Jacinda-mania and media-mania

There is no doubt that the mania over Jacinda Ardern took over the leadership of Labour three weeks ago is a phenomenon.

It is difficult to know how much is a genuine public reaction to a refreshing change of personnel and style, and how much was generated by a media that has become obsessed with celebrity style politics and click baiting. Probably both, but one feeds and accentuates the other. Each other.

Ardern has stepped up and handled the glare of the political spotlight with aplomb. One positive change is her positivity and her rejection of attack politics and barking at passing of cars, a trait that has dogged Labour and previous leaders for years.

Because Ardern launched her leadership into an election campaign there will not be much time to analysis her real strengths and weaknesses, and particularly the unchanged strengths and weaknesses of the Labour caucus and party.

Every now and again voters gamble on unproven abilities.  They have done that recently in other countries, on Trudeau in Canada, on Macron in France, and particularly on Trump in the USA.

If New Zealand ends up with an new Prime Minister and a new government the politicians and the bureaucracy will step up and will probably manage to  keep managing the country ok at least. We tend to have incremental rather than revolutionary change here, and that’s unlikely to change markedly after this year’s election.

There will be hiccups and difficulties, there always are, but utopia is unattainable, our democracy is imperfect, and our politicians are imperfect – as are our country and us.

Dr Suze Wilson, senior lecturer from the School of Management at Massey University, writes: We expect perfection from leaders when they are imperfect humans

The ‘Jacinda-mania’ (or Jacinda effect) New Zealand has experienced since the Labour Party decided to replace its leader just seven weeks out from the election says much about the way we view our leaders.

Much of the response to Ardern’s selection seems akin to finding a shiny new toy that can be poked and prodded to see what it can do. The more Ardern responds to this frenzy with composure, clarity of expression and good humour, the more she has commentators convinced that she’s the “real thing” when it comes to leadership.

It will, of course, take much longer to form a considered assessment of her leadership, but our desire for a heroic, “ideal leader” is itself problematic, especially when attention focuses largely on stagecraft and “looking the part”.

I’m not sure whether people do want and expect a ‘heroic’ leader. They tend to move quickly from one hero to another in the world of movies and thanks to the modern approach of media news politics has become to an extent just another show.

As long as the effects are sufficiently impressive many people may be removed enough from reality that they would pay for tickets to watch the end of the world.

Jacinda-mania highlights the huge symbolic weight attached to the role of a leader. Politicians and media commentators alike reinforce the view that there can be no interregnum (the period when normal government is suspended between successive reigns or regimes) without implying chaos.

This approach loses sight of the reality of the wider leadership capability within a political party, or any organisation.

This obsessive focus on the person at the very top of a hierarchy undermines our capacity to give due credit to the much more distributed nature of effective leadership, which involves the contributions of many people to make a political party, a sports team or an organisation successful. It is a distorting, romantic way of thinking that allows us to see only part of the leadership picture.

This focus on the leader has many other problematic consequences. It means we vest far too much hope in individual leaders, setting ourselves up for a greater level of disappointment when, inevitably, it becomes clear they are imperfect beings just like the rest of us.

Often this disappointment becomes vicious, bringing down good leaders simply because they weren’t perfect leaders.

Viciousness is an unfortunate reality of modern media and politics. This has been on display in the ‘bringing down’ of Todd Barclay, Andrew little and Metiria Turei.

Peter Dunne wasn’t brought down, he chose to step down, but viciousness was still on display around social media.

Another problem is the kind of fawning submissiveness and passive compliance, which can result from a romantic view of leadership.

Fawning submissiveness and compliance are common in politics – alongside a viciousness  directed at those who don’t fawn in submission and comply with a certain ideology.

Power is a brain-altering disorder and leaders are especially vulnerable to developing an exaggerated sense of confidence. Rather than indulging their egos, it would be better if we encouraged them to keep their efforts focused on serving the needs of constituents.

Try telling the media that. Celebrity style click baiting is becoming increasingly prevalent.

What is it about Ardern that is triggering such positive commentary, given her leadership is still largely untested in the role she now holds?

The phrases used by political commentators include that she looks and acts like a leader, has presence, looks in control, and has a serious vibe. Commentary of this nature highlights how much our impression of someone as a leader relies on matters of performance, in the sense of stagecraft, rather than actual results.

The risk with Ardern is that we won’t see how she will perform as Prime Minister unless we put her in that position. That’s a risk we take with every change of government and change of leader and lead party.

Being calm under pressure reassures others. Effective leaders do indeed play an important role in helping a group or society manage its anxieties. Not seeming fazed by difficult questions gives us a sense of someone’s self-belief, which is taken to infer something important about their ability to deal with the challenges we expect leaders to address.

So far Ardern has been generally reassuring.

Someone’s inclination to engage with, be defensive toward, or to shut down dissenting views gives us a sense of their approachability. In New Zealand, approachability is seen as an important quality of leaders.

That was a part of John Key’s success, and in her own way Ardern has so far succeeded very well with that too.

As an aside, some blogs who aspire to lead political debate in New Zealand could learn something about approachability and engaging rather than shutting down dissenting views.

And then there’s the “serious vibe” Ardern is said to have. It seems to rest on her spirited commitment to personifying Labour values in how she conducts herself. This appeals to those disengaged by more calculating approaches. This wider context matters a great deal for her potential for success: “Cometh the hour, cometh the woman”, after all.

In Ardern’s case, it seems her time has indeed come.

That’s how it looks. Whether she manages to attract enough votes to Labour and then negotiate a ruling coalition, or whether she just turns Labour into a credible competitive force in politics again this election to set up a three rebuild to the 2020 election, it looks like Ardern’s time in politics has come.

How much she is helped by a fawning media is largely immaterial – we have to accept that the will accentuate positives and negatives in politics, it’s just how things work.

There is no leadership in media, it is more of a pack mentality with very brief tenures as revolving top dog. Some seem to crave celebrity status but are left making or breaking politicians. They are collectively part of the glory and the gory.

Some voters see through the obsessive focus of media, some don’t.

Some voters will see through ‘Jacinda-mania’, some won’t.

The glamorising of politicians is part of modern politics, whether we like it or not. Those MPs who capitalise on media obsessions will do well. Until they fall, then the switch to vicious is rapid, as Turei found out.

Our politics has become thrash and trash, driven by a media obsessed with their own aspirations for importance as much as anything.

For now Ardern has mastered the attraction of attention that is an essential for a successful leader.

Jacindamania is a product of the right person in the right place at the right time being able to capitalise on mediamania.

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  1. Alan Wilkinson

     /  August 22, 2017

    We have got the media we won’t pay for. They are trying to destroy Trump in America and annoint Jacinda here. Lange called them reef fish and they do the group think random direction thing but mostly with a Lefty bias. Half the country is afraid of letting Jacinda loose with their credit card and the other half can’t wait. There will be a big party inevitably followed by a long retribution on bread and water. So much more exciting than dull common sense.

    • Patzcuaro

       /  August 22, 2017

      Trump is doing a very good job of imploding by himself, the media is just is just relaying it us. Do you mean common sense or right sense?

      • Alan Wilkinson

         /  August 22, 2017

        If you think the media is an objective reporter of Trump I have a harbour bridge to sell you.

      • Alan Wilkinson

         /  August 22, 2017

        Jacinda’s got her eye on your credit card to the tune of $18B. Suddenly Govt debt is no longer an issue for the Left. Funny that.


        • Blazer

           /  August 22, 2017

          yet the Natz just magiced up another ‘paltry’ 10 bill for more…roads…unbelievable !

          • Conspiratoor

             /  August 22, 2017

            …to pay for the consequences of the nats woeful mismanagement of migration. How is it rampant immigration can somehow generate an acute skills shortage? Perhaps they can retrain those desperately needed 10,000 chefs.
            I hope this miserable excuse for a government get their sorry areas whipped

  2. David

     /  August 22, 2017

    All true Pete, in some ways I hope she gets elected and then we get the Macron effect (fawned over, 66% of the vote and now approval rating lower than Trump and the last 3 French Presidents) as the realization that being articulate with a big smile and having the press gallery as your dinner party friends is a bit different from running a country.
    She does have the issue of her caucus being a bit to useless still.

    • Patzcuaro

       /  August 22, 2017

      The Macron situation is different in that his party is only one year old with a lot of inexperience deputies. Whereas, while Ardern is a fresh face the Labour Party has a lot of experienced MPs to support her.

      Also we are living in a “now” time where everybody wants instant action or gratification. Voters are no different but actually achieving anything through the levers of government and its bureaucracy takes time.

      • Experienced in what exactly, inside the current caucus? Not a lot really apart from playing attack politics from opposition…

        • Patzcuaro

           /  August 22, 2017

          While in opposition your job is to hold the government to account, so some degree of “attack politics” is unavoidable. The art is to pick your battles so that you don’t end up barking at every passing car. The current caucus each has at least 3 years experience in parliament, so much more. The current National government had been out of power for 9 years, what experience did they have?

          • No – waht experience do they have in real world jobs producing stuff, real economy jobs. Not just Academia, NGO’s and Unions pushing political agendas.

            Where are Labours small business men and woman?

    • Patzcuaro

       /  August 22, 2017

      No political party is going to get elected without an articulate telegenic leader, in that way Ardern is similar to Key. You have to have the ability via the media to reach out to voters, Little and English don’t have it but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t very competent. They are just better at the nuts and bolts of government rather than being leader.

      • This is true. The Media projection from a Leader is all imortant in our presidential style election campaigns.

        Jacinda’s moment of truth hasn’t arrived yet. CGT evasion is her first test and she is stumbling and dissembling by reserving the right to maybe impose one.

        The televised debates are going to be huge for her – and judging by how she has handled question time as a shadow minister in the House it could be a nightmare for her…

  3. Blazer

     /  August 22, 2017

    ‘Every now and again voters gamble on unproven abilities. ‘….they do that all the time.Not many have experience,when it comes to being President or P.M.Key far and away the best example.An ex forex gambler who tried to undermine the kiwi dollar ,ends up being knighted for services to…NZ.Truth is stranger than…fiction.

    • No experience at running a large organisation, analysing economic trends and policies, at navigating an extremely political world [which is exactly what the top echelons of large business are – in fact they are viciously political], at building consensus and taking groups of people with him…..

      Yip he had no experience. But he ran rings around the best Labour had – Helen Clark – out maneuvering her and her machine, then seeing off Goff, Shearer, Cunliffe …. poor politician who won three general elections.

      It is truly bizzare you and many on the Left are so blind to what was standing in front of you with key – he was the consummate politician and the left never gave him any credit to their extreme detriment….

      • Blazer

         /  August 22, 2017

        he succeeded as a politician…actually copied Clark…believe it or not…he was packaged and promoted like a product…just like..Reagan…a special thanks to…Crosby Textor.

        • God you are predictably boring with this shtick of yours.

          Key was just a puppet of CT?!?…. yip nothing authentic to him. Wake up Bol – smell the coffee. The left FAILED miserably, for what 12 years, to read Key correctly – and the best you can do is say her copied Helen?


          I’m off work crook and your posts are the best medicine, because good comedy always makes me laugh and your posts are brilliant comedy!

          • Blazer

             /  August 22, 2017

            pleased I can help.Hope you have private insurance.

        • LOL Old Crosby Textor getting a dog whistle

  4. duperez

     /  August 22, 2017

    The phenomenon around Ardern is not exceptional, more an accident of timing. If something like the Christchurch earthquake happened the day after her getting the job the whole profile and focus thing would have been different.

    Media mania, as in the examples around rugby players last year, depends on other issues not deflecting from the lunatic storm.

    • PDB

       /  August 22, 2017

      The relatively short time frame between being made leader of Labour and election day is a huge bonus for her as she will not be tested to any great degree and by playing it safe (she has so far stuck rigidly to her talking points) can avoid any major mishap during that time.

      • duperez

         /  August 22, 2017

        i.e. Playing the game. Don’t debate euthanasia, debate a new flag.

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