Why a Smaller, More Liberal DA is Not (Necessarily) a Problem

A smaller, more liberal DA, which uses its freedom to proselytise the exciting principles and implications of liberty for the common man, and which has a marked influence on national political discourse, will start to create a civil society around itself – an ecosystem.

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Democratic Alliance DA Cape Town

The Democratic Alliance’s (DA) percentage of the vote has declined by about 5.40% during the 2021 municipal elections, compared to the 26.90% it obtained in 2016. It obtained 20.77% of the vote in the 2019 general election, meaning that among voters, it had a small uptick in support since that year, to around 21.50% this year. After former DA leader Mmusi Maimane was compelled to resign due to the DA’s weaker performance in 2019, some on Twitter and no doubt some in the DA itself think John Steenhuisen, the current leader, must do the same. Are these two events comparable?

I regard myself as perhaps one of the most vocal liberal critics of the Democratic Alliance, particularly in these pages, and especially during the Maimane years but also more recently under Steenhuisen. I have been advocating for the DA to return to a more pure form of classical liberalism since my undergraduate years. Whereas under Maimane it was clear that the DA was adopting a very explicitly illiberal stance, under Steenhuisen it appears that what the DA is saying – which is almost invariably good to excellent – is not reflected in what the DA, in its provincial and municipal governments, is doing – which is often mediocre to terrible.

In the course of this advocacy, I never once argued that the DA would be more electorally successful if it were more liberal. In fact, I have been unequivocal about the fact that I think it will lose a considerable number of votes in the process – and the DA has been losing far fewer votes than I expected. Many would misconstrue this as having racial implications, but even among South Africa’s racial minorities, liberalism is not all that popular. The DA, by its very nature as a (supposed) liberal party, cannot be a ‘big-tent’ entity.

The DA should not conceive of itself as a governing party, certainly not in the central government. In fact, no party should do so in a proportional system of democracy such as ours, which is built for government by coalitions of values-based representative parties.

That the DA has lost votes in 2021, compared to the previous municipal elections in 2016, is unsurprising. It has been slowly but surely reclaiming some of the ideological ground that it lost during the disastrous flirtation with social democracy up to 2019. At the end of this tunnel does not lie government, but, at best, senior partner status within a broader coalition of centre to centre-right parties. Whereas Maimane lost votes during the DA’s abandonment of its principles, showing that the shift to social democracy will not yield it the coveted status of central government, Steenhuisen lost votes during the consolidation and return of the DA to its principles. These two events are not comparable.

Of course, accusations of hypocrisy will abound. Already some on Twitter are saying it is a racist double-standard to have expected Maimane to resign but not Steenhuisen. But had Maimane been a liberal, I would not have wanted him to resign. The fact of the matter is that Maimane was not liberal – he was a social democrat whose play for social democratic government in a liberal party proved predictably futile.

The media have, in turn, eagerly racialised prominent DA leaders leaving the party, not realising that the other, more relevant thing these people had in common other than their race, was their hostility toward the DA’s value proposition. The media also conveniently ignores the white DA leaders who left the party for the same reasons, chiefly alongside Patricia de Lille and Herman Mashaba.

Steenhuisen, outwardly, appears to be a liberal. I know terribly little of the man. But unlike Maimane, who was openly hostile to it, Steenhuisen has made some good moves. Under his leadership, the DA has tread on ground that nobody other than committed liberals would tread, those being firearm rights and the rights of linguistic and cultural minorities. The DA has also come out swinging against confiscation without compensation. Maimane’s leadership did not yield the same. The important criticism of Steenhuisen’s leadership that remains is that the good liberal rhetoric has not translated into good liberal policy from DA governments around the country.

The loss of votes by the DA should therefore be seen as a consolidation of its liberal base. It should also be used by the DA to come to terms with the fact that it is fundamentally a party that represents liberals and moderates rather than a party that will govern for everyone. In that sense, the loss of votes (counterintuitively) represents an opportunity for growth for the party. So, what are the reasons that a smaller, more liberal Democratic Alliance is not, necessarily, a problem in South Africa’s political dynamic?

1) Opposition parties have more freedom to proselytise their vision

When it comes to proselytising their ideological visions there are virtually no overt limitations on opposition parties. It is admittedly more difficult for the DA because they are, in fact, in government in some areas. For the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) it is easy: they promise their voters the world, knowing it will build them support without having to concretely operationalise those promises in practice. Simply, there is no need to be realistic or even grounded when non-government parties campaign for support.

Of course, the DA is not and should not be reckless. It will always be grounded. And luckily for it, liberalism, and in particular liberal economics, are factually and practically workable. Indeed, they have worked wherever they have been tried, and brought unprecedented prosperity to billions around the world, regardless of local cultural or political circumstances. A smaller, more liberal DA, particularly when it does not monopolise governance, will have significantly more freedom to present this vision, of a free economy and its concomitant flourishing, to the South African public.

2) Smaller parties can change the discourse

This freedom to proselytise brings with it the benefit of shifting the political discourse. Whereas a larger, governing party is limited by the realities of government, a small but vociferous party that is confident about its vision can have a marked influence on what a given society’s Overton window looks like.

The EFF is a perfect example of this.

While expropriation without compensation (EWC) was mentioned on occasion in the public discourse prior to 2014, the EFF managed to normalise it. Today, respectable companies and civil society groups talk about EWC as if it is simply another policy proposal to be analysed and debated, whereas in practice it is an economy-destroying threat of political terrorism. This shift is entirely attributable to the EFF’s no-holds-barred dedication to the idea.

The DA did do this in the 1990s before it became a party of government. It was overtly dedicated to freedom, free enterprise, and federalism, and spoke freely about privatisation and liberalisation. While in recent months the DA has started doing so again, it is not at the level of shifting the discourse yet. One still gets looked at askance when talking about federalism or privatisation, implying those policy proposals are more ridiculous than “normal” EWC.

The DA’s consolidation of its (small) liberal base, and its acceptance of simply being a partner in government rather than a government unto itself, will enable the party to have a significantly greater influence on the direction of South African political discourse.

3) Long-term, it will create better, more committed DA voters

Prior to 2014, I regarded myself as a DA evangelist, but their hesitancy on liberalism made me doubt exactly why this was. I was told in no uncertain terms that the DA was a pragmatic party, not a liberal one.

Such sentiments do not capture the imagination of activists, volunteers, intellectuals – and certainly not that of the voters. It is a comforting thought to know the DA can keep the water running, but running water is something that most people expect to have by default. They will not take time out of their day to shout from the rooftops that the DA will be effective at service delivery. More is required.

A DA evangelist wants to believe in the value proposition – they want to sell an idealistic vision for the future. And nothing captures the imagination quite like freedom.

A smaller, more liberal DA, which uses its freedom to proselytise the exciting principles and implications of liberty for the common man, and which has a marked influence on national political discourse, will start to create a civil society around itself – an ecosystem. It will no longer have to pay or ask people to campaign on its behalf, as this will happen spontaneously. This is what propelled the National Party to ever greater heights during the previous dispensation – nationalism was exciting, youthful, and had a clear vision for South Africa’s future. Much of the same sentiment helped the African National Congress (ANC) in the 1990s as well, although a fair bit of violence contributed too.

The necessity of vote shedding

It might seem counterintuitive to most people to say it is beneficial for a good political party like the DA to lose support. But this is not a new, radical idea, even though it might not feature in the mainstream anymore.

The fact of the matter is that not everyone can or should belong to the same values-based clubs – political parties – in a constitutional, multi-party democracy. The idea of a single party that unites the people and administers the State is a uniquely totalitarian idea that usually ends badly for everyone involved.

Multi-party democracies are geared specifically toward giving all the notable political differences in society a political outlet, whether at the local, provincial, or national level. When specific parties get greedy and abandon the idea of multi-party democracy, and start instead aiming to be the united, catch-all party, bad things happen to those parties’ coherence, leading either to them losing their electoral base or becoming the very government they seek to unseat. This is another way of saying that political parties have to be true to their values, and should not try to accommodate the shifting passions of voters. If voters are not accommodated by that party’s values, they will vote for someone else, and that is perfectly fine. What matters is that those who are, in fact, accommodated by that party’s values must remain accommodated.

Voters who do not agree with a party’s value proposition but vote for it anyway progressively start having a deleterious effect on that party. They become a bloc and start threatening to withhold their vote unless the party changes its value proposition. It takes a strong leadership to resist this temptation and to stick with the party’s fundamental principles.

The DA’s foray into social democracy under the latter-day leadership of Helen Zille and then Maimane was a colossal mistake that will take many years to completely undo. The leadership did not resist the temptation. The party today remains filled with social democrats and even socialists, in its structures, voter corps, and political representatives, who do not belong there. They are the ones who will now be lobbying inside the party for people like Steenhuisen and a reformed Zille to resign like Maimane did due to this year’s electoral performance. But in the final analysis, Maimane was not forced to resign because he lost the DA votes, he was forced to resign because he lost the DA the wrong kinds of votes. Now, the DA is losing the right kinds of votes.

Coalitions of values

Frans Cronje is correct in saying that the smaller winners, alongside the DA, of this election should in many ways be regarded as a bloc. The DA is the senior partner in this bloc, which represents between 30% and 40% of South Africa’s voters. This bloc stands opposite what should be regarded as the Coalition of Evil: the ANC and the EFF. In the same article in which Cronje is quoted, the Daily Friend’s editor correctly notes that this election did not amount to a rejection of the opposition, but as a diversification of the opposition, which bodes well for the growth and influence of the opposition as a whole in the long-term. Cronje adds that the opposition parties should not merge, thereby undoing the diversity.

Allowing smaller parties to be more principled, rather than trying in vain to become a big tent that will catch all South Africans, is just the correct long-term decision. The EFF has shown us how powerful a principled, small opposition party can be. It can be a kingmaker, yes, but its real influence lies in its freedom to influence the national agenda and political discourse. It is not constrained by the niceties of alliance partners to accommodate or the practicalities of being solely responsible for a governing administration, so it can freely pursue its narrative in the public eye. The DA should be afforded the same freedom, and it must jump at the opportunity. At the same time, the DA has shown itself to be a competent government, and the emerging opposition bloc will in all likelihood allow it to continue doing so where there are coalitions.

Most of those who disagree with this perspective will argue that South Africa is at a precipice: We do not have the luxury of thinking long-term, we have to save South Africa from the Coalition of Evil. The diagnosis is correct, but not the solution. Politics will not save us. Even if the DA became entirely pragmatic and forgot all about ideological luxuries, it is unlikely to unseat the Coalition of Evil nationally, even if it is a numerically larger party.

We defeat the Coalition of Evil outside of politics, through community initiatives and stateproofing. We make their shenanigans increasingly irrelevant through our choices and how we structure our lives and communities. Once relegated to irrelevance, the Coalition of Evil will implode.

But even if South Africa collapses, its formal structures of government will remain. The large parties, including a smaller DA, will remain. And there will be an “after the collapse” for which we must prepare. For that one wants an ideologically committed party, committed to the right (and only) values that can rebuild South Africa on a firmer, more prosperous footing. This requires long-term thinking. Those values are the timeless and universal principles of liberalism: property rights, voluntary solutions over coercion, individual liberty, the Rule of Law and, perhaps most fundamentally, a market that is free from undue State interference.

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  1. Rory Short Reply

    Martin what you say in this article makes 100% sense to me. I just hope that the DA leadership reads it and takes it’s message to heart.

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