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The Republican Party and the South African Opposition

In the midst of tweeting commentary (and complaints) about President Barack Obama’s press conference on Wednesday, I received an unexpected reply from Helen Zille, one of the foremost opposition leaders in my native South Africa, and a family friend.

“Can we swap Presidents?” she asked.

Her point is valid, in that as bad as Obama is, there are others far worse. But Zille went further, arguing that Obama–“Barack,” she called him–is “amazing” and “absolutely exceptional.” She did not explain why she felt that way–we’d just have to “agree to disagree.”

We cannot actually “agree to disagree,” I replied. The fact is that Obama opposes most of what Zille and her party, the Democratic Alliance (DA) stand for.

The DA has become more diverse, both demographically and ideologically, in recent years, but the party’s core beliefs remain the tenets of classical liberalism: individual freedom, limited government, private property, and free trade. These are the ideas against which Obama defines his own, statist governing philosophy. They map quite closely–if imperfectly–onto the principles of the Republican Party.

That is not to say the DA is equivalent to the Republican Party. When I worked for four years as speechwriter to then-DA leader Tony Leon, I used to describe the party to American friends and relatives as “centrist.” There were certainly some DA leaders who could be described as “Clinton Democrats”–social liberals who favored free markets but a strong government safety net. Others were staunch conservatives. What united the party was the belief that South Africa needed strong political opposition–or its new constitutional democracy would not survive.

It was sometimes difficult to explain to American visitors how I could possibly be working for the opposition and not for the ANC, the party that had liberated the country from apartheid. They shared some of the same romantic visions of multiracial, socialist utopia that I once had.

It is easier to preserve those illusions when you don’t have to live in them. If you spent any real time here, I would try to explain to them, and endured the abuse, dishonesty, and incompetence that thrive under the ANC’s “transformation” agenda, you, too, would support the DA.

I can say the same to my former DA colleagues about America: your official principles do not translate well into the Democratic Party. The “power of individuals to improve their own lives”? Giving parents “choice regarding the type of school their children attend”? Opposing a “one-size-fits-all minimum wage”? Resisting “abuse of power by labour unions that prioritises the employed at the cost of the unemployed”? Focusing on economic growth rather than racial redistribution? Favoring local over national government? These are not Obama’s values.

I can hear some of my old friends in the DA say–as many have said–that their party rejects the social conservatism of the Republican Party. Not really.

The truth is that South Africans are a deeply conservative, religious, and traditionalist nation. If the voters were allowed to decide issues like gay marriage and the death penalty–which have been placed beyond politics by the constitution and the courts–few DA members would be happy. The party wisely gives its members a “free vote” on issues of moral conscience as a quiet acknowledgment of that reality.

The DA has also embraced welfare state policies over the past decade, while Republicans in the U.S. have been moving in the other direction. That, however, has more to do with circumstance than conviction–the DA’s hunt for votes among the disaffected black underclass in South Africa, and the Republicans’ growing concern about America’s exploding national debt and entitlements.

Both the DA and the Republicans favor words like “individual opportunity” to describe their vision of the society they want to create. There are many other similarities besides.

When I returned to the U.S. after a long sojourn in South Africa, I imagined that while I had spurned the radical leftism of my college years and embraced much of what the DA stood for, I would fit right back into the Democratic Party, albeit on the party’s moderate wing.

It took me just a few months to realize there was little room among Democrats for what I now believe. But I switched parties only when I felt I had shed the fear of false labels like “racist,” “greedy,” and “intolerant,” which I had once taken for granted (and probably hurled myself).

Like Zille, perhaps, I had early hopes for Obama, but soon realized–by reading his own words closely, and studying his actions–what he was really about.

If Obama is “amazing,” what are his “amazing” achievements? The country’s fiscal mess is nearly twice as bad. Millions have left the workforce. Terrorism is on the march across the globe. Obamacare is failing. The nation is more divided than it has been in recent memory. The one arguably positive legacy he has achieved is the expansion of gay rights–and there, Obama was a follower, not a leader.

American popular culture, which we have exported all over the world, sets Republicans up as the embodiment of evil. It is gratifying, from afar, to identify with the selfless heroes of that archetype–the rebels against the Death Star, the rock stars against The Man. Zille’s use of “Barack” emulates that pop culture, that aspirational sense of first-name intimacy with the president. It is the fashionable, cultish moniker preferred by Obama’s most devoted fans, those in whose eyes he can do no wrong. It has nothing to do with whether he is a good president.

It is harmless, and probably beneficial, for Zille to identify publicly with Obama, who remains popular in South Africa, though he has been far less helpful to Africa than his reviled predecessor. But on the most basic level, Obama offends what I know are Zille’s most cherished convictions. She engaged me–unwittingly, it seems–during a discussion of how Obama had just scolded a journalist. It was of a piece with Obama’s bullying of the courts and the opposition.

I am sure that Zille, a former journalist herself, would not wish to endorse any of it.

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