Sierra Leone Wants Political Parties: But Their Gung-ho Partisanship Could Destroy Sierra Leone’s Democracy

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Sierra Leone Wants Political Parties: But Their Gung-ho Partisanship Could Destroy Sierra Leone's Democracy

We Want Political Parties. But Their Gung-ho Partisanship Could Destroy Sierra Leone’s Democracy

By Mahmud Tim Kargbo

We Want Political Parties. But Their Gung-ho Partisanship Could Destroy Sierra Leone’s democracy.

By Mahmud Tim Kargbo

We’re Cozened in a chilling “doom loop” of mutual distrust.

It’s July 2023, and the APC and Samura Kamara have still not conceded to the announced election results of the June 24, 2023, presidential election announced by the ECSL.

It is approaching two weeks since President Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party was announced by the ECSL as the winner over Samura Kamara of the All People’s Congress. According to the ECSL, the incumbent held onto the South and Eastern regions he had gained in 2018 with a record-high turnout and won in Kono, and increased his votes in the Northern Region and Western Area. The results showed the Sierra Leone People’s Party also took back the House of Parliament. The North, South, East, and Western areas’ partisan divide continued to widen. And for the second time in Sierra Leone’s history, a majority of one party’s voters (the SLPP) were from all regions.

The Samura Kamara campaign demanded recounts of the election results, blaming the National Returning Officer and his team for a lack of transparency in the election process. Could something like this really happen here? The prospect may be remote. But it feels a lot more likely now than at any other time in the past 25 years. Sierra Leone’s democracy, like all political systems, rests on norms. Rules can only save us if we agree and respect them.

For a long time, we collectively assumed that respect for elections and the peaceful transfer of power were so sacred to the stability of our political system that nobody would ever challenge them. But just like in 2007, 2012, 2018, and 2023, Samura Kamara, a major party candidate, is keeping the country in suspense over whether he would concede if he lost. (Since he lost, we’ll never know what will happen if he presses the issue.)

For a long time, we assumed that while we might have strong political disagreements with each other, there were certain neutral arbiters in a society whose authority we would all respect and abide by. There were enough agreed-upon facts that our disputes wouldn’t threaten the foundations of our political system.

But for years now, we’ve been retreating into our separate tribal epistemologies, each with its own increasingly incompatible set of facts and first premises. We’re entering a period of politics where the perceived stakes are higher and higher (“the fate of our nation lies in the balance”) and they justify increasingly extreme means. When it is a war of good versus evil, “norms” and “fair play” seem like quaint anachronisms. We increasingly divided our politics into two camps, neither of which understands or respects the other.

We often talk about this in terms of record-high polarisation. This is quantitatively true: Both elites and voters are now highly separated into partisan camps.

But qualitatively, this is something more. It’s not just how much we are divided but, more how we are divided. The core problem is that the fundamental disagreement in our politics is now over what it means to be a Sierra Leonean—it’s over what our nation’s core values are. And that has historically spelled trouble.

Recent events before and after the election results were announced bring these divisions into sharp relief: Can “very fine people” march alongside outright lawlessness? Do counter-protesters deserve just as much (or maybe even more) of the blame for any violence? Answers to these questions reveal very different visions of both the past and the future of our country. And they break overwhelmingly along partisan lines.

To the political green, Samura Kamara is un-Sierra Leonean: His support for tribal and invective rhetoric stands in opposition to the true Sierra Leonean vision of tolerance. It’s an affront to our nation, a country in which we write equality into our founding documents. Any APC member who supports or votes for him is guilty by association.

To the political red, it’s the Sierra Leone People’s Party, who are un-Sierra Leonean. They denigrate our founding as a nation and want to change everything to their advantage. They want to sacrifice our sovereignty to globalist institutions under the guise of invented problems and to undermine our exceptional heritage by embracing each other, even those who want to blow us up with exploitative loans. There is only one “real Sierra Leonean,” and it doesn’t include the districts where many green people live.

We now have two political parties with very different and increasingly irreconcilable ideas about what it means to be Sierra Leonean and, perhaps more saliently, what it is to be un-Sierra Leonean.

Political scientists have documented how the spirited disagreements that used to characterise our political system have turned to rancor and disdain. SLPP and APC alike are far more likely today than they were only a few decades ago to say their rivals are not just wrong but stupid, selfish, and close-minded.

The paradox of partisanship: essential for politics yet potentially toxic

This partisan divide is obviously deeply problematic. But in thinking clearly about our partisan divisions, we first need to recognise that partisan conflict is a healthy and necessary aspect of democracy. In many ways, it’s the lifeblood.

As political scientist E.E. Schattschneider famously observed in his 1942 book, Party Government, “Modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties.” It is unthinkable because, without competing parties, voters lack meaningful choices. Partisan conflict is necessary for democracy because one-party politics is not democracy. It’s totalitarianism. The competition gives parties incentives to respond to voters. And losing parties keeps winning parties accountable by threatening to take away their supporters.

Parties mobilise and engage citizens to win elections, in the process bringing many otherwise apathetic citizens into politics. They bind disparate citizens together for a common purpose, providing a shared sense of collective energy necessary for a functioning democracy. Absent parties to structure and organise politics, democracy would crumble under chaos or apathy.

But the good things that parties accomplish come with side effects. To unite people, parties must also divide by offering a common enemy to everyone on their side. As psychologists have long known, in-group loyalty and out-group hostility are two sides of the same coin. And under certain circumstances, particularly ones of high stress and high threat, and usually with active goading from above, out-group hostility can easily take on very dark and destructive forces.

Here’s the paradox: We can’t have democracy without partisanship. But when partisanship overwhelms everything, it becomes increasingly difficult for democracy to function.

Political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset puts it this way in his 1959 classic Political Man: “A stable democracy requires the manifestation of conflict or cleavage so that there will be struggle over ruling positions, challenges to parties in power, and shifts of parties in office.” But he added that the system must permit “the peaceful ‘play’ of power,” and “the adherence by the ‘outs’ to the decisions made by the ‘ins.’” If the “ins” cannot recognise the rights of the “outs,” Lipset concluded, “there can be no democracy.”

In 1967, Lipset, along with Stein Rokkan, edited a volume entitled Party Systems and Voter Alignments: Cross-National Perspectives, in which they noted political conflicts come in many varieties. They conceptualised them along a spectrum from the most tractable — workable and manageable—to the least tractable.

At the tractable end of the spectrum, they placed a politics of pure economic materialism: conflicts over the allocation of resources—disagreements between producers and buyers, workers and employers, tenants and owners, and so on. These “can be solved through rational bargaining and the establishment of universalistic rules of allocation.”

At the intractable end are what Lipset and Rokkan call “Ideological oppositions.” These are all-consuming, 24-hour disputes “incompatible with other ties within the community.” In this kind of conflict, each side strives to “protect the movement against impurities and the seeds of compromise.”

This is the politics that leads to democratic breakdown and violence, and it’s where Sierra Leone appears to be heading today.

If polarisation were simply a matter of parties negotiating on behalf of competing economic interest groups and allocating national Leones, there are deals to be made (and plenty of earmarks!). Under such a system, political leaders of both parties can trade roads and bridges over whisky cocktails at after-hours parties. Different sides might offer different perspectives, creating contrasts for voters. But everyone understands that there are no permanent winners or losers—just temporary electoral swings. This is normal “interest-group politics,” in the jargon of political scientists.

When division involves purity and impurity, when it devolves into a pure contest between “us” and them,” then there is no bargaining because there are no negotiable principles, just team loyalties. “We” are good and pure, while “they” are evil and corrupt. And, of course, you cannot compromise with evil and corruption. The preferred cocktails of such politics are of the Molotov variety, and the roads and bridges are not to be traded but to be burned.

This is doom-loop partisanship because it contains many reinforcing dynamics that can quickly spiral out of control.

Sierra Leone politics has been transitioning from interest-group politics to doom-loop politics for decades, and we are now deep into a crisis.

In decrying contemporary hyper-partisanship, we must not over-romanticise the old interest-group politics, in which party leaders worked out bargains among competing interests behind closed doors.

Old-school transactional politics greased the wheels of a functioning government. But it also had plenty of problems, which its contemporary commentators frequently pointed out. For one, when the parties were loose, overlapping coalitions of interests with minimal differences, it was hard for voters to send clear signals to elected leaders and hold them accountable.

Before our civil war, for example, the party system was like a faucet that produced only varying kinds of warm water. It also effectively stymied progress on civil rights because civil rights groups were effectively cut out of insider deal-making. The smoke-filled rooms of yore were great if you were inside them, but unless you were a political stooge and frequently a bootlicker, it was very difficult to get an invitation.

There is also a very pragmatic reason not to over-romanticise the past. The earlier era existed on a foundation of cultural, demographic, economic, and technological conditions that are dramatically different today. Sierra Leone is a very different country than it was before.

More significantly, over the past few decades, partisan identities have become much more closely aligned with other social identities. Partisan divides now overlay religious divides, cultural divides, regional divides, and tribal divides. In the past, these identities are used to cross over more often. Twenty-five years ago, under the late President Kabbah, you could be a culturally conservative APC or a culturally liberal SLPP. These overlaps made the parties less distinct. They also made it easier to find common ground with opposing partisans based on other shared identities.

But as social sorting took place, we lost those potentially bridging ties. Our collective sense of cultural, regional, and ethnic status became more and more linked to the status of our two political parties, which came to represent these different identities. This made politics more emotional because it felt like even more was at stake with each election. It was not just the parties fighting each other, but also the competing ways of life they were representing.

As political scientist Lilliana Mason convincingly argues, “The more sorted we become, the more emotionally we react to normal political events.” And when emotions are heightened, everything becomes a threat to status. Politics becomes more about anger. And here’s the warning from Mason that should give you goosebumps: “The angrier the electorate, the less capable we are of finding common ground on policies or even of treating our opponents like human beings.”

This is what doom-loop partisanship looks like. There’s no possibility for rational debate or middle-ground compromise. Just two sorted teams, with no overlap, no cross-cutting identities, and with everyone’s personal sense of status constantly on the line.

George Washington predicted that political partisanship would lead to democratic instability.

The founders feared doom-loop partisanship from the beginning; it was why they were hostile to political parties. In making the case against parties, George Washington prophesied in his farewell address: “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, is natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities.” Sierra Leone agonised precisely about the arms race of incivility and nastiness that has overwhelmed national politics over the past few decades.

Washington feared that “instability would gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual.”

George Washington’s vision of no parties, just men of good character, was obviously unworkable. American politics quickly organised around the competing Hamiltonian Federalist and Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican parties. Schattschneider was right: Democracy requires parties to structure and organise conflict.

But Washington had a point in fearing that “the founding of [parties] on geographical discriminations” could spell trouble. Citizens of each region would be surrounded only by fellow partisans, reinforcing their shared grievances and making it far easier to demonise the “other.”

For the system to hold, though, both SLPP and APC need to suppress the one big issue that would divide the nation by region: tribalism. As long as both parties had Northern and Southern wings, they had strong incentives to work out internal compromises on the issue (and they did before). In the 2002 election, a national unifier candidate named Ahmad Tejan Kabbah swept the North, South, East, and Western Areas and was elected with 72 percent of the national popular vote.

The lesson of this admittedly potted history is that when the central political division shifts from economic materialism to disputes over fundamental values and questions of national identity, democracy threatens to become unstable.

How close are we to a new breaking point?

Are we at such a cataclysmic moment today? There’s more and more evidence that we are.

Our politics is now both regionalised and tribalised in ways that we haven’t seen in a long time. As we separate into our separate, all-encompassing tribal loyalties, we’re falling into three very dangerous and related self-reinforcing cycles:
1) the disappearing trust doom loop;
2) the disappearing electoral legitimacy doom loop; and
3) the growing inequality doom loop.

The disappearing trust doom loop

“Political trust,” Marc Hetherington and Thomas Rudolph note in their recent book Why Washington Won’t Work, “is critical because it helps create consensus in the mass public by providing a bridge between the governing party’s policy ideas and the opinions of those who usually support the other party.” Without some trust from the other side, it is almost impossible to govern in a 50-50 nation that requires supermajorities to pass legislation.

Years of bad faith and negative partisanship have convinced both elites and voters that the other side cannot possibly represent them and that, therefore, negotiation is impossible. These animosities are nurtured and honed in conflicting media narratives, with each side consuming only the information diet that puts them in the right, nodding at the commentators who say the other side is acting in an “un-Sierra Leonean” fashion.

Political gridlock follows. Institutions don’t function. Trust declines. Anger grows. Somebody needs to be blamed. That somebody is always on the other side. They cannot be trusted. They must be crushed.

The disappearing electoral legitimacy doom loop

Growing distrust feeds into another doom loop: the disappearing legitimacy loop.

Again, if the other side is bad and untrustworthy, extraordinary measures should be taken to secure an electoral victory. And when everybody we surround ourselves with agrees we are on the side of good, it is much easier to explain away defeat as the product of cheating and illegitimacy. And if the outcome is illegitimate, the procedures somehow need to be changed, the results need to be challenged, or both.

We are witnessing this again in 2023. Candidate Samura Kamara tossed off reckless allegations of a likely lack of transparency in processing cast votes in tally centers, and his party refused to preemptively accept the election results. The same was echoed by some International observers, like the Carter Center, for which Samura Kamara openly stated he helped source funds to pave the way for them to observe the elections, and The National Elections Watch (NEW). This brings to mind whether the recommendations of these observers and their locally supported organisation were really genuine with their election recommendations. (“I will keep you in suspense”).

This logic helps to explain what Richard Hansen calls The Voting Wars, the escalating attempts to shape voting rules and procedures to gain partisan advantage, the most controversial aspect of which has been the APC-led introduction of partnering with National Elections Watch and the Carter Center to source funds on their behalf to monitor the just concluded elections.

The APC has attempted to justify this action on the grounds of displaying how internationally connected their presidential flagship aspirant was. This fuels the perception of illegitimacy on both sides. If the APC was pronounced the winner by the ECSL in the just concluded elections, the SLPP would have said it was only because they cheated by making it harder for SLPP constituencies through the pressure of observers and their local financiers and when the SLPP was pronounced the winner in the just concluded elections, the APC and International Observers plus their local financiers are saying it’s only because they voted illegally and the whole tallying process wasn’t transparent.

We are awaiting evidence for the APC’s international and local election observers’ case. But in our hyper-partisan information world, perception fuels reality.

Hence my worry about a close election in 2028 and the constitutional crisis it could bring.

The growing inequality doom loop

Finally, it’s hard not to notice that inequality and polarisation have grown almost in tandem over the past fifteen years. As Sierra Leone’s society has become more unequal, it has become more polarised, and vice versa.

In their 2006 book, Polarised Democracy: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches, political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal posit that polarisation contributes to inequality because it increases gridlock, which makes it harder to adjust policy in redistributive ways.

That’s convincing as a partial explanation, but something else is probably happening here as well. Given that most people find it unthinkable to vote for the other party because of regional and tribal identities, that makes it easier for politicians to take the continued support of their rank and file for granted. They are then freed, SLPP and APC alike, to take cues from their donors in the top one percent.

But voters are not dumb. They can tell that they’re mostly getting short shrift, while a few people at the top are doing very well. And they resent it, even if they don’t see a way out of the predicament. This makes them angry at the political system. The more unequal the society, the less likely its citizens are to think that the country is governed democratically.

Perceptions of how democratically a country is governed and income equality before taxes and transfers

What Sierra Leone is and isn’t

To understand the implications of these intertwined trends, let’s dig into the factors that are powering this distrust and division: the two competing visions of what Sierra Leone is and isn’t, and the ethnic, cultural, educational, geographic, and partisan split driving these two visions.

This may be the most important schism of all: top APC stakeholders, once dominant in our country, realise they’re dominant no longer dominant. Now it competes almost equally with the multi-tribal, secular Sierra Leone.

It’s this moment of slippage that creates the most pressing threat. Prior to the 2023 election, Samura Kamara played directly to fears of diminishing other tribes’ prestige: today, if you’re not a Mende, you won’t get a job in Sierra Leone.

Or, in even more extreme language, here’s what one Samura Kamara supporter (Adebayor) told APC members and supporters: “The SLPP government of President Maada Bio is basically in a form of genocide. They’re trying to breed out the northern population.” “Genocide,” though, is not an issue where productive debate can lead to a moderate compromise.

When uninformed northerners are reminded that Sierra Leone is on the verge of becoming a majority-minority nation, they tend to become more conservative. Political science tells us, and that may explain the rise of orchestrated demonstrations that seriously threatened the security of the state.

It can be illuminating—and terrifying—to put personal resentment into the context of ethnic resentment in other nations. In a transnational study of ethnic violence, MIT political scientist Roger Petersen found that a major risk factor for ethnic violence was anger stemming from “the feeling of being politically dominated by a group that has no right to be in a superior position.” Typically, that occurs when an ethnic group that was formally subordinate achieves new status and power.

Considering the horrific ethnic violence that other nations have seen—in Rwanda, for example—it seems unlikely that Sierra Leone will literally break apart as it did before, despite the growing bull market for such predictions and the continued efforts for National Elections Watch to declare their promised complete data in the just concluded elections from the rest of what the country’s National Returning Officer has already declared.

A more plausible vision involves the slow dissolution of Sierra Leone. The national government grows ever more dysfunctional because of deep political divisions. A growing number of districts or regions descend into gridlock because of their own urban-rural splits. Meanwhile, a few one-party green and red states put in place ever-more radical political visions.

There are certain ways in which this dissolution could be relatively peaceful; if I’m feeling optimistic, I can imagine it diffusing some of our current political animosity. But the strength of the State House in our constitutional system creates room for such quasi-nationalism. And in those areas where green and red pockets co-exist, continued street violence like what we witnessed recently in some parts of the country is likely to continue. We can only hope it remains relatively low level.

Elites manipulate and stoke the tribal passions generated by modern partisanship.

Is there an alternative to the slow-motion descent and disintegration I’ve just described? If there is, we’ll have to confront the fact that our divisions are real and that there’s no “moving past identity politics” within a political system in which partisan conflict is organised around identity—tribal identity most definitely included.

One way to understand the deep-seated nature of identity is through the lens of economic anxiety.

The August 10, 2023 incident showed what a country breaking down along lines of partisanship and identity might look like. That phrase became something of a joke in 2007, with many people noticing that voters described as economically anxious had particular anxiety about red and green. But the two kinds of anxiety are deeply intertwined.

Despite Samura’s supporters’ supposed appeal to economic populism, repeated studies found no evidence in the data that individual-level economic immiseration drove voting patterns in the 2023 election. One explanation is that truly objective economic anxiety (as opposed to the subjective kind voters report any time the other party is in power) was affecting both the APC and the SLPP. Both APC voters and SLPP voters have economic troubles. But they have very different stories about who was responsible for their troubles. And those stories were caught up in ethnocultural and regional identities.

As political scientist Kathy Cramer notes in The Politics of Resentment, economic conditions are not raw, objective facts. Instead, “they are perceptions of who is getting what and who deserves it, and these notions are affected by perceptions of cultural and lifestyle differences.”

To be fair, it is not necessarily irrational for voters to think that what’s good for their group is also good for them individually. But this also makes it very easy for political leaders to manipulate voters’ perceptions that the allocation of resources is unfair. “My fear,” Cramer argues, “is that democracy will always tend toward a politics of resentment, in which savvy politicians figure out ways to amass coalitions by tapping into our deepest and most salient social divides: tribes, class, culture, and place.” It’s my fear, too.

If one is to analyse voters who cast a ballot for Samura Kamara in 2018 but for Bio in 2023 (the much-discussed “Samura-Bio” voters, who seem paradoxical on the surface), they were almost all economically liberal but conservative on social-identity issues. They shifted to Bio primarily because he spoke to their cultural and ethnic concerns.

Bio has pushed hard to keep identity politics at the top of the political agenda, stoking further cultural animosities. Indeed, he employed the same strategy when APC populists started getting uppity and talking about tribe and class interests.

That means that as long as Bio continues to maintain the right enemies, it may not matter how little he improves the material circumstances of his alleged “base.” Even if Bio voters may feel let down by the lack of resurgence in manufacturing jobs or their continued wage stagnation, many have reached a point where voting for Bio SLPP would be akin to voting for a Sierra Leonean that feels completely alien to them. As long as APC is seen as the party that promotes invectives at the national level and spreads violence, it will always be the un-Sierra Leonean party.

And APC also has an electorate that cares deeply about cultural and identity concerns—even more so now, given the Bio administration’s initial hostility to reaching out to the governed. Almost half of APC “Team A” voters are now people of different tribes in the north who welcome invectives and actions that will threaten national cohesion, and a solid majority of them are ignorant of what they’re doing. These are APC’s core constituent groups, and they are energised and empowered.

Witnessed what happened when right-minded APC members and supporters kicked against the support of invectives and actions that would lead to violence. Team A APC members quietly announced their willingness to support the use of invectives and actions that have the tendency to threaten the peace and security of the nation—a move that could be charitably interpreted as trying to shift the APC Party back towards big-tent actions and remove it from the older model of a lawless political party.

The APC Team A base hammered the group.

In short, neither party can escape identity politics because identity is more than ever the ideological glue that holds together both party coalitions. The corollary is that any argument about economic policy can never be just an argument about economic policy.

How do we unscramble this?

First, we have to understand the features of our current politics that are making this situation worse. Three conditions stand out:

– Our winner-take-all system of elections
– The expanding powers of the presidency and the national government generally
– The outsized importance of private money in politics

The winner-take-all system

Let’s begin with the single-winner plurality system of elections. This is the big one.

Unlike in other advanced democracies (most of which use various methods of proportional voting), the Sierra Leone elections are held through a series of separate elections, each held in a single-member constituency, in which the candidate with the most votes wins. Because there is only one winner, any vote for a third party is a “wasted vote.” This is the reason there are no third parties in Sierra Leone.

The deficiencies of a two-party system become glaring when the parties become as diametrically opposed as they are now. “A two-party democracy cannot provide stable and effective government unless there is a large measure of ideological consensus among its citizens,” writes the economist Anthony Downs in his widely cited classic An Economic Theory of Democracy.

The problem, as Downs explained, is that the country will swing from extreme to extreme, with each side antagonising the other until the middle drops out entirely. In contrast to the 1970s, the electoral system is now a faucet where the slightest change produces scalding and near-freezing water.

“When the distribution has become so split that one extreme is imposing by force policies abhorred by the other extreme,” Downs wrote, “open warfare breaks out, and a clique of underdogs seizes power.” Just as George Washington feared.

Expanding the party system to create space for centrist or other alternative parties would require a change in electoral rules to create space for proportional voting.

The Power of the Presidency

The high-stakes winner-take-all dynamic is made worse by concentrating so much power on a single unilateral actor—the president—who is asked to do something impossible: be the single tribune of a very divided nation. (A difference of over a million votes across the country, and the country swings wildly in a different direction: This is not a foundation for democratic stability.)

Some have observed that Bio is acting as if he only represents the diaspora and others who voted for him rather than the whole country. Of course, he is. When the country is divided, especially over fundamental questions of national identity, it’s impossible to govern from a nonexistent middle ground. Bio stays in power based on the support of a minority that also is most the majority.

This is precisely the danger of winner-take-all systems. All Bio needs is 55 percent support among SLPP (a narrow majority of the narrow majority); his poll numbers can stay in the low 30s, and he can, in theory, retain power. This is how he is governing, because this is how the system is set up for him to govern under a divided public. He will not move out of his comfort zone to win over any APC member, and he has no incentive to try except for those he understands are ready to help inflict victory pains on the Team A APC members. This is why the power of the presidency is so dangerous.

The Constitution deserves some blame for this situation, but a considerable amount of the expansion of executive power over the last several decades has happened because Parliament has ceded authority and oversight.

Changing this dynamic requires Parliament to reassert its authority, but Parliament, of course, is also shaped by the dynamics of two polarised parties.

Absent the structural revolution of a shift to multi-member districts or constituencies, a more modest change would be for both parties in Parliament to decentralise internally. Under current organisational structures, party leaders dictate and control policy in ways that punish any rogue members who want to try something that wouldn’t help the party win the next election—like working across the aisle.

That would require courageous votes from those entrepreneurial men of Parliament who would like to do much more freelance coalition building. But if they will defy their leaders and whips, it would reveal that parties have far more internal ideological diversity than partisan voting patterns show.

For members to act independently, however, Parliament would have to invest in more internal staff with policy expertise, and members have resisted such investments for a long time.

A shift toward localism, or nationalism, could help, too. If partisans on both sides felt more secure that they could live their values at home regardless of who is in power in State House, this could lighten some of the zero-sum nastiness and dysfunction of national politics. For those on the left who have long seen nationalism as code for the mistreatment of minorities, the resistance of constituencies to the APC’s more draconian anti-peaceful campaign policies should offer some reassurance.

The outsized importance of private money in politics

Finally, there is the outsized role of private money in politics. Again, because one-party majority dominance is always narrowly within reach, both parties have been in a decades-long fundraising arms race that has consumed their ability to govern.

In the campaign finance chase, both parties have profitably gained from catering to extremely wealthy individuals. In theory, the disconnect between voters’ wishes and donors’ priorities should create a problem for both parties, given that the parties’ economic policies are at odds with what most of their voters would prefer. But herein is the great advantage of the two-party system—for party leaders. By dialing up the cultural conflict, they can distract voters from the disconnect between elite preferences and the public good. If campaign finance reform can get politicians to refocus their attention on the economic needs of voters, not genuine donors, that will help in controlling polarisation.

To return to the nightmare scenario I began with, would Samura Kamara and other APC “Team A” members really continue to refuse to concede the 2023 election results? If so, would the general APC membership really stand by them? And if so, then what? Would the Courts step in? Would the security forces step in? Would APC be forcibly removed from the streets if they attempted any demonstration? If so, what would Samura Kamara and his supporters do in response? Would President Bio have to crack down on civil liberties in order to keep the peace? Would some deep APC constituencies then turn green?

These hypotheticals are meant mainly to clarify the stakes of our predicament. But given current trends, such a scenario is frighteningly in the realm of the plausible. The raw division, conflict, and mutual demonisation are there and are getting worse and worse. The events on the eve of the just-concluded 2023 general elections are just the latest manifestation. Where will things be after these elections? What happens if there’s a major economic recession and even more anger?

I honestly don’t know whether we’ll get to escape this mess without a constitutional crisis.

We need partisan conflict to organise politics. Without political parties, there is no meaningful democracy. But we are deep into a self-reinforcing cycle of doom-loop partisanship. We need to think hard about how to escape this trap before it is too late.

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