The toxicity of modern politics deters the young

The toxicity of modern politics deters the young

Several younger world leaders have recently chosen to cut short their premierships for personal reasons (File/AFP)
Several younger world leaders have recently chosen to cut short their premierships for personal reasons (File/AFP)
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We often tend to forget that our political leaders are human beings and find it convenient to put them on a pedestal; only to, at some point, knock them off it. They sometimes contribute to this unhealthy relationship by portraying themselves as having almost supernatural powers to address all our wishes and hardships.

Last month’s almost-resignation of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, after a court opened an initial inquiry into his wife over corruption claims, led to more than 10,000 people gathering in front of the Socialist Party’s headquarters in Madrid in a show of support for the prime minister. This, together with other expressions of support, led him to withdraw his earlier threat to leave politics, declaring: “We have let the mud soil our public life for too long.”

On this occasion, Sanchez decided that, despite what he saw as the politically motivated persecution of his family, he would rather weather the storm. However, many young leaders have, in recent years, left politics after a relatively short time, feeling that the burden of the limelight projected onto those in front-line politics has taken too much of a toll, not only on themselves but also on their families. Such despairing acts are making our politics poorer and less diverse.

The ability of politicians to endure can vary immensely. Some can hardly remember a life without politics — and the forthcoming US presidential election supplies a prime example of that. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who enter politics with great promise and star qualities but prove to be more like shooting stars, shining very briefly before they vanish.

Many feel that the burden of the limelight projected onto those in front-line politics has taken too much of a toll

Yossi Mekelberg

When Jacinda Ardern announced last year that she would not run for another term as prime minister of New Zealand, she said: “I believe that leading a country is the most privileged job anyone could ever have, but also one of the more challenging.” She added: “You cannot and should not do it unless you have a full tank, plus a bit in reserve.” And she concluded that, after five and a half years in the job, her tank was empty.

In 2022, a teary Finnish prime minister, Sanna Marin, who took office at the tender age of 34, found herself defending her record and insisting that she was actually working hard for her country and its citizens, not just partying, as her political rivals and segments of the media claimed. Marin reminded her critics that she was only human and that she had to work in especially difficult circumstances in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. She added that she was entitled to a private life and, like any other human being, she sometimes longed “for joy, light and fun amidst the dark clouds.” She did not last much longer in her post.

More recently, Irish leader Leo Varadkar in March stunned the country by resigning as taoiseach in a rather emotional speech, insisting that he was leaving politics for reasons that were personal as well as political. Varadkar had previously suggested he would leave office before he turned 50, but at 45 he was departing somewhat earlier than his self-imposed deadline.

Life at the top for elected leaders should have an official expiry date. In the US and France, constitutional arrangements limit presidents to two terms. However, several younger world leaders have recently chosen to cut short their premierships for personal reasons. But this is not to suggest that the younger generation of leaders do not have the required stamina or skills for their job. This would be too harsh a judgment and, in most cases, inaccurate.

Several younger world leaders have recently chosen to cut short their premierships for personal reasons

Yossi Mekelberg

These days, politicians often start their careers at a relatively young age and have time to pursue a different calling should they lose their appetite for power or the public lose faith in them. Today’s job market allows for several career changes throughout one’s life. Moreover, the unforgiving environment of pressure politics, in which a leader’s peers insist that they be under the media microscope 24/7 with little time to make decisions and no room to make mistakes — or worse, to learn from them — can wear out our leaders more quickly than in the past.

Very few professions are this exacting. The view that one should enter politics with more life experience before reaching for the top, so as to be better prepared, might have some merit. But if there is one observation common to most memoirs of former world leaders, it is that nothing really prepares you for this job and a great deal must be learned while doing it.

It is the case that, in the age of round-the-clock media coverage and social media in particular, when too much content consists of thoroughly unsubstantiated personal attacks without a shred of evidence, even the most thick-skinned of politicians might find this too difficult and simply not worth their while to put up with. This is exacerbated when leaders have young families who become the center of attention, often on issues where a public interest cannot be claimed. And unlike the older generation, spouses have independent careers and will not be satisfied with merely being “the spouse of” a politician. Admittedly, some politicians contribute to intrusions on their privacy by opening their homes to journalists from glitzy magazines to portray some kind of idyllic family life, but their “stories” usually fail to convince and merely legitimize such invasions of their living rooms.

For ordinary citizens, especially the youth, to fully identify with their politicians, leaders need to be strongly representative of their age group and so better identify with what their generation is going through, from finding a job and dealing with the cost of living to putting a roof over their head and needing better public services, while living in today’s diverse societies. For this to happen, there must be respect for the private lives of politicians and their families. They should be allowed as normal a family life as possible while in office and given respect when they say farewell to politics, without the media automatically looking for ulterior motives. Otherwise, some of the most dedicated and talented young minds will continue to avoid careers in politics and instead find their mission and its fulfillment elsewhere.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Program at international affairs think tank Chatham House. X: @YMekelberg
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