What South Africa Can Teach the United States About Repairing a Divided Society
Mature democracies don’t treat political opponents as wartime enemies.
This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.
There is no reason why the U.S. presidential election should be an existential battle in which the losers get obliterated. It is possible to work through deep ideological differences, but it requires hard work. Take a comparative case study from my own country, South Africa.
Ours was a deeply divided society given the twin histories of colonialism and apartheid. Since 1994, we have worked hard to build democratic institutions—and a political culture—that can help us live with and work through our bitter divisions. We remain a divided society, and our democratic institutions are under enormous pressure, but we are never quite at risk of our relatively young democracy imploding, even though there have been—and continue to be—very daunting threats to the political system, especially predatory political elites stealing from the public in cahoots with private interests.
What keeps South African democracy intact is an almost instinctive appreciation that our deep historical differences must be accepted as part of our enduring reality. We cannot wish divisions away by watching YouTube clips of Nelson Mandela on repeat. You must learn to accept deep divisions as part of your political DNA.
That is the project U.S. citizens need to sign up for now. Losing an election just means you lost the argument. And if you have a model of democracy that values core norms of democratic theory like deliberation and participation, then you must practice becoming a good democratic loser.
That means accepting that your arguments did not win this year. Equally, if you win, it is important to be magnanimous and recognize that the contestation of political ideas is not a perfect science. Showing some intellectual humility, rather than condescending to your political opponents just because your candidate becomes president, is essential.
And this is where U.S. citizens must challenge themselves. Despite the prevalent but false belief that the United States is the greatest nation in the world, Americans need to learn from other democracies about how to engage in political contestation in ways that are politically mature.
All of its citizens can yet make America great by humbly accepting they have yet to develop good democratic habits that can ensure that bitter divisions do not threaten the foundations of American society. If the United States reckons with this truth, then it will be ready to practice new ways of engaging political opponents, rather than seeing political contests as a zero-sum game.
If a still young democracy like South Africa can keep deep bitter divisions at bay, then so can a much older democracy like the United States. But success will require that Americans abandon the toxic habit of seeing their political opponents as wartime enemies.