The death of independent thinking

What is at stake is how or whether the two parties are capable of being a “caucus” of possibilities and possible directions or whether, in their endeavour to knock each other out, they have managed to eliminate any manner of independent thinking within them.

Democracy makes no sense when two parties presume to take exclusive turns in running the country. This also paralyses the parties themselves, where discussions are often premised on the need to “win”. “Once we win,” they tell anyone who dares to disagree, “we could then discuss and give voice to independents.” Needless to say, the discussion never happens, and the voice is seldom given.

The American idea that a political party is a “caucus” or a “conference” that in principle accepts diversity and accommodates a horizon of independent voices, has become seriously undermined by what we have seen in the House of Representatives. The Republican conference took weeks to agree on Mike Johnson as their Speaker, and no one can guarantee that he won’t follow suit in Kevin McCarthy’s fate.

The current situation in US politics cannot be reduced to the Trump phenomenon. Just like Brexit in Britain, Trump is the result. That he is now seen as the cause confirms the short-sightedness of opinion makers who either have no sense of, or would rather forget, history.

MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) politicians have paralysed the Republican Party because the reactionary agenda is to destroy the idea of the Party as an alliance. Anyone in the Republican party who appears to dissent is bullied and threatened with deselection. This explains the caution of most Presidential candidates when asked to comment on Trump’s bid for Presidency.  

Isn’t it ironic that a party which was once nicknamed the “Grand Old Party” (GOP) for preserving the Union, is now incapable of coming together as it did under Lincoln? Not only is the GOP undermining the idea of a coalition of different voices, but it is systematically undermining the Union for which Lincoln gave his life.

Us and them

History plays tricks on us, especially when we try to ignore it. Frantz Fanon once argued that Manichaeism is the hallmark of colonialism. Colonialism thrived through an outlook that divides the world into good and evil, white and black, us and them, civilised and barbarian, etc. While Manichaeism never left when colonies won independence, it retains strength even within the coloniser’s polity.

One would expect that the Maltese would resist the hegemony of dualism by which their colonisers kept Malta’s population at bay by feeding it with the myth of a world separated in two neat camps. Yet, if there is an outlook that characterises Maltese society, it is precisely the colonial-Manichaean take on Malta’s polity. From birth we are assigned a political affiliation, and even when we resist, we can only go to “the other side”, thus reinforcing the duopoly.

Ignoring history also gives us the impression that when democracy finds itself distilled in what becomes a duopoly, there is hardly any space for independent thinking. Yet, even while we all know that an alliance of diverse minds keeps parties organic and dynamic, the tribal element soon kicks in when someone decides that dissent should be suppressed for the “sake of the Party”. This is triggered by the fear of the other side which, as we know from the Maltese example, is played up when elections appear on the horizon, and where loyalty turns from something willingly given to a demand from the Party.

Democracy and duopoly

So, what am I suggesting here? Am I using The Journal to promote a “third party”? Perish the thought! Actually, this has nothing to do with third or fourth parties. The problem is the notion of “the party” itself, as it has become and as it has evolved in its tribal condition. There could well be more than two parties in Parliament, as they have in Westminster. Yet the duopoly remains because all we can think of is government and opposition, right and left (which often dissolve into a centrist accord), us and them.

The point here is more than just how many parties we vote for. I happen to think that the reason for Malta not having strong third or fourth parties is because it is gripped by the tribal fear of the other—the same fear by which colonisers always kept us at bay. What is even more scary is the fact that when the Party itself is lumbered with its own troubles, this sense of fear becomes the cause of its own deterioration.

Two good examples of this phenomenon have to do with the leadership and subsequent direction of both the PN and PL, as they stand now.

The interminable doubts that the Nationalist Party has over its leadership, and how it changed leaders while still never resolving the issue is a conundrum for many in the PN who would be happier if, while having a broad church, the PN has a leader it could see as a signifier of such a diverse membership—someone like Eddie Fenech Adami. It is the classical challenge which the political scientist Ernesto Laclau called the “chain of demands” which as dissonant as it might look, remains a chain that can retain its diverse demands linked with each other. 

The second case with leadership is the PL’s. The Labour Party also changed leadership. Yet unlike the PN, its challenge is different. More or less, the PL has managed to keep its chain of demands tight enough, but its worry is a matter of legacy. Just right now, instead of being able to move on, the PL is stuck with how to handle the same legacy that gave it victory after victory. The current leadership was tasked to deal with this legacy, but it’s looking more and more like a poisoned chalice.

The PL and PN’s predicaments are amply reflecting in wavering polls, where a steady growth of possible abstentions is often the subject of discussion. Yet ultimately this is the predicament of a democracy where both parties seem to be unable to handle diversity within them and where, for one reason or another, any attempt to harbour independent minds is seen as a threat—when in effect it is the independents’ demise that is threatening both political parties and render them ineffective in facing their respective challenges.

Ultimately, the question here is even more foundational than we think. I’d say it even transcends the effectiveness by which Bernard Grech and Robert Abela are playing their role as party leaders. What is at stake is how or whether the two parties are capable of being a “caucus” of possibilities and possible directions or whether, in their endeavour to knock each other out, they have managed to eliminate any manner of independent thinking within them.

Photo credit: Daniel Reche

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