US model is a dud in SA

2014-03-16 10:00

Last week, I had the privilege and misfortune of watching the US right wing at work.

The hopefuls for the 2016 Republican presidential candidacy were in Washington to sell themselves to the Conservative Political Action (CPAC) conference, a gathering of the party’s most right-wing elements.

Senior congressmen, senators, governors and other would-be presidents took to the podium and outdid each other in fiery anti-Barack Obama and anti-Hillary Clinton rhetoric.

They played to the anti-immigration, anti-abortion and antiwelfare lobbies. They seduced the progun and small government lobby as they stretched the limits of extremism.

Once a fringe conference that was a laboratory for conservative ideas, CPAC has grown in importance as the Republicans have moved further and further to the right in the past decade.

Watching this lot was a privilege because their wackiness was very entertaining. The misfortune was that some of them already occupy powerful positions and some have a reasonable chance of making it to the White House in two years.

What was also disturbing was that some of them are bright individuals who have been dragged to these extremes to gain acceptability among those on the loony right.

The Democrats have not been innocent bystanders, though. Their reaction to Republican hard-headedness has been to take hard-and-fast positions that make it difficult to negotiate compromises.

Those South Africans who pine for a two-party set-up in our politics would do well to glance across the Atlantic and observe the divisiveness of such politics.

The ugliness, banality and gridlock that results from this would surely put them off the notion that a two-party set-up is the panacea to our ills.

This notion is punted by opposition leaders who have found the task of hauling the ANC below the 60% mark too daunting. For them, it has been most frustrating that after hard campaigning and showing up the ANC’s

shortcomings, the governing party still scores in the region of a two-thirds majority. The DA, the best-performing of the ANC’s rivals, manages less than 20% of the pie while the rest make do with the leftovers.

So for some time, influential opposition figures have been advocating their parties should find common positions on which a larger alternative to the ANC could be built. But these efforts have fallen victim to egos and dysfunction in their ranks.

Just as well.

The US is a good example of why we should not rush to do away with an environment that allows multiple voices to flourish. Rather than enhancing accountability, it shrinks the political space and reduces voter choice.

It also encourages parties to take hard-and-fast positions that clearly differentiate them from their opponents. Having taken up these positions, compromise comes to be seen as a sign of weakness.

In any society, you will always have two dominant streams of thought around which politics will rotate. There will be a conservative stream and a left-leaning stream.

The extent of the conservatism and leaning to the left depends on the circumstances of the particular society. Power will swing between the two poles. The challenge for societies is to create a space for other ideas that influence the two poles.

There are strong democracies from which we can learn about multiplicity. In the United Kingdom, for example, power has always drifted between the Labour Party and the Conservative Party.

But the Liberal Democrats have always lurked somewhere in the background. In Germany, the Social Democratic Party and Christian Democratic Union are the dominant forces while the Green Party is a distant third.

In both countries, there are more fringe parties that make an impact at the regional and local levels on issues more specific to locales. These parties can be found on the left, right and in the centre of politics.

In countries such as the UK and Germany, the third party and the fringe elements wield power by virtue of being kingmakers and interjecting in the conversation. The gridlock and extremism you find in Washington can largely be attributed to the lack of such influences.

US politics has a “with us or against us” scenario.

It is a path South Africa should avoid. Our country needs parties such as the African Christian Democratic Party, the IFP and the Freedom Front Plus.

Soon we will have strong voices from the left in the form of the Economic Freedom Fighters and the worker-centric party that the National Union of Metalworkers of SA is contemplating.

These parties may never govern but will be great conductors of the national conversation.

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