Is the Ardern style of politics what this world needs right now?
In a recent interview with BBC star journalist Christian Amanpour, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was framed as a progressive, intelligent, capable leader with no hint of the febrile populist nationalism that has beset so many other advanced democracies. The interview on CNN is here, and it is the first time a large world audience has seen what she is.
She is now already ranked as the 13th most powerful woman in the world.
Why is this character being so effective, so fast?
In recent times we have seen democracy simply used to hoist leaders who were palpably unready for the job, despite being supported by populist groundswells, whose leadership then falls quickly to disaster. Why, after such a short time, is Prime Minister Ardern so at one with leadership itself? Does New Zealand’s Prime Minister provide a few pointers on how to dull the rage of populist disasters?
Part of this success is a shift in the tone of leadership being exercised. Because in that tone is a significant part of how to cure this world of the extremism that is besetting it. Rage wins elections – sometimes even better than the redistributive politics so beloved of progressives. But so do other colours.
It is natural for political commentators to presume that policy prescriptions alone can fix extremism. It would be great to predict that as the global economy continues its slow but steady growth absorbing workers and re-linking economies and societies, so too populism would also gently scale back. Economists Funke, Schularick and Trebesch studied precisely this through more than 800 elections across 20 advanced countries between 1870 and 2014 in “Going to Extremes: Politics After Financial Crises 1870-2014”.
They documented that far-right and right-wing populist parties saw an increase in their parliamentary vote shares of about 30% in the five years after a financial crisis. Their paper finds that political upheaval has mostly dissipated 10 years after a crisis.
And yet we are a decade away from the GFC, and ethnonationalism is driving politics in dozens of comparator countries. We’ve seen it in most E.U. countries since 2007 through to this year, and certainly with Donald Trump through 2016 and 2017. We should not count on a steadily improving economy or more distance from the GFC alone to normalise politics.
The success of ethnic nationalism is not inevitable. But so much depends not on policy, but upon the kind of leaders and the tone of politics that they operate.
George W. Bush recently offered a powerful critique of populism, as a lightly camouflaged rebuke against President Trump.
It is deeply weird to hear the same President who started the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan chide the sitting president that “bigotry seems emboldened” and “our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication”. And anyone can describe virtuous leadership when they are no longer a leader: there is simply no cost to them anymore. Beyond the weirdness of G.W.’s tone, other Republican leaders have made similar strong points.
We will have to wait for the speech from the opening of our parliament to hear the Prime Minister speak with the full coordinated coherence of the coalition government set down. We have but clues to go on so far. What we do have is a clear tone, and it matters.
The tone and manner in which leaders lead is important to the rise and fall of extremism. We got an early sense of the tone of leadership Prime Minister Ardern when compared with than of Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. With regard to the dual citizenship debate which has cost Australian federal politics so deeply, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said of the New Zealand Labour party:
“Should there be a change of government, I would find it very hard to build trust with those involved in the allegations designed to undermine the government of Australia.”
Even in the midst of an election campaign, Ardern responded to Minister Bishop by defending, then apologising, and then looking forward to a clarifying phone call.
Buzzfeed carries the blow-by-blow here.
The phone call didn’t happen, but the leadership tone had been set.
Some, like New Zealand-born legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron, believe that absence of restraint of civility in political leadership is the most damaging element to current democracy.
Civility doesn’t involve diminishing the level of opposition, it doesn’t involve diminishing the level of condemnation. But it involves finding practices, forms of works, forms of engagement, that allow some degree of respect.”
Professor Waldron’s best example is U.S. Senator John McCain. But all signs are currently pointing to Prime Minister Ardern exercising that same deft set of leadership skills.
The stakes, as Max Rashbrooke noted in his interview with Professor Waldron noted, are a strong risk to democracy itself. People take for granted the idea of peaceful political coexistence, “but we don’t realise how rare it has been in human history, and how rare it is in the world, that after an election defeat, the party losing doesn’t immediately feel that it has to go into the mountains.”
If we see the Queensland state election of 25 November end up with One Nation in the kingmaker position, we may see the first steps to a much harsher, meaner and less temperate Australian politics. We have already seen the harshest, meanest and least temperate version of this in the Solomon Islands and Fiji a decade ago when demagogic leaders provoked ethnic tension into civil war – lest we think this can’t possibly affect us here. There’s a long way from a snippy tone from Minister Bishop to real ethnic tension, but the half way marker to it is President Donald Trump.
Civility itself is a necessary but insufficient as a tool to unwind full-throated ethno-nationalism and the political rage that it enables. It’s a start. Prime Minister Ardern offers more.
Her political tone compares to Prime Ministers Clark and English, in that their sentences are unemotive, gracefully restrained and polite, they rarely use metaphor or simile, rarely make jokes, never swear, rarely take things personally, rarely seek to embolden debate by bleeding one policy problem into another, and where at all possible start with a fact and end with an invitation. This style over nearly two decades accounts in no small part for the lack of extremism in New Zealand politics and society. Tone matters.
But there are a few more pointers that show Ardern is extending this. Note how in interviews how little time between an interviewers’ question and her response. Note the concision in the responding sentences.
But note also the heart: she returns to the theme of children and their needs again and again, despite there being no votes in them, and despite very high risk of descending into Hallmark card cliché in doing so. If a leader can convince their people that they actually care beyond their own interests, they have made an important breakthrough in rebuking cynicism and in enabling people to smile along with them. That replaces rage with agreement, competence, and confidence in the perceiver.
This week Prime Minister Ardern is the final speaker at a conference in Auckland on women in the law. Her tone had one shining note to it, confidence. Not belligerence. Not swagger with put-downs. Not cockiness. Confidence.
Prime Minister Ardern will not cure the world. Her set of policies will not even cure New Zealand. There is reason for hope in Prime Ministers Ardern’s style of politics, but not complacency. But the leadership tone she has set is the same tone that will rid this world of ethno-nationalist extremism, so it is an example to be watched.