Red Star Rising: A very similar set of perceptions fuelled the rise of both Jacinda Ardern and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In the case of "AOC", the twenty-something, student-loan-burdened, former-waitress from Brooklyn, who proudly proclaims herself to be a “democratic-socialist”, has come to stand for everything that the contemporary Democratic Party is not – but urgently needs to become. In Jacinda's case, however, the radicalism is more apparent than real.
WHY ISN’T JACINDA ARDERN channelling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC)? This is not a frivolous question. Labour found itself swept into a winning position at the end of 2017 almost entirely on the strength of Jacinda’s extraordinary appeal – especially to voters under 40.
Central to Jacinda’s appeal was the widespread perception that Labour’s new leader represented a definitive ideological break: not only with the Labour Party of Roger Douglas, but also with the woman who did her best to clear away the worst of the mess Rogernomics had made, Helen Clark.
A very similar set of perceptions has fuelled the rise of AOC. This twenty-something, student-loan-burdened, former-waitress from Brooklyn, who proudly proclaims herself to be a “democratic-socialist”, has come to stand for everything that the Clinton-dominated Democratic Party is not – but urgently needs to become.
So far, AOC hasn’t put a foot wrong in the complex dance routine that must be executed to secure a hearing for the aspirations of her locked-out generation. Her energetic sponsorship of a “Green New Deal” for America has made it impossible for House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, to nudge the radicalism of AOC and her newly-minted congressional comrades into the long grass. In similar vein, the young Brooklynite’s outspoken call for the USA’s wealthiest citizens to be taxed at 70 cents in the dollar on all income in excess of $250,000 has given Overton’s Window a much-needed shove to the left.
A politician of Jacinda Ardern’s acute sensitivity can hardly have failed to notice the bright red glow currently pulsing from the heart of the zeitgeist. She would have watched in awe as Bernie Sanders’ “Children’s Crusade” forced Hilary Clinton to call in all her favours (and Super-Delegates) to head the old socialist off at the pass. But that awe would have turned to horror as Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist revival rolled up Blairism like a threadbare carpet and set the crowds cheering at Glastonbury.
Suddenly, Jacinda’s carefully scripted lines about being a “pragmatic idealist” seemed likely to have a very limited shelf-life. Certainly, her “politics of kindness” trope continues to inspire, but the problem with throwing around such kindly words is that, sooner or later (and preferably sooner!) they have to be matched by kindly deeds. Helping with the barbie at Waitangi looks good on the six o’clock news, but more is needed. Much more.
Does Jacinda get this? Does she understand the huge political potential – and risk – posed by the “surplus consciousness” of tens-of-thousands of young adults laden-down with professional credentials and student debt but denied the security and status attached to well-remunerated employment and a solid career-path? The precarious position of young people in the labour market is amplified even more pitiably for them in the marriage and property markets.
These voters are too well-educated to find solace among the angry populists of the Alt-Right, but they are signing up in droves to the system-challenging – and changing – agenda of democratic socialism. After all, what favours has neoliberal capitalism ever done them?
It’s one of the great mysteries of this government that, on the night the Labour-NZ First coalition was announced, Winston Peters got this – and Jacinda didn’t.
Then again, maybe not. One of the first big political gigs offered to Jacinda was an internship in Tony Blair’s Cabinet Office. It’s hardly the sort of ideological grounding to generate a surge of enthusiasm and support for Bernie Sanders or (God forbid!) Jeremy Corbyn.
Nor should it be forgotten that Jacinda was for a good portion of her life a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. One has only to recall the shining eyes and broad smiles of those Mormon missionaries on your doorstep, or tipping you that friendly wave as they ride by on their bicycles, to remember suddenly where you have seen Jacinda’s political style before.
Those familiar with Jacinda’s CV will object that her stint as President of the International Union of Socialist Youth (IUSY) equips her even more impressively than AOC for the struggle to advance democratic socialism. A little more is required of a true democratic socialist, however, than the ability to call people “comrade” with a straight face. Nor is the IUSY quite the bastion of radical socialist internationalism that its name might suggest. Any organisation that welcomes a far-right CIA stooge like Venezuela’s “Interim President”, Juan Guaido, into its ranks, has some explaining to do!
Finally, there is the problem of the company Jacinda has trained herself to keep. Throughout her entire political career she has surrounded herself with – and been surrounded by – right-wing social-democrats. Blair’s New Labourites; Clark’s incrementalists; Cullen’s DNC-endorsed economic policies; and, most recently, Grant Robertson’s “Budget Responsibility Rules”. She was an enemy of David Cunliffe and, by implication, the hopes and dreams of the thousands of Labour Party members who supported him. And, lastly, it’s a pretty safe bet that, like Labour’s current president, Nigel Howath, she has no time at all for that bane of Blairism, Jeremy Corbyn.
No. Jacinda may envy AOC’s extraordinary political savvy and covet her social media skills. She may even decide to crib some of her best lines about saving the planet and soaking the rich. But anyone anticipating an Ardern-led shift towards democratic socialism (which is still, ironically enough, the official ideology of the NZ Labour Party) is bound to be disappointed.
Democratic Socialism, as practiced by AOC, will be DOA in Jacinda’s NZLP.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 12 March 2019.