Hitting the limit while in power

PM of New Zealand ends term on pragmatic note

For the past five-and-a-half years, Jacinda Ardern’s term as Prime Minister of New Zealand has been nothing short of iconic. First elected at 37 years old, she has led her country through the chaos of a global pandemic, domestic terrorism and a natural disaster, among much more. Ardern decided to resign before New Zealand’s general election later this year out of consideration for her own limits — something our own politicians should think about before announcing yet another campaign in their desperate attempts to remain in power.

While in office, Ardern was a force to be reckoned with. From the start of her term in 2017, Ardern captured worldwide attention as the youngest female prime minister to be elected in New Zealand in over 150 years. In 2018, she became the second modern leader to give birth while in office. While her identity as a woman certainly influenced her milestones in office, Ardern also displayed an immense capacity for empathy, helping her maneuver her country through the aforementioned challenges. This was most evident following the 2019 terrorist attacks on two mosques in the city of Christchurch. Under her leadership, New Zealand passed laws to address the issues of gun violence, climate change and more, making Ardern arguably one of the most efficiently progressive leaders to date.

As Ardern steps away from her position and gives away her political power, the question should be asked: why don’t more politicians follow suit when they reach the end of their limits, both physically and mentally? In the U.S., we have politicians that have served as members of Congress or the Senate for over 40 years. We have Supreme Court justices sworn to lifelong appointments. We have presidents (among others in power) well over the country’s average age of retirement. The older ages of our politicians hinder their ability to keep up with the demands of their country and their constituents.

Running a country is a tedious task. While there are systems in place to ensure there is a transfer of power between those who hold office and their successors, not all politicians are as willing as Ardern to step back when they reach a point of substantial personal strain. Political power is certainly complicated when divisions of parties are as extreme as they are in the U.S.; there’s the constant threat of progress being denied or overturned, especially when older politicians refuse to retire or resign in order to maintain their power and the pay that often coincides with it.

After all, resignations are a far more dignified opportunity for a political figure to accept they can’t meet the physical and mental requirements of their job than to simply stay in office and potentially cause more problems for their country and risk obstructing progress. Furthermore, resignations can be strategic if timed correctly. Though Ardern’s resignation comes as the culmination of a turbulent term and as she lacks mental energy, she’s also set up her Labour Party to reorganize itself before New Zealand’s upcoming election, in hopes that whoever assumes her mantle would be more prepared as a result of her action.

The strategic element of Ardern’s choice to step down is something American politicians could learn from. Though our next presidential election is still a year off, Biden could refuse the Democratic nomination and allow a younger and more fit nominee to take center stage. Similarly, the resignation of Supreme Court justices can be used to maintain political power in the judiciary branch, namely by timing them to align with partisan control of the Senate.

More politicians should follow Ardern’s footsteps and willingly step down when they know they no longer have the capacity to continue their work, particularly those who serve life terms. Resignation shouldn’t have a stigma attached to it — it’s courageous to know when you’ve reached your limit, and moreover, it’s human. Our leaders aren’t any different from us in that regard. Power is meant to be passed down so that it may be used to address issues that grow and evolve alongside new generations, and Ardern knew this. Can we say the same about her American counterparts?