Why ideas and ideologies matter to politics

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The importance of ideas in legitimizing a political agenda is also evident. Why else would candidates routinely cover their campaigns with historical terms and narratives – such as the liberation struggle and major national achievements – if not to give them a greater chance of resonating with the electorate?

Yet when it comes to African politics, ideas and ideologies are largely ignored. Reports of elections rarely focus on the issues discussed or the symbolism invoked by leaders. One reason for this is African elections are often assumed to revolve around ethnicity, and that political mobilization takes place only through patron-client networks. In this model, leaders don’t need to persuade citizens to support them, they just need to organize their lieutenants and ensure that there is enough patronage to keep everyone happy. The elections are won by thetyranny of numbersrather than the quality of the arguments.

That’s not how the policy actually works, though. Ethnicity and clientelism are powerful forces, but their importance varies widelyand they are easier to mobilize for leaders who are perceived as credible and who have a viable plan.

A well-known Ethiopian proverb says: “When the great lord passes by, the peasants bow and fart in silence”. Voters in countries like Kenya, Malawi and Zambia have always been critical of those in power – and that criticism is becoming more sophisticated with each election.

Failure to recognize the power of ideas and ideologies can therefore be fatal, both for politicians trying to retain power and for researchers and journalists seeking to explain how politics works.

I think therefore I win

One of the reasons why the importance of ideas is downplayed is that people tend to seek out ideologies that are common in the West. When a quick search fails to find examples of socialism or elections pitting a “right” party against a “left” party, it is easy to conclude that Africa is an ideology-free zone.

But ideologies are not just economic theories – they are concept maps through which we understand the world. And if we look at how candidates run for office, and the popular ideas and concerns they appeal to, the importance of ideology cannot be denied.

Take the current election campaign in Kenya. Often seen as the epitome of ethnic politics, Kenya now presents a very different narrative.

Playing on popular frustration with the lack of good jobs and economic empowerment, Vice President William Ruto is portraying himself as a “scammer” ready to defend those who work hard for their money – what he calls the “nation hustler” – against the country’s exploitative political dynasties.

This narrative is particularly clever because it allows Ruto, who has been the second most powerful man in government since 2013, to portray himself as a radical opposition figure ready to take on a political elite increasingly seen as out of touch and corrupt. .

The effectiveness of Ruto’s messages – the most credible opinion polls gave him a good lead, although that could change – demonstrates the power of ideas.

As it stands, he has fewer ‘Big Men’ in his team than his main rival, Raila Odinga – who has President Kenyatta’s backing – but enjoys more popular support.

It’s not all about ideas, of course. Ruto has also invested huge sums of money in building networks of politicians Across the countryand would not be electorally competitive without them.

But it’s his ability to bring these networks together in the scammer’s story that has garnered support from young people and all ethnicities. So far, Odinga’s campaign team seems to believe they can defeat Ruto by building a bigger coalition and attacking his credibility. What they don’t seem to realize is that these strategies only serve to reinforce Ruto’s assertion be a political outsider, and thus strengthen its appeal to those who are themselves marginalized.

To win hearts and minds, Odinga needs to spend less time recruiting coalition members from the country’s political elite, and more time building a message that resonates with the masses.

Why ideas matter for politics

Politically important ideas can be found everywhere when you start looking for them. For example, we cannot understand Thabo Mbeki’s policies on HIV/AIDS, while his failure to introduce an antiretroviral (ARV) drug program contributed to around 330,000 unnecessary deathswithout situating them in a broader reflection of “African solutions to African problems”.

In turn, his personal commitment to this mantra and the rejection of certain aspects of “Western” science must be understood in the context of apartheid South Africa’s medical racism – which encouraged a natural skepticism of “white” expertise towards African bodies – and Mbeki’s personal belief in the concept of African renaissance.

Understanding why the idea of ​​an African renaissance has resonated with so many leaders also forces us to go back in time; to the 1940s and 1950s and to the ideas of Cheikh Anta Diop – and, through his thought, to negritude and a long intellectual tradition that has brought to the fore the value of African indigenous knowledge.

In other words, sometimes the only way to make sense of a government policy that at first glance seems completely irrational is to place it in the context of the history of ideas.

This is not to say that Mbeki’s policies were justified given what had happened before. There are many others whose search for “African solutions to African problems” has not ended up causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of their own citizens.

There are also ways in which Mbeki’s approach has been shaped by his own political needs. Clearly, as a highly educated technocrat who spent much of the anti-apartheid struggle outside the country, rejecting “Western” wisdom on issues such as HIV/AIDS and how to manage the “Zimbabwe crisis”, he protected Mbeki against his populist criticism.

Had he gone the other way, it would have been easier for his rivals to portray him as an out-of-touch elitist ready to do the dirty work of Western powers.

But while the choice of political ideas and ideologies is never free from self-interest, it is also true that ideas can capture the imagination of leaders and citizens in ways that have profound effects on day-to-day politics. .

Bring back ideas

Neglecting the role of ideas does not only lead to bad analyzes and unsuccessful election campaigns. It also contributes to a situation in which African countries are systematically overlooked as places of important knowledge production. Bringing ideas back into our analysis – and doing justice to the rich intellectual history of the continent – ​​is therefore also important for the current struggle to decolonise universities, international relations and minds.

This month, a group of remarkable researchers, many of whom have been writing about this for much longer than I have, are launching a new research network to continue this project. All are invited to join Ideas in African Politics network and enrich our discussions with the ideas and intellectual traditions that have shaped their own thinking.

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