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Young political leaders can be impressive. They can also be just as problematic as old political leaders.

New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern
REUTERS/Jorge Silva
New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern leaving after prayers at Hagley Park outside Al-Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Friday.

New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has received a lot of praise for her leadership after a terror attack on two Christchurch mosques that left 50 people dead. She has gracefully balanced policy, compassion and moral clarity.

She is also all of 38 years old. In U.S. terms, she’s part of the generation of Ilhan Omar and Pete Buttigieg, a little closer to Beto O’Rourke than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. That’s also half the age of Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Nancy Pelosi, and more than three decades younger than Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren or Hillary Clinton.

U.S. politics in general, and the Democratic Party, in particular, appear to be heading for a periodic reckoning with generational change – if not in 2020, then soon afterward. But Ardern’s moment in the global spotlight is a reminder of those countries that already have leaders in their 30s or early 40s. And while this generation is different in style, not everyone is as enlightened as Ardern. It’s admittedly still a small sample, but not clear so far that they represent a huge improvement.

For now, the world order, if you call it that, is dominated by people of retirement age. Trump is 72. Britain’s Theresa May and Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn, who together have made a hash of Brexit, are 62 and 69 respectively. Vladimir Putin is 66 and has five years left on his presidential term. China’s Xi Jinping is 65 and can rule for life, if he wants. India’s 68-year-old prime minister, Narendra Modi, and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, 69, are seeking new terms this spring. Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran is 79.

In contrast, there is Ardern. Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France at 39. The success of Austria’s 32-year-old chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, is an object of study for conservatives across Europe. Africa’s youngest leader, 42-year-old Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia, is opening up the political system and economy of the continent’s second most populous country. Of course, North Korea’s 30-something leader Kim Jong Un and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudia Arabia, 33, are part of this generation, too.

Kim and Bin Salman are the products of dynasties – and they have been ruthless about securing their place at the top. But faced with the prospect of actually running a country for decades to come, each seemed to recognize that it can’t continue indefinitely the way it is.

So in addition to sending a hit squad after Jamal Khashoggi and jailing women activists, Bin Salman has reined in the religious police and extremist clerics, and has ambitious plans to reform the Saudi economy. Kim may have had his half-brother killed (among others), but he has promised better living standards and institutionalized some market reforms.

Neither is interested in democracy. Their economic reforms may fail. But these leaders appear to have absorbed a lesson from elders like Xi and Putin: A lot of people will put up with a lack of freedom if the economy is heading in the right direction.

Others went to voters with the message that they represented a break with politics as usual. With France’s traditional parties bleeding support and the country’s establishment terrified of the right-wing LePen movement, Macron created his own movement and sailed to victory two years ago.

In an age of populism, though, Macron is just as much a member of the elite as France’s traditional politicians. Faced with weeks of protest, he is trying to find a common touch. It was news last month when Macron’s popularity ticked up – to 28 percent.

Kurz shot from law student to his country’s leadership in just a decade by taking a tough, outspoken position during Europe’s immigration crisis, mastering its traditional conservative party – and building a governing coalition with the far right. The question constantly posed by analysts is whether he is neutralizing the far right, or giving it greater legitimacy and becoming a prisoner of its rhetoric.

Ahmed is a dynamic product of one of his country’s big political movements. In the words of the BBC’s Africa Editor, veteran correspondent Fergal Keane, “Africa has rarely seen anyone like him.” He is releasing political prisoners, closing infamous jails and he ended his predecessor’s state of emergency. Long term, Ahmed has to prove he’s up to the challenges of managing Ethiopia’s ethnic tensions and overcoming an entrenched old guard.

As for Ardern, she rode progressive policy proposals, her youth and a reputation for straight talk to became prime minister a year and a half ago, only three months after taking over leadership of New Zealand’s Labor Party. After the March 15 mosque attacks, she unequivocally identified with the Muslim victims and drew praise – including from political foes – for respectfully donning a headscarf to visit survivors. She moved immediately to tighten gun laws. She drove home her contempt for the shooter by refusing to utter his name.

Climbing to the top in any country – even if, like Kim and Bin Salman, you were born a few feet from the summit — requires drive and political skill. So does staying there. Yes, the New Zealand prime minister is an impressive young leader. But as of now, for every Ardern, there is also a Mohammed Bin Salman. 

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Vonnie Phillips on 03/25/2019 - 11:37 am.

    Because they’re not practical.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/26/2019 - 09:43 am.

    “…Neither [Kim nor Bin Salman] is interested in democracy. Their economic reforms may fail. But these leaders appear to have absorbed a lesson from elders like Xi and Putin: A lot of people will put up with a lack of freedom if the economy is heading in the right direction.”

    Late in every academic year for the last decade that I taught high school history, I asked my 16 and 17-year-old students, “If I could guarantee you absolute political freedom to think and speak and write whatever you wanted, but could not guarantee you a solid, middle-class income and style of life; or I could guarantee you that solid, middle-class income and lifestyle, but restricted your freedom of expression, speaking and writing, which would you choose?”

    Every year for 10 years, a solid, 2-to-1 majority chose the second option.

    It’s not just in faraway authoritarian regimes that material comfort can, and often does, win out over political philosophy. Many a nation and even civilization has fallen, largely due to internal decay. Much, if not most, of that internal decay came about due to what nowadays is referred to as “income inequality.” When the public is more tuned into the material than the philosophical – and the material is the focus of our entire capitalist economic system, especially of the gigantic advertising industry – abstract concepts like “freedom of expression” or other rights enumerated in the Constitution are easily vulnerable to interpretations that the nation’s founders would never have embraced, despite their own privileged positions.

    I’d suggest that if Trump can bring prosperity to the economy across the board – unlikely, but theoretically possible, I suppose – an awful lot of people in and out of his “base,” would be quite willing to support restrictions to freedom of expression, both by private individuals and the mainstreatm media, or, even more likely, to see such freedom defended very selectively, so that praise of the current administration is permitted and encouraged, but criticism is stifled.

    Historically, and flag-waving and rhetoric aside, it’s the right wing of the political spectrum that has more often threatened and restricted the freedom of ordinary citizens, here and around the world.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/26/2019 - 02:52 pm.

      “Many a nation and even civilization has fallen, largely due to internal decay. Much, if not most, of that internal decay came about due to what nowadays is referred to as “income inequality.’ ”

      Biblical archeologists have discovered that the times when the prophets were largely silent correspond to those times when there was little disparity in the physical size of houses. But when there was great disparity in the size of houses, that is when the prophets were the loudest, speaking not so much about personal morality, but railing against the rulers for enriching themselves while the people suffered in poverty.

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