It is only a few weeks before the nation casts ballots in one of the most interesting electoral contests of our time. I think this year’s election is different from previous ones in three ways.
In this election, we are witnessing a profound demographic shift in candidates from the old guard to a younger generation both in ZANU PF and CCC. It is the first election in which the MDC — in its various surnames, shapes, and forms — is not a key player since 2000. It is also the first election in which we have the incumbent president running for their final term — hopefully.
This election will once again deliver the leaders we deserve. Whether this is a positive statement or a cynical one depends not on the acumen of leaders on the ballot but rather on the stock of voters we have. My previous articles on electoral politics have been focusing on political parties and candidates. Today I train my lenses on the electorate, a player who bears so much power, at least for one day every five years. It is the kind of power that ought to be exercised responsibly, reasonably, and morally.
In a rare opening tirade for a journal article, Jason Brennan, an American philosopher, protests that as a voter, he deserves “The Right to a Competent Electorate”. And so, he rants: “many of my fellow citizens are incompetent, ignorant, irrational, and morally unreasonable about politics. Despite that, they hold political power over me. They force me to do things I do not wish to do or have good reason to do. As an innocent person, I should not have to tolerate that.”
Setting his academic decorum aside, a ‘rant interpreter’ would deduce his central argument that since voting is a collective process, whose outcome has consequences for everyone, it is only right that his fellow voters exercise that power in a ‘competent and morally reasonable way.’ You see, voters whose only tool in their possession is a screwdriver, tend to see every election as a screw. Put mildly in carpenters’ lexicon, Brennan argues that it is unfair for the majority to screw up things for everyone else. But then, that is the tyranny of the majority which manifests the imperfections of democracy.
The tragedy of elections is that at the end it is the rule of majority, and if the majority is made up of idiots - which it tends to be — then protests for the right to a competent electorate will persist every election cycle.
Self-appointed prefects of elections would insist that people must vote wisely, whatever that means. And when people’s voting preference is not in line with the wishes of these smarty-pants, they recite Brennan’s rant!
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The greatest beauty of democracy though, which is sometimes its bane, is that the vote of a professor carries the same weight as that of a vagabond. Afterall, our forebearers fought for universal adult suffrage as the famous ‘one man, one vote’ chant has immortalised that struggle. Be that as it may, with incompetent voters, the election is reduced to a carnival of fools. The electorate must exercise agency, be conscious, informed, and reasonable hence voter education is key to avert the invasion of idiots.
The invasion of idiots
The problem of voters who are incompetent, ignorant, irrational, and morally unreasonable about politics is as old as democracy itself. Athenian democracy contended with this problem. The ancient Greeks termed the common person who did not involve himself in state matters an ‘idiot’.
This term, far from being the modern-day insult it is, characterised a person who has the right to vote but declines to exercise it. Plato sounded the warning that, “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”
There are so many people, especially youth who proudly state that they will not vote. While some reasons may be valid, they unfairly burden those who vote, with the consequence of their choices. The truth is that if one doesn’t vote, they have inadvertently voted for the candidate that they don’t like. And, they do not have a legitimate right to complain about bad governance or poor performance of public officials.
The idiot, as Athenians identified him has a close cousin who would be identified centuries later by Karl Max - the lumpenproletariat. The lumpenproletariat is a citizen not only disinclined to participate in politics but also tends to act as the “bribed tools of reactionary intrigue.”
They are typically co-opted by reactionary movements and consist of the petit bourgeoisie on one end, and vagabonds and beggars on the other, with every other identity of the disintegrated mass finding accommodation in between.
In Zimbabwe, this is characterized by the “pfee” brigade, which is excited by the 4ED-everything. It is also characterized by the ‘chete chete’ crew which Chamisa energizes in his electrifying speeches.
Both camps offer easy solutions to the ever-increasing complex and intractable problems. The lumpenproletariat accepts these simplistic solutions without the slightest scrutiny. The ‘pfee’ and the ‘chete chete’ brigades epitomize the Orwellian sheep that senselessly bleat, “Napoleon is always right!”
It is the invasion of the lumpenproletariat, a crowd for hire paid in cheap t-shirts and caps.
The lumpenproletariat also features self-styled hustlers who are for sale to the highest bidder, as their whims and thirsts dictate.
The ‘mbingas’ and ‘gold mafias’ fit this bill, serving as runners for the corrupt elite, they have tragically become inspirations for many an impressionable youth in the theatre of Zimbabwe’s increasingly bleak economic outlook.
It is amongst the plebeian electorate that these corrupt hustlers are admired rather than condemned. Given a chance between reporting corruption and joining in, the lumpenproletariat would choose the latter!
Zimbabwe’s politics is faced with the problem of idiots and the invasion of the lumpenproletariat, which aptly fits within Brennan’s rants.
This problem is not a preserve for emerging fragile democracies but a serious bother for established ones as well. Quite compelling, if not tragic for the so-called doyen of democracy, Larry Bartels points out that, “the political ignorance of the American voter is one of the best-documented features of contemporary politics”.
The stock of voters we have is evident in the fact that both ZANU PF and CCC launched their campaign rallies without manifestos. And the public is not asking about such an important document that should explain the policy positions of the political parties on key issues.
It means the election will be a beauty contest devoid of ideas, and the discourse is non-existent. For political parties to flagrantly take the voter for granted like that and get away with it shows that we have a pervasive problem of voters who just sleepwalk into the ballot box. Consequences be damned!
Political parties benefit from an uninformed electorate hence active citizenship as part of civic education cannot be left to politicians.
The silence of civil society in questioning these political parties on the content of their campaigns is very loud. And the media is complicit. It would seem that the current political campaigns lack public content, a concern which I have severally raised in my previous instalments. Our current generation is disturbingly ideologically vacuous! Quite a devastating reality.
The logic of the voter
Quite frankly, Brennan’s rant somewhat borders on naïve idealism. The logic of the voter is everything but logical. The rational choice theory which suggests that democracy requires everyone to vote based on a logical understanding of the conditions, causes, and concerns that shape one’s situation in life is an appealing proposition of that ideal.
However, empirical evidence indicate that people are often quite irrational, especially when it comes to voting.
Political decision-making is rarely driven by factual knowledge and certainly not based on individual interests and objectivity.
On the contrary, political behaviour is more likely driven by our sense of collective identity than by individual perceptions hence the herd mentality or bandwagon influences their voting decisions.
It seems that the voting logic of the electorate does not view the better candidate as one whose policies and proposals are the best.
These are non-existent at the moment anyway! They would vote for the one they perceive as likely to win and deliver patronage and immediate benefits for them individually and not necessarily for the greater good of society.
The sober view
We need a new stock of voters in Zimbabwe. We need a voter who is more critical, conscious, and intentional about their choice.
We need to re-orient and conscientise the idiots and lumpenproletariat to become more competent voters.
The electorate needs to see the election as an accountability process where one’s electoral choices are based on an evaluation of the party or candidates’ performance in the preceding period.
This will enable them to understand and exercise their agency meaningfully.
Voters must understand that their choices have consequences. They must connect their voting outcomes to the eventual policies and performance of elected officials and be able to live with those choices and attendant consequences for the next five years.
Civic education must be intensified to cultivate active citizenship. It must be embedded in our education curriculum from elementary to tertiary level. Civil society must also play its role of promoting meaningful political participation.
For political participation to be meaningful, it must be informed!
The media must scaffold all these efforts by educating and informing the electorate, including setting the agenda and framing election issues. Most importantly, they must put politicians on the spot and ensure they do not get away lightly.
This is more so important in the current scenario where there is no demand and supply of public content by the electorate and the politicians, respectively. We must fix the demand side and the supply side to cultivate an electorate that exercises its voting power responsibly, reasonably, and morally.
When all has been said and done, it is a sobering fact that, as 19th-century French philosopher Joseph de Maistre aptly put it, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.” As such, 23 August election will deliver the leaders we deserve — whatever that means!
This is my sober view, and I take no prisoners!
- Dumani is an independent political analyst. He writes in his personal capacity. — Twitter: @NtandoDumani