The Labour politician claims her resignation is a “simple” matter of “no longer hav[ing] enough in the tank to do [the job] justice” as New Zealand approaches parliamentary elections this October. Curiously, Ardern’s announcement coincides with a new negative approval rating for the first time in her five-year premiership.
Perhaps less simply, the prime minister’s tank depleted as her approval tanked, and she no longer possesses the tenacity to fight against political headwinds.
Ardern’s resignation is making international news and American media headlines because is a defining global figure of the COVID-19 pandemic era. Like Metternich or Talleyrand at the 1815 Congress of Vienna, Ardern is destined to become an historical figure representing a strident vision for international order with polarizing charisma.
That sounds like a compliment, but it is not. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that Ardern’s heavy-handed approach to COVID lockdowns has made her an international symbol of the pandemic era.
Ardern personifies the Western progressive ideology that found new purpose in ordering people during pandemic, and now clamors for relevance as the world is learning to live with COVID-19 and without its guidance.
But behind that toothy grin, Ardern possesses a zeal for control that resulted in some of the harshest restrictions in the West. That zeal has long betrayed her public appeals to common sense – to ‘abundances of caution’ – that pass off excessive pandemic restrictions as sensibly apolitical.
Ardern has presented her COVID restrictions, falsely, as sensible because she is a product of Western progressivism. That ideology does not recognize its assuredness as hubris and quest for scientific ordering as inhumane.
One of my favorite books, Illiberal Reformers by Princeton University lecturer Thomas C. Leonard, chronicles the arrogance of 19th-century American progressives’ pursuit of eugenics. His analysis also applies also to how contemporary Western progressives have reacted to the pandemic and helps explain Ardern’s strident pursuit of “COVID zero.”
“The progressives combined their extravagant faith in science and the state with an outsized confidence in their own expertise as a reliable, even necessary, guide to the public good. They were so sure of their own expertise…so convinced of their righteousness…that they rarely considered the unintended consequences of ambitious but untried reforms.”This is the disposition that Ardern represents on the global stage, and it is the root of much the well-deserved criticism against her.
Western progressives adore Ardern for being a COVID hardliner; she kept New Zealand closed during the pandemic’s height to achieve “COVID zero” until she publicly admitted the goal was unachievable. But as the prime minister’s falling popularity and local reactions testify, Ardern’s duplicity may finally be catching up with her.
Ardern abandoned “COVID zero” in October 2021, two months after she locked down the entire country – schools and businesses – due to one case of an undetermined variant.
“Ardern said authorities were assuming the new case was a delta variant infection although this has not been confirmed,” CNBC reported in August 2021.
But while Ardern was claiming to loosen her grip on the country in October, Kiwi passport holders were still being denied entry into New Zealand in December because the country’s “managed isolation and quarantine system” was still operated a limited lottery for reentry.
Al Jazeera reported that month that this “inhumane” policy was due to the government’s reaction to the Omicron variant.
By February 2022, the restrictions went from harsh to absurd. In response to the Omicron variant, Ardern’s government told New Zealanders exposed to COVID within their household to “isolate for up to 24 days – even if they do not have the virus,” as Daily Mail put it.
Reporting that many Kiwis assumed the policy was a “bad joke,” the Daily Mail also noted that the new isolation period was 10 days longer than the actual two-week-long virus.
In 2020, Ardern and every other world leader became responsible for countries during a pandemic without knowing exactly what to do about the virus. Early mistakes are forgivable, but the excess of draconian and illogical restrictions in 2022 is not.
To me, the progressive impulse to quash and eradicate imperfection – whether through surgical experimentations on minorities or abortions of disabled children – strangely recalls an episode of The Twilight Zone in which a pair of aliens study human paranoia.
“They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find and it’s themselves,” one alien says to his colleague in “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” as the pair watch a neighborhood descend into irrational fear.
Western progressive leaders reacted to COVID the way they did because fear of human imperfection – what makes us human in the eyes of God – is baked into their political genealogy. Their professed hopes to move beyond COVID are disingenuous. Their fear of imperfection renders them content to live life in a sustained medical emergency as if human nature exists in a laboratory they must keep sterile.
And Ardern is Western progressive par excellence.
Look at her press conferences. That disposition is the line between a leader’s duty to keep his or her country safe and letting fear of other people rationalize extreme government reactions.
The post-COVID phase of human history has zapped the prime minister of her will to continue in the role as her country reconsiders her handling of the job.
History will remember her. But maybe not as she would have desired.