The "Axis of Kindness"

Has Jacinda Ardern created a new political Z-Axis to win the 2020 election?

Like many others I am sensing that one cumulative effect of 2020’s pandemic response will be to fundamentally change the Western political landscape that I have known my whole (Gen X) life. This feeling is further reinforced by the recent global outpouring of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and the demographic tipping point happening in the West, with Millenials now outnumbering Baby Boomers in the US in 2019 for the first time.

Here in Aotearoa New Zealand it’s just over 3 months to go until the next 3-yearly general election on 19th September 2020.

This is an election year unlike any other: dominated by the previously unimaginable national shutdown between March and May to eliminate Covid-19 from our shores - and the successful and highly popular technocratic leadership shown by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, her coalition government ministers, civil servants and health advisors.

The PM’s courage to “go hard and go early” back in March and place the country into Level 4 lockdown was accompanied by her trademark invocation of kindness:

"We will get through this together, but only if we stick together so please be strong and be kind."

What Ardern has unlocked here is a whole new political dimension - a Z-axis - which is possibly what will determine the outcome of the forthcoming election.

In his recent article An election like no other: with 100 days to go, can Jacinda Ardern maintain her extraordinary popularity? Victoria University of Wellington Professor Jack Vowles states:

“Research conducted by the New Zealand Election Study identifies two ideological dimensions behind party choice. The first is the balance between state and market in public policy. It’s a perennial debate between left and right that (despite claims to the contrary) hasn’t gone away.

The second is based on other values: a liberal desire for freedom to pursue one’s own choices versus a conservative desire to maintain social cohesion and conformity with traditional community norms.”

Let’s draw this into a classic quadrant:

First thing we need to point out is that here in New Zealand, due in large part to our consensus-driving proportional representation electoral system, most of the political debate takes place in “The Centre” relative to more extreme political environments in other parts of the world. For this we are grateful.

Zooming in on this centre and plotting the current elected parties gives something like that shown below. (Clearly this is a finger in the air exercise completely affected by personal unconscious bias… but you get the picture.) What it shows is that the commonly understood “Left” vs “Right” political spectrum can be plotted as a diagonal line across the two traditional axes.

What I think Ardern has achieved is to define a new Z-axis - an “Axis of Kindness”- which is orthogonal to the traditional political plane, digging deep into our brain stem and triggering deep emotional responses on a scale between “Kind” and “Uncaring”.

Line up this new axis against the “Left-Right” diagonal on the traditional plane…

…and then re-map the parties on this new plane, gives something like this (again, unconscious biases acknowledged, feel free to draw your own!):

Clearly having defined the “kindness” brand, the PM’s party in her image is way up the Axis of Kindness. The others have some catching up to do - if they can even compete.

(Early signs are that newly minted National leader Todd Muller’s apparent strategy is to stay on the traditional plane and dog-whistle “economic management” [Market] and “family values” [Conservative] - can this still win through against the odds?)

Will kindness be the deciding factor in Aotearoa’s polling booths in September? Or is this a brief interlude as the relentless gears of capitalism get turning again post-pandemic and things go back to old-normal?

(…And will the Axis of Kindness spread around the world thereafter - in particular our friends in the US, Brazil, Hungary and the UK in particular could surely do with a dose of this soon, eh?)

Feel free to register and add your comments below - and remember: be kind!

(With thanks to the fantastic Azeem Azhar for the z-axis inspiration).