African parties are more ideological than you think

Political party discussions in Tanzania/CREDIT: Photos courtesy of Chadema
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A consensus has long held in a corner of political science that as African politicians speak, they make valence appeals. Valence appeals are defined in contrast to programmatic or positional appeals, in which politicians appeal for popular support by taking positions on what policies ought to be (‘I, like you, esteemed citizens, believe in policy X’). Valence appeals are made about issues on which there is, or there is constructed to be, widespread agreement: democracy, development, anti-corruption, for example. They are appeals for popular support made by contesting who is best able to deliver those valence issues (‘I, more than my opponents, can be trusted on issue X’). The judgement that positional appeals are scarce but valence appeals are plentiful can be found in successive studies recently published by Oxford and Cambridge University presses.

We are writing to break that consensus, as we do in recently published and forthcoming research. It is not that positional appeals have been misread as valence ones, although as we argue elsewhere, they sometimes have. It is that as politicians make these appeals, they do not only contest who is best able to deliver on those issues; they reimagine them. Their political speech amounts to much more than ‘I am better than them’ claims. It amounts to the formulation of fully-fledged and often original ideologies, ideologies which that past research misses almost entirely.

First, research on valence appeals in African politics deserves to be put on context. This research was part of a sea-change in how African electoral politics was understood. In the dawn of the new millennium, preoccupied by concerns about the viability of democracy, research saw three principal themes in African electoral politics: ethnicity, clientelism and violence. Research on valence politics, which began in studies of voter behaviour and then turned to political speech, upended that view. Political discourse did not always and everywhere revolve around ethnicity or clientelism, it found, but government performance and service delivery: glossed under the banner of ‘programmatic politics.’ While politicians might not be taking policy positions immediately recognisable as leftwing or rightwing, or liberal or conservative, they were nevertheless speaking about public policy, focusing on issues around which there was widespread agreement.

Despite all the progress it made, this research folded-in two conceptual mistakes. First, the spectrum of ideologies to which these policies were compared was Western-centric, focussing on an assumed naturalness to left-right debates. Researchers were evidently interested in unearthing possible alternative ideologies, but the detailed research to make them visible and legible had not yet been undertaken. Second, ideological speech was treated as equivalent to positional appeals-making. This betrayed fundamental misunderstandings of the ideological. Ideologies are not merely policy programmes which take some positions and oppose others. They are configurations of claims and concepts which fix meanings. They not only contest what should be done about issues, but what those issues are. They assert entire political imaginaries.

What past research has missed is that the making and the reception of valence appeals need not only be some halfway house between the clientelistic and the programmatic (on implosion of the boundary between which, see Portia Roelofs, Sa’eed Husaini, and Nic Cheeseman, Gabrielle Lynch and Justin Willis). In contesting who could best deliver on some issue, politicians, and indeed activists and citizens aplenty, one could simultaneously  be articulating some wider such imaginary. Advocacy of road-building can be couched in the articulation of a wider ideology of developmentalism, for example. This is not reducible to the reframing of one issue as another discussed in the valence literature (for instance, rival politicians may reframe road-building not as an issue of development but of unleashing markets). Instead, it is to articulate rich and meaning-fixing ideologies, ideologies which are encoded in everyday political speech, and ideologies which, in the ascription of valence appeals, have gone overlooked.

The ensuing oversights have been more complete in some places and less in others. In studies of nationalisms, especially liberation and anti-imperialist nationalisms, for example, these conceptual mistakes have little-clouded the vision of research. They have seen how these ideologies were articulated in what might otherwise have been read as the making of valence appeals about ‘sovereignty’ and ‘natural resource’ issues.

However, in the study of ‘democracy and constitutionalism’ issues, those oversights have formed a veritable blind-spot. As we suggest elsewhere, this is in part because those oversights are compounded by another. Democracy, or at least liberal democracy is often treated, especially, incredibly, in political science, as a set of ideas the form of which is fixed. One might be for or against them, but there is little space to contest what they are. Republican visions of democracy, feminist visions of democracy, generationally inflected ones and others besides are written out of the picture. It has been hard to see any but the most mundane ideological work, therefore, in claims that one will delivery on democracy better than another.

Yet, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Even putting aside competing versions of what institutional form democracy should take, there are innumerable theories of democracy, and as Michael Freeden elucidates, political theory is always, simultaneously, ideology; not only normative arguments, but fixations of meaning. One might be particularly likely to find such ideological work taking place in authoritarian regimes, where democratic theory is being repurposed and reimagined. The making of democracy valence appeals can be laden with ideological content. If one wishes to see evidence of such ideology-making, look no further than  contemporary Tanzania and Zimbabwe, or south-west Nigeria. Our suspicion is that if ascriptions of valence appeals have covered up ideological articulation in Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Nigeria, perhaps they have in the many other places which they been thus applied. Other recent works in other countries suggests similar conclusions.

Recognising the diversity of ideas articulated in Africa today is important, given the ways that the Western-centric disciplines of politics and political science have often cast African politics as primitive, deficient or sub-standard. Analytic frameworks are part of our methodological toolkit in the sense that they shape how we look at the world and thus what we see. If these frameworks are skewed then some of the shallowness we perceive may be ‘methodologically generated’, with much of the more interesting political contestation in African political discourse, and thus complexity and sophistication of these debates, remaining hidden from scholarly analysis. Quoting from Mahmood Mamdani, George Bob-Milliar argues that ‘if we are to treat every experience with intellectual dignity, then we must treat it as the basis for theorization.’ Seeing ideas in African politics on their own terms is essential to overcome what Franklin Obeng-Odoom describes as the ‘inferiorization of the knowledge of the South.’ It’s time to reinterpret so-called ‘valence appeals.’

Dan Paget ( is a lecturer at the University of Sussex who works on political communication and the ideological contestation of democracy.

Dr Portia Roelofs (@whowhywherewhen) is a Lecturer in Politics in the Department of Political Economy, King’s College London.

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