The Democratic Alliance “2.0” and how they have (allegedly) killed the liberalism of Suzman et al.

With critics like Ismail Lagardien about, it’s not so obvious that political parties need to spend time defending themselves, rather than simply pointing to negative opinion pieces about them while trying to resist guffawing. This is because while much of what Lagardien says contains a kernel of truth, this contribution is hyperbolic – and prolix – enough that it would only entrench existing biases rather than change any minds.

I happen to share many of the concerns expressed in Lagardien’s column, but I diverge from his apocalyptic analysis of things in that regardless of whether one likes, or respects (or even understands) the viewpoints of particular individuals in a political party, it still remains the case that policy is determined by structures, following debate and deliberation.

Some columnists and Twitter analysts thought Mmusi Maimane killed the liberalism of Suzman et al. in the DA. Maybe Helen Zille did, even before that, or maybe we can put a horse’s head in Tony Leon’s bed (maybe it was Worrall!) – but it doesn’t matter, because liberalism is an easy target in any event, and has been for as long as I can remember, at least in South Africa.

One could make a sober case for a worrying trend you perceive in a party – worrying because of the arguments you have made for an alternative and (by your lights) superior trend – or you could say that two individuals (Helen Zille and Gwen Ngwenya, according to Lagardien) have wrought the “horripilation and secular eschatological panic of the end of Western civilisation”, as Lagardien does.

You can decide for yourself which approach you find more convincing.

The worrying trend, for me, is that it’s somehow becoming common wisdom that “classical liberalism” – the sort espoused by the bogeymen Lagardien describes as “early 21st-century alt-rightists who pray at the shrine of Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro” – is all that the DA represents or advocates, and more importantly, that if you don’t advocate that kind of liberalism, you’re somehow betraying the cause.

As I said a couple of months back, writing about John Stuart Mill (a “classical” – albeit apparently in an inadmissible sense – liberal):

one thing that differentiates some versions of liberalism (in this case including mine) from others – is that it is easy to forget what motivates Mill in the first place. He was a radical in his time, being an early defender of both female emancipation and the abolition of slavery, and his career – but more importantly, his liberalism – was fundamentally rooted in humanism.

There are many DA office-bearers who are still “liberal” in the sense that I understand Mill to have been, or that Lagardien understands Helen Suzman, Frederick Van Zyl Slabbert, Dene Smuts and Alex Boraine to have been (to list all the people he cites as exemplars of virtuous liberalism).

Perhaps it will end up being the case that they won’t gain any traction in the party, and that the current cold-blooded, tone-deaf, ahistorical and often obnoxious liberals will end up defining the DA’s direction for the foreseeable future.

But for the moment, the main thing I see is that we have a party who reacted decisively (and democratically) to a well-motivated report that led to the recent resignations of Maimane and others, and the return of Zille and Ngwenya.

Seeing a South African political party responding decisively to argument is remarkable and laudable, and offers some hope that if different sorts of liberal arguments are made, we’re still dealing with a party which might be responsive to those arguments, and which isn’t determined to lead SA into the dystopia of “Western civilisation” that Lagardien describes.

Again, to be clear, I have concerns that I have written about many times in the past. Neither Zille nor Ngwenya are quite “my kind” of liberal. Yet, we still have many values in common, and I know that I can engage with them in a space of reasons, and in a space where a drift towards some unpalatable vision (for me, for you) of liberalism could be checked, if people raised their voices in committees, had the courage of their convictions, and so forth.

The point is, I think, that the structures still seem to work, and if you don’t like the outcomes, perhaps you should be more involved.

As I said to a friend earlier today in response to this piece by Gareth van Onselen on how the “silent majority” of good people (Business Day, paywalled) doesn’t really exist in South African politics:

it’s not something that (ideally) would really need saying. Most people are apathetic, but Business Day readers, academics, etc., like to pretend that a) they aren’t, and b) many others also care far more than they seem to. Leaving aside rotting garbage in the streets, widespread stabbings, etc., nobody really cares about anything beyond their intimate dramas once they have anything resembling a liveable existence (and adding in confirmation bias, that isn’t a high bar).

But leaving that depressing note aside, “the DA” isn’t a monolith, and seems to be functioning more effectively than any other party (which is a separate issue to whether they are flourishing).

And, I don’t think that they are currently a liberal party, at least in terms of the ideological positions that I think most valuable in that spectrum of views. If there were an election today, I certainly would not vote for them.

But, there are many liberals in the party, and I know that some of them are working very hard to articulate and defend my version of liberalism, and maybe yours too, or maybe something close enough to be acceptable to both of us.

Or, if you prefer, Lagardien’s view is that

the former home of liberals has been rebooted and is, now, unequivocally among the classical liberals living in fear of the decline of Western Civilisation, and everything associated with it. And Gwen Ngwenya is back as policy head of the DA 2.0. What could go wrong?

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.