We are now watching the sad and dangerous circumstances of the United States and South Africa, as both societies wrestle with the spectre of chief executives who have gone seriously off their respective plots. But, beyond the behaviour of two often-out-of-control, rogue presidents, we must also look to the behaviour and responsibilities of the two nations’ respective national legislatures to find the way forward.
In South Africa, the political system is roiled by a debate over the possibility of a no-confidence vote on the right of an incumbent president to remain in office. This is a president who stands accused of having been both captain and willing accomplice for a massive, and ongoing, campaign of public looting and “state capture” that has thoroughly warped the nation’s political life.
And, now, of course, a key part of the debate has increasingly become whether such a no-confidence vote should be public and open, or whether it should take place in the National Assembly, but only in secret. The public vote position comports to the governing party’s need to control its MPs, while the secret ballot implies that left to their own devices, some members of the ANC would elect to join the opposition. Left open, so far, is what steps, precisely, Parliament must then carry out if such a vote takes place and Parliament finds it has no confidence in the incumbent president.
Over in America, meanwhile, the debate has increasingly become about just how aggressively the US Congress and its various committees – both in the House and the Senate – must pursue any misdeeds by the Trump administration working in the White House, during Trump’s presidential campaign, or regarding Russian efforts to traduce the validity of the 2016 election. For Donald Trump, the accusations are fast piling up that he is intellectually, temperamentally and experientially unsuited to be president; that he is carrying out decisions indirectly aimed at self-enrichment, and that his decision-making (and those of his closest associates) is deeply damaging to the national welfare.
Of course, if such misdeeds are documented, the question becomes one of how Congress would then embrace its responsibility to follow through on the measures prescribed in the Constitution towards removing a chief executive; or, demanding appropriate punishments via the judicial system, or passing legislation needed to deal with such affronts to the political system of the nation. And lurking in such questions is how quickly and thoroughly they would need to do so.
So far at least, there is enormous interest in the acts of the two presidents under discussion (and of their aides, advisers, and miscellaneous hangers-on and enablers). But there is rather less public discussion in either nation on the core responsibilities of legislators in carrying out their duties in dealing with these questions.
In South Africa, so far, the debate – and the current court challenge to the Speaker of the House – has focused on the issue of whether or not parliamentarians must be instructed to vote openly, rather than to have the right of a secret ballot – a debate that has been cast along party lines. And, so far at least, Parliament’s members appear willing to allow the Constitutional Court to define their duties for them in this instance.
In America, meanwhile, the role of Congress and its members also still seems to be largely split along party lines, although there are some cracks now appearing among the Republican ranks. But, on the whole, so far, most Republicans appear reluctant to embolden publicly the various committees to carry out an aggressive, far-reaching, and thorough as possible examination of the troubling questions about the Trump campaign, his presidency, and the conduct of the Russians during the election. Meanwhile, the Congress has allowed the prime focus of the examination of alleged misdeeds to move to an FBI special counsellor, rather than in Congress.
Is there a common thread in these ongoing crises? Yes, I think there is, aside from the obvious questions pertaining to law breaking or a deeper perversion of the respective nations’ political systems. This, of course, is the question of the fundamental, core task of legislators, especially in troubled times or over controversial, vexed issues, and how they will exercise it.
To get some perspective, it is time for a sojourn into the history of political theory. British MP and political philosopher Edmund Burke was the first to really explore this question, most notably in a short but finely tuned statement, his “Speech to the Electors of Bristol at the Conclusion of the Poll” delivered on 3 November 1774. Burke is now usually seen as the father of modern political conservatism, although in his political life he supported the American Revolution and, while eventually decrying the excesses of the French one, he strongly opposed religious intolerance or political persecution on religious grounds. His short speech in Bristol, England has become one of the most influential statements in political theory in navigating the complexities of how and what, exactly, elected representatives are expected to do as representatives – and why it matters.
As Burke said,
“…It ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living…. [But] Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” [Italics added]
“…My worthy colleague says, his will ought to be subservient to yours. If that be all, the thing is innocent. If government were a matter of will upon any side, yours, without question, ought to be superior. But government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?
“To deliver an opinion, is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always most seriously to consider. But authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgement and conscience – these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution.
“Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament. If the local constituent should have an interest, or should form an hasty opinion, evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the community, the member for that place ought to be as far, as any other, from any endeavour to give it effect.”
In effect, Burke argued that legislators – whether they were British MPs, South African ones, American senators and congressmen, Japanese Diet members, Indonesians elected to the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat, or French delegates in their National Assembly, all representatives globally – have a duty to consider carefully the ideas and views of their constituents, and even (by inference) their party. But in the ultimate analysis, their job is to do what is best for the nation, regardless of the desires of constituents, parties, personal self-interest, or the parochial interest of their part of the country.
In fact, the core duty of representatives is that they must do this, even if it means their career as an elected representative is threatened in the next election by voters – or by party bigwigs. The easy votes don’t matter all that much, perhaps; but, when the whole game really is on the line, that is when those other more partisan and parochial interests and claims upon representatives’ loyalties must go out the window — and national reputation and interest become paramount instead.
In that sense, it doesn’t really matter whether or not South African parliamentarians have the absolute right to a secret ballot, or if they must make their choice out in the open, as long as they understand that their real duty lies in voting for the national interest anyway. And in any case, should they exercise that duty, does anyone really believe the governing party’s whips would not figure out who voted for a no-confidence motion anyway, if, say, a few dozen of their members voted secretly for the motion, despite direct orders from party headquarters to vote against it? It is the job of a parliamentary whip, after all, to know the “druthers” of the members they must shepherd forward. Okay then, they might be punished for their heretical choice against that narrow party interest, but they would have the satisfaction of having fulfilled a larger national duty.
As for the Americans, the time may well be fast approaching when all members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, both, will be forced to make some hard choices as well. Will they stand with a man like Donald Trump, no matter what, or will they decide that their own committees must be emboldened and supported fully to investigate and reach unassailable conclusions that no voter could reasonably dispute?
Many years ago, I met former Congressman Brooks Hays. He may not be so well remembered any more, perhaps save for civil rights historians, but he was a congressman from Arkansas, a southern state whose white voters (largely the only ones allowed to vote back in 1956) were strongly supportive of racial segregation and their governor, Orval Faubus. Faubus had been the man who had deeply opposed the desegregation of Central High School in the state capital of Little Rock and his obdurateness eventually led to President Eisenhower’s decision to federalise the state’s National Guard to enforce court orders to integrate the school in the midst of growing unpleasantness and public violence.
Hays was a deeply religious man and a southern moderate on racial matters in a very fraught time. In the midst of that crisis, he had attempted to negotiate a way forward between governor and president that would integrate the school, prevent public violence, and preserve the rule of law in Arkansas. Sadly, his intervention came to naught as things spiralled out of control in Arkansas until the newly federalised troops imposed a sullen order on the city.
In the next election, voters took their revenge on Hays and turfed him out of office. He eventually built a new career as the lay head of a major national church body, became an adviser to President Kennedy, and taught in various universities. I once met him at a university lecture, a decade after his embrace of national duty (and real courage) over political expediency. Despite the collapse of his elected political career, he expressed no regrets for wrestles with the evils of racial segregation.
Now, move forward to 1974. When Richard Nixon was confronted with the reality that the House of Representatives was about to vote on a bill of impeachment after a bipartisan vote to move forward on this measure had been taken in the House Judiciary Committee, three Republican senators – Barry Goldwater, Robert Dole and Howard Baker – visited him. Their task was to tell him the Republicans in the Senate would not support him. They would go with national interest over more narrow party loyalty.
Those were consequential moments as legislators rose to the challenge of moving beyond a parochial party interest – and the chances of political pain for themselves. And so, too, it may come soon, or it may come later, but if and when it does, it will be just as important that legislators in South Africa and America embrace that Burkean principle, rather than retreat back to self-interest, local interests, or narrow partisan politics. It will be, for the respective legislators, as the head coaches of sports teams like to say in a crucial game, “your time”. DM
Photo: (Left) A student wears a T-Shirt with the defaced image of president Jacob Zuma over his head during a student protest over fees to parliament on the occasion of South African Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan presenting his Medium Term Budget Policy speech to Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, 26 October 2016. EPA/NIC BOTHMA (Right) An actor portraying US President Donald J. Trump calls on the President to release his tax returns outside the Trump Hotel in Washington, DC, USA, 15 April 2017. EPA/JIM LO SCALZO
"Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth" ~ Aristotle