Increasingly the politics of industrialised democracies are based around a set of issues that do not directly relate to the traditional class-economic-materialist left-right cleavage, but which fit broadly into a postmaterialist cleavage, in that they are not concerned with the struggle for material security (as seen in conflicts over income, tax, state social support and so forth), but with issues relating to ethnic culture, gender discrimination, personal behaviour, policies on age, and so forth. This type of ‘new politics’ is characterised by identity, values, culture and psychology rather than social background. Instead of being understood by the polarities of left and right, the terms of liberal and conservative are more useful in deliniating differences. The increase in the significance of this cleavage, and the decline of other traditional social cleavages signals the decline of politics, as structured by social division. [Read more below]
The rather amorphous and contested concept of postmaterialism is strongly associated with Ronald Inglehart (1990; 1997), who argues that a ‘culture shift’ has occurred in the West, and voters now have changing priorities. Postmaterialist values – or ‘new politics’ – will increasingly dominate and reshape party competition, Inglehart argues, due to the decline of economic deprivation.
Significantly, this new political cleavage of postmaterialism is characterised by identity, values, culture and psychology rather than social background. Rather than being understood by the polarities of left and right, the terms of liberal and conservative are more useful. In being about issues, this dimension still relates to – and incorporates – many of the ‘alternative cleavages’ outlined in the most recent blog posts. Issues relating to ethnic culture, gender discrimination, policies on age and so forth are more often postmaterialist in nature rather than materialist. In fact, according to Lipset, this postmaterialist political cleavage has grown in significance with the decline of social cleavages:
Cleavages linked to social stratification are no longer the main correlates of a party’s position on the left or right of the political spectrum. Issues revolving around morality, abortion, ‘family values,’ civil rights, gender equality, multiculturalism, immigration, crime and punishment, foreign policy, and supranational communities push individuals and groups in directions that are independent of their socioeconomic position (Lipset, 2001: p.62).
Lipset points out that the postmaterialist cleavage has not been incorporated into the existing class dimension of conflict, and as such is not simply a reflection of a social cleavage (and thus does not simply conflate with left and right). Postmaterialist issues – for example, abortion or state censorship – often crosscut social cleavages rather than reinforce them (Diamond and Gunther (2001: p.xi). Nonetheless, there has been some congruence between the parties of the left and certain postmaterialist values:
the parties of the left, although still identifying themselves as social democratic or socialist, have largely reconstituted themselves as liberals in the American sense of the word, emphasizing postmaterialist themes like environmentalism, equality for women and gays, minority rights, and cultural freedoms (Lipset, 2001: p.62).
A different view is put forward by Berman, who argues, ‘The troubles mainstream parties faced during the 1970s, therefore, were best understood as political fallout from this broad shift in values; social democratic and labour parties were hit the hardest because many postmaterialists felt themselves to be on the left but did not share the traditional left’s materialist agenda’ (Berman, 1997: p.102).
But in New Zealand the parties of the left have emphasised similar postmaterialist themes, as well as historically being associated with liberal stances such as the anti-nuclear legislation, anti-racism, ‘softer’ policies on crime, human rights, and prostitution law reform. Meanwhile, the parties of the right have often taken up what might be called the ‘conservative’ side of the postmaterialist cleavage, but this has occurred far less uniformly or consistently (Jackson and McRobie, 1998: pp.299-300).
In many ways the liberals of the postmaterialist cleavage have won most of the arguments on postmaterialist issues, just as the right-wing have generally won the arguments on materialist issues – leading to a consensus that is economically right-wing and socially liberal. As this cleavage becomes more politicised there appears to be pressure on the parties to incorporate postmaterialist issues into the traditional left-right dimension, but this is only ever partially successful.
In New Zealand there has been some acknowledgement that this kind of postmaterialist cleavage increasingly affects party politics. For instance, Barker and McLeay believe that a secondary issue dimension already configures modern New Zealand politics (Barker and McLeay, 2000: p.145). Colin James argues that with the decline of the class cleavage, politics is now ‘as much a state of mind as a position in society. Politics these days are psycho-social as much as socioeconomic’ (James, 10 Nov 1999f). He says ‘The old "cleavage" between bosses and workers, white collar and blue collar, is now cut across by other dividing lines on such matters as morals, the environment, feminism and Maori rights’ (ibid).
Some have written about the rise of identity politics, suggesting that this dimension is displacing the economic conflict. For instance, sociologists David Thorns and Charles Sedgwick say that, ‘The politics of the 1980s were increasingly about the issue of identity rather than class. The key groups were women, Maori, peace activists, environmentality, gay rights groups, unemployed rights and libertarians rather than class-based organisations’ (Thorns and Sedgwick, 1998: p.181).
Others have identified the rise of ‘new politics’. For example, in his election manifesto content analysis, Matthew Gibbons found that ‘there are some new politics issues such as the environment and multiculturalism that have become more important since the late 1960s’ (Gibbons, 1997: p.16). However, overall he concluded that:
content analysis provides few indications that a new politics cleavage is developing in New Zealand politics. Although some postmaterialist issues such as the Environment have been emphasised more in election manifestos, there has usually been a consensus between the main parties on their importance (Gibbons, 1997: p.16).
The weakening of social cleavages has opened the way for the development of this postmaterialist cleavage. It seems that one result of the decline of the traditional class cleavage is that the parties have to find alternative cleavages (or enemies) to define themselves against, thus other issues become more central. Therefore, on the right, communism (or at least ‘creeping socialism’) has been replaced by issues like crime, terrorism, and immigration as the prime generator of public paranoia. On the left, issues of economic inequality are increasingly replaced by issues that relate to ‘quality of life’, such as the environment or cultural diversity.
Whereas most of the ‘alternative’ political dimensions discussed in the last few blog posts reflect social cleavages, the postmaterialist dimension represents a political cleavage without any substantial social base. It seems that in the absence of a strong social cleavage, parties now need to find other political cleavages on which to compete, and the most obvious one is values. Act picked up on this in the mid-1990s, with the slogan, ‘Values. Not politics’. The increase in the significance of this cleavage, and the decline of traditional social cleavages signals the decline of politics, as structured by social division.