US-style poll debates: Send in the clowns

So, the ANC has decided to embrace American-style primaries and debates. As an American who writes about both United States and South African history and politics, I would like to be the first to congratulate you. South Africa’s politics are entertaining, to be sure. But you’ve just invited the circus into your living rooms. And as we all know, there is no circus without clowns.

Both primaries and debates are great ideas. But they do not always live up to their promise.

For one thing, while Americans use the primary process for a range of state and national elections the most attention goes to the presidential primaries, during which in a de facto two-party system voters choose candidates for the Democratic and Republican party nominations. Smaller parties do the same, albeit to much less fanfare.

The process is more Byzantine than the democratic elections of our imaginations in that the primary voters ultimately choose delegates, who will then cast votes for the candidates they represent. Furthermore, an even more complex mechanism means the parties themselves control a number of the delegates above and beyond those the electorate chooses. This is why, despite the lead that Donald Trump enjoys in all national polls, there is just about no chance that he will win the Republican Party nomination.

Right now, Trump is the loudest clown in the circus. But most people abide the clowns until the elephants come stomping into the big top.


By contrast, the ANC plans to involve the voting public in the selection of its candidates for ward councillors in no small part because the ruling party fears it could lose Johannesburg and possibly other metro regions in next year’s local government elections.

This decision smacks of cynicism and expedience. But it also offers the opportunity to make the party more responsive to the will of the people, as opposed to the desires of small cadres huddling in backrooms. The ANC sees an opportunity driven by self-preservation and a desire to maintain power, but that does not necessarily mean it is not also an opportunity for better and more responsive governance. It is in the interest of all South Africans for the party’s politicians to be beholden to the people as much as to the party.

This demand for politicians to be responsible stewards of the public welfare was, after all, what drove Americans in the “progressive era” – the first two decades of the 20th century – to call for an expansion of democracy that included not only bringing the direct primary to the country’s political system but also led to phenomena such as the ballot initiative and the referendum. These have proved to be imperfect mechanisms, but their emergence revealed the ways in which Americans continued to hone their democratic ideals, even if they so often fell short of those ideals in practice.

Debates are similarly vexing. In theory they, too, are supposed to make people stand before the public and present and defend ideas. This Platonic ideal almost never reflects reality. Instead, what most observers get is a cavalcade of cliché and attacks, over-rehearsed sound bites that usually fall flat and allegedly tense exchanges that surprise few and enlighten even fewer. Snark replaces substance and no one really wins. In a sense, this is the perfect political process for the internet age. For example, the Republican debates have thus far represented nothing so much as an internet comments section on a partisan website. And we all know what to expect in those festering bowels.

Occasionally, something interesting will happen in a debate – a telling interaction that differentiates candidates or an impromptu moment of wit or insight. But these are far more likely to happen when opposing parties face off than in intraparty squabbles, such as the Republican debates, where the tendency is to agree most disagreeably and to come up with the most clever way of slamming the opposition party.

The Republican debate process right now tells us a great deal about the current conservative mind-set and perhaps speaks volumes about the baseness of American political culture. It tells us little about who might make the best candidate for the presidency in 2016. Perhaps the Democrats will offer something better when their debates get started, largely because there is no equivalent to Trump and because the Democrats control the White House and thus will be less inclined toward the sort of attacking and heated rhetoric that has characterised the Republicans.

An optimistic South African might hope to see the divisions in the ANC played out, to get a sense of real difference in how candidates will bring about service delivery or address corruption, create jobs or guarantee economic growth. Optimistic souls don’t usually find satisfaction in politics – not in the US and not in South Africa.

So hope for the best, but expect the worst. Show up for the elephants. But know that you’re likely to get a heavy dose of the clowns.

Derek Catsam is professor of history and Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan Fellow in the humanities at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin and reviews co-editor of Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies. The views expressed are his own

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