One doesn’t need to look far to see the problems in the internal political affairs of countries. Whether the problem is corruption or tyranny or simply the abandonment of principle, political crises appear to be boundless and plentiful. When bad leaders are elected, the press are quick to blame a multitude of causes, from ‘fake news’ to corruption to the ominous hacking collective now know as ‘the Russians,’ but could the problem rather lie in the populace’s dogmatic support of ‘their team’ or ‘their guy’? Could our political problems actually come from political parties themselves?
A political party is supposed to exist for the purpose of uniting people who hold common political views around a single group-entity which represents those views. The hope here is that in an election it would be simpler for the electorate to vote for someone who represented their views. Conservative? Vote for the Republican. Liberal? Vote for the Democrat? It’s 1994 and you want Apartheid to end? Vote ANC. Want Great Britain to leave the European Union? Vote UKIP. It’s a mechanism to simplify the complex question which is ‘who do I want to govern my country?’ To write it in a syllogism:
- I hold the political view ‘A’
- [Political Party] holds the political view ‘A’
- [Candidate] is a member of [Political Party]
- Therefore, it is in the interest of my political views to vote for [Candidate]
Without thinking about it too much, this is the way most people might make their decision on who to vote for.
This system, however, opens itself up to a number of problems.
Because belief in one’s ideology has been simplified in the form of a political party, this means that many people might simply blindly vote for that party regardless of whether or not they genuinely represent voters’ beliefs. We can see this trend as politicians continually use populist rhetoric to advance their campaigns. Instead of campaigning on principle, they campaign on the question, ‘what can I say that will get more people to vote for me?’
The horrible downside here is that voters end up voting for the party, over the principles. South Africa’s three largest parties all exhibit this, but probably the most guilty of those is the ANC. President Jacob Zuma has from day one been mired in scandals, be it his controversial rhetoric about HIV, the dubious circumstances under which the National Prosecuting Authority dropped charges against him, his controversial relationship with the Gupta family or infamously his expenditure of millions of rands on his private homestead in Nkandla. Yet, somehow, people continue to vote for him. Why? Because he’s the ANC’s guy and the people like the ANC. It doesn’t matter what Zuma does in office, his membership to the ANC supersedes any kind of rational judgement about his policies and his record. Hardly a responsible way to choose someone to run the country. Had Jacob Zuma
This kind of blind following of a party is not limited to the executive. An additional problem with having a partisan legislature is that Members of Parliament can not necessarily vote for what they truly believe in but rather need to be whipped in line and vote with their caucus in Parliament. Should an MP vote differently to the rest of their party, they could face discipline. Once again, we have a case in which good judgement on policy is swept aside simply because party policy supercedes it. It’s a kind of hive-minded thinking which prevents people from voting their conscience, but our MPs didn’t get elected to vote the way they get told to vote. If that’s the case, why not have a bunch of computers representing MPs and get the chief whip to program what they’ll vote on?
In addition to these two factors, we only need to look at history to see the utter destruction caused by the blind devotion to political parties which stems from this hived-minded mentality. The minority support for the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution lead to the founding of the Soviet Union which would slaughter millions of its own citizens. The Worker’s Party of Korea now keeps its citizens in a socialist hermit nation with no individual freedoms, no right to trial, free speech or anything remotely resembling civil liberties in case they adversely affect the view of the party. Dissenters are sent off to labour camps or simply executed in public.
It might lead one to ask, ‘What if we had no political parties?’
As a thought experiment, let’s suppose that South Africa completely did away with political parties. Following from this, the country is now also divided up into electoral constituencies with each constituency sending an MP to represent them in Parliament. With no political parties, candidates would have to run campaigns based on policies and ideology. Voters would have to research the candidates in order to make an informed decision. No candidate could win simply by being from ‘Party X’ but their win would come from campaigning on ‘policy x.’ What’s even better than this is that if an elected MP votes badly or has a bad record, they can simply be voted out of office. There would be no party to fall back on, no damage control or PR campaign from that party if one of their members did something wrong. Politics would be reduced to what it’s about: policy.
It’s an interesting thought to consider… I certainly think if everybody voted for who they most agreed with, we might solve many more problems as the jobs of politicians would now be at the mercy of how well those politicians actually perform. We’ve just seen an election in the United States in which so many Republicans were convicted to vote for their party’s candidate simply because ‘he’s our guy.’ Likewise, the Democrats were stuck with the enormously unpopular Hillary Clinton. What do you know! The guy from The Apprentice is now president.
It just goes to show that when you vote for the lesser of two evils, you end up with having to choose between evil #1 and evil #2. I hope that we can one day live in a world in which you can truly vote your conscience. Perhaps the first step to that is to do away with petty partisanship which will forever hinder progress.