might be; this is what all the baby-kissing is about, why John Key swans into a factory and pretends to be interested in factory work.

Wouldn't it be useful if there was a way to classify parties like you could classify characters in movies?

Like many people of my generation, I have spent some time playing video games. Maybe too much time. But one thing that I have picked up from role-playing games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, The Witcher, and Dungeons and Dragons is the idea of an "Alignment system," a scheme whereby one can gauge one's actions in the virtual world in an objective context, whether that be "Good" vs. "Evil," or "Law"- being in favour of an organised society- or "Chaotic," believing more in the freedom of the individual.

I'd like to work towards a similar system for politicians.

The annoying thing about politicians is that they genuinely believe in the crap they're talking about.

Each person asking for your vote genuinely believe that what they want to do is the best thing for this country. Make no mistake: the coming years are going to bring some big challenges in economics, environmental issues, and trade. Each of the parties has a plan for how best to navigate these upcoming treacherous waters, and it's very hard to keep each party's story straight in the big muddle of competing parties slinging mud and reporters vying for your viewing eyeballs.

So, taking each party at more-or-less face value, what would each party look like under - for example - the Mass Effect "Paragon" vs "Renegade" system?

My name is Commander Shepard, and this is my favourite image macro of the election.
The more I look at this image the more I am ashamed of my amateur effort in matching Goff's face to the source pic...anyway, moving on.

In the Mass Effect series, you are going to save the universe. But that doesn't mean you can't be kind of a dick about it.

Certain actions in the game can accrue either "Paragon" or "Renegade" points, which measure whether your character is a consensus-building, noble, idealistic hero; or whether they're willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.

Think of it as "Aragorn" versus "Jack Bauer," and you're not too far off.

In the game, Paragon actions are things like preserving a clone of an extinct but dangerous species; or taking the time to explain your actions to the press. A Renegade, however, will prioritize humanitiy's interests over that of their alien allies, and punch that nosy reporter right in the face.

Here, I've positiioned Green's co-leader Russell Norman as a Paragon: His party has very firm, lofty ideals that they consistently work towards. His stance over the high-profile subversion/vandalism of National party billboards shows this: he apologised and made it clear that his party in no way was affiliated or supported these actions as they were inconsistent with the way they wished to contest the election. He is willing to consider working with even bitter ideological rivals such as National in an effort to achieve positive outcomes for the country.

I've pegged Goff as a Renegade due to Labour's willingness to release bold new policies that are, arguably, necessary to ensure NZ's future survival: raising the retirement age, gradually, to make the pension affordable for the country in the future, even as he realises that they could spell political disaster for Labour. Other principled or pragmatic 'Renegade' policies (using the criterion of 'whatever works to get the job (acheiving their goals for New Zealand) done) include addressing the starvation wages being paid to the 'working poor,' and quite sensibly asking for more research before deep sea oil drilling and suchlike.

A "Paragade," by contrast, is a playing style referred to somewhat pejoratively in the Mass Effect player community. In involves mixing and matching these approaches, either based on player preferences or on what the player thinks is the most advantageous response to make in a given situation; I've gone with the second definition here.

(The top title in the image, BTW, is a direct quote from the game, a sort of in-joke for the fans).

John Key has no morals, no purpose, yet great hair. He was too busy learning the skills he would use to sabotage the newly floated New Zealand dollar to form an opinion about the '81 Springbok tour. He didn't believe in climate change, until the polls came out, and then he did. While it is the hallmark of a mature person to consider new evidence and revise their positions accordingly, it is the trait of a suck-up to do this based solely on what you think the public wants to hear.

Before Labour and the Greens started forcing them to talk about policy, National were content to coast to victory on Key's charming manner, content to let him schmooze their way into office. Call me old fashioned, but I like my politicians to actually have a position, and to tell me about it before I vote for them. Key's campaign is making a regular habit of refusing interviews that don't suit them, hiding him from the glare of public scrutiny, in case the cracks start to form in his carefully constructed image.

Key now wants us to focus on the issues, but why wasn't he talking about the issues prior to the Teabagger Tapes?

Of course, so-called 'proper' academics have taken a stab at developing a political party sorting hat thing before.

The simplistic nature of the "Left" and "Right" divide tends to assume that Lefties want state regulation of industry and state recognition of minorities and support for individual civil rights, while Righties want a liberalised economic climate (deregulation, state asset sales, etc) along with social conservatism (suspicion of people of colour and minorities, lock up criminals and throw away the key, etc).

The reality, like in all things, is a bit more complex than that. The Act party, for instance, is a consortium of libertarians, conservatives, economic radicals, and other people too precious to join a proper party: the end result is a bit like herding cats, only less cuddly.

Which is why groups like the Political Compass organisation try to introduce a north-south "society" axis to the east-west "economics" axis. They make their case using a variety of extreme examples, contrasting Stalin and Hitler (a discussion which seems ripe for Godwin's Law, but as we're talking about Actual Stalin and Actual Hitler, it doesn't apply) and conclude that, as totalitarians, they'd have a lot of common ground, if it weren't for that pesky "communism" thing.

Once you get past the extreme nature of their comparisons, their test does have a lot of merit; where I find it lacking is that it doesn't come with neat little boxes to classify people into. While neat little boxes are a simplistic tool to define (and therefore belittle or marginalise) people, the idea of having boxes does seem to resonate with people in an astounding manner; there is a case to be made that humans have evolved a strong desire to group together for survival, and in modern society this manifests in strong feelings of "us" and "them" that shape and define modern political and moral thought.

As a side note, while I am against putting labels on people, I am for assigning tags to them, a point that I'll try to get to another time. But in the meantime, I don't see any harm in trying to make a better set of boxes to sort people into.

Once you're familiar with the terms that the Political Compass people use, take a look at their sorting of the parties contesting this election for more food for thought.

Another sorting tool that I found somewhat useful comes from the libertarian think tank Advocates for Self Government who have what they claim to be the world's shortest political test; this is a tool that, like the compass, rates on an economic and social issues scale, but also comes with handy boxes. It's been a while since I've read their stuff, so please take this as a lukewarm endorsement of the test only at best; like all things, I seek only to provide the material and have the audience judge for themselves.

For further reading, the Wikipedia article  is a great starting place, and contains links to other sorting systems from there.

Next time: The 'nine point grid,' and adapting the Dungeons and Dragons alignment scheme for political use.

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