I spent two years in South Africa. I was there from 1996 through 1998, which was a fascinating time be in the Rainbow Nation — it was right at the end of the transition from Apartheid to full “one man one vote” democracy. It’s probably fair to say that the transition began in earnest with Mandela’s release in 1990 and ended in 1998 when the ANC (then led by Thabo Mbeki) retained political power in fully-open, fair elections as Mandela left office. During my time in South Africa, I watched with interest (and concern) the way the African National Congress (“ANC”) dominated the national and local political scene and formed some rather strong opinions about dominant party democracy, which have remained with me as I returned to the United States and became more involved in American domestic politics.
There is a rich political science literature about the impacts of dominant party democracy and the structures that states (read: countries) can adopt in order to mitigate some of its worst effects. It’s not often that people port this national level-analysis to a sub-national (in America, a “state”) level. But Utah provides as good a place as good a place as any to examine the impact of dominant party democracy at the state (sub-national) level, so I’m going to wade into the fray and give you all my thoughts.
First, Some Thoughts About South Africa
Since the official end of Apartheid in 1994, South Africa has held 4 nationwide parliamentary elections. Here are the heavily consolidated results (remember there are a myriad of parties participating and receiving votes, I’ve just summarized the results to show the ANC and main opposition party — don’t fall into the trap of thinking that South Africa has a two-party system similar to ours):
1994 – ANC – 62.6% (nearest competing party, National Party (“NP”) with 20.4%).
1999 – ANC – 66.4% (nearest competing party, Democratic Party (“DP”) with 9.6%).
2004 – ANC – 69.7% (nearest competing party, Democratic Alliance (“DA”) with 12.4%).
2009 – ANC – 65.9% (nearest competing party, DA with 16.5%).
Over the years, the ANC has pretty consistently polled two-thirds of the votes in national elections. The two-thirds threshold is significant because it gives the ANC the votes to unilaterally amend the South African Constitution should it desire to do so. In more local elections, the ANC has been nearly as dominant. South Africa is a democracy truly dominated by a single political party.
Scholars who focus their research on the transition for authoritarianism to democracy use the term “consolidating democracy” to refer to the process of building a nationwide commitment to the democratic process. South Africa has now had 4 nationwide, open elections, and by some definitions would appear to be well on its way to consolidating its democracy. It would be extraordinary and unexpected for South Africa to slip back into authoritarianism at this point.
But what exactly is this democracy that South Africa is supposed to be consolidating? Political Scientist Robert Dahl, in his excellent book “Democracy and its Critics” (and elsewhere), conceives of democracy as what he refers to as Polyarchy (translated, “rule by many”), which he believes has two fundamental aspects: participation and contestation. In other words, for Dahl, the fundamental attributes of a legitimate democracy are contested elections in which there is a broad public right to participate. South Africa satisfies these two criteria as a technical matter.
But as a practical matter, is electoral politics in South Africa meaningfully competitive? Probably not. In fact, having been a close observer of the South African political scene for a number of years, I’ll go further: Absolutely not. South Africa’s current lack of political competition isn’t the result of a systemic, structural political failure. I want to emphasize that it’s the result of the uncoerced choices of its citizens. Overwhelmingly, the “people” of South Africa choose the ANC over other parties. But despite the fact that it is the result of personal choice — and therefore is absolutely legitimate — South Africa is consolidating a form of democracy that is very different Dahl’s ideal. And it is a type that I would submit is neither optimal for the country or its people.
Admittedly, there is no more Apartheid in South Africa since the ANC took power. That’s obviously a good thing. But, looking back, it should be clear to all that Apartheid was dead in South Africa no matter what and that things would not go back to the way they were regardless of who was in power. Additionally, a party that dominates a political system gets things done; its not hampered by domestic gridlock. But there are also real negative effects to dominant party democracy (discussed more below). South Africa has, in effectively traded one dominant system for another — the second is, to be absolutely clear, more fair and inclusive — but South Africa is missing the benefit of the balance and moderation that a credible opposition supplies to a political system. That’s the consequence of living in a dominant party state. And, in my opinion, Utah is suffering (albeit, in a more moderated sense) from the same condition.
In Utah, the Republican Party is almost as dominant as the ANC is in South Africa. In statewide elections, the Republican Party polls nearly 60 percent of the vote consistently. Local elections shows some limited differentiation, but usually in favor of greater Republican dominance. Indeed, as a practical matter, it is only the only northern part of the Salt Lake Valley that bucks the statewide trend. Beginning with Davis County, heading north, and 7200 South, going south, there is no politics in Utah outside of the Republican Party.
As is the case with South Africa, there is good and bad to this reality. Political officials in Utah can (and do) get things done. But the moderation and sense of perspective brought by a credible opposition is missing. Additionally, there is a tendency toward corruption in government that results from elections being decided almost solely by the mechanisms chosen by a private party, the primary mission of which is to place as many of its candidates in public office as it can. Furthermore, there are additional negative effects. One of these is a tendency to move ever farther to the extreme end of the political spectrum (some might view this as a virtue — I clearly do not). Another is a tendency toward meaningless infighting and bickering when the focus of conflicts turns intra-party rather than toward the opposition. One of the results of all of these things is that, when the Republican party dominance in Utah is not replicated on the national level, the representatives that Utah sends to the national government tend to be ineffective and uninfluential. In contrast, the few elected members of the other party begin to look corresponding more effective and reasonable. A dominant party political system sows the seeds of its own destruction (read: loss of dominance), because it tends to become, even more than is usual, less about representation and solutions and more about the individual ideological crusades of aspiring politicians.
Eventually, people get tired of not being represented and turn elsewhere — the considerations that originally created the support for the dominant party notwithstanding. Dominant democratic political systems, those resulting from voter choice, have a limited life cycle, and I very much suspect that Utah may be reaching the end of the current one.
I’m firmly convinced that the best thing for the Republican Party in Utah politics would be to lose (or surrender) some of its dominance. Meaningful electoral competition would return perspective and real, meaningful purpose back to the GOP and make candidates and representatives more responsible to their constituents. Consider this a plea for just a bit more balance.