Voter Shaming is a Political Dead End. A New Civic Vision is Needed.
We are halfway through the first month of 2020 and I am still reeling from the fallout over rapper Rabbit’s unremarkable yet provocatively titled political rant, Wajinga Nyinyi (You Fools.)
I say unremarkable because it was just but a rehash of the usual criticisms of Kenya’s ruling and voter classes. The video, predictably, elicited strong reactions from both classes it slimed. Some members of the ruling class were true to their brand and feigned vexation.
Kirinyaga Governor, Ann Waiguru, for instance, threatened to sue the rapper for defamation but later walked back the threat. Perhaps, someone in her team alerted her that, one, you need to have a reputation to be defamed and, two, lack of credibility is a political currency and the more unscrupulous you are or appear to be, the greater your standing in society.
To the voter class, especially on social media, the video provided yet another excuse to mud-sling each other for supposed political ineptitude. This has been a running theme in our contemporary political discourse, especially as Uhuru-nomics has begun to falter.
The discussion, among the voter class, took at least two forms, both fuelled ostensibly by frustrations with our current political dispensation and its custodians, our ruling class.
One was shaming the voters for their electoral decisions, which, as the wisdom goes, should then preclude them from complaining because they deserve everything they are getting, politically speaking. Or should at least invite ridicule upon them. The other was whether voters should be allowed to change their minds.
Voter shaming as political discourse is not uniquely Kenyan.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory, many in the US liberal commentariat and the socially liberal wing of the Republican Party pejoratively referred to as Never Trumper, argued for the utility of shaming those who voted for Trump as an opposition strategy to the supposed excesses of his flawed character and of his administration’s.
As columnist Jessica Valenti put it in The Guardian: “There is nothing wrong with being made to feel ashamed for doing something shameful..” because, “you don’t get to play the victim when people unfriend you on Facebook, as if being disliked for supporting a bigot is somehow worse than the suffering that marginalised people will endure under Trump.”
I empathise with the sentiments. I am equally frustrated with our political institutions. I should be. Uhuru Kenyatta and the geniuses in his government have failed to revitalise the economy and we are staring at a full-blown economic crisis.
The ballooning debt has so far failed to translate into tangible economic gains for many Kenyans. Many argue that Uhuru Kenyatta’s unremarkable record in his first term should have been a reason enough to not hand him a second term. Yet his electoral constituency often derided as kumira kumira handed him another five years.
This they did in the absence of any indicators that his government could do any better than it did in the first term and in the face of glaring signs that he and his team did not have a clue about how to tackle the persistent socio-economic challenges facing the country, mostly structural.
It’s understandable why a section of the voter class, especially Nairobi’s educated working and middle classes, would find it appropriate, if not a virtuous civic endeavour, not only to disagree with kumira kumira’s political beliefs, to the extent that their voting is informed by actual beliefs but to shame and ridicule them for voting the way they did in 2017.
It is normal to get frustrated by the futility of electoral politics. But how effective is shaming of disaffected citizenry in raising their political consciousness?
I have my doubts. In fact, there is a considerable amount of literature that suggests that shame is hardly a viable tool for behaviour change, either at an individual or group level.
In their 2007 study of how shame and guilt influence behaviour, researchers June P Tangney, Jeff Stuewig and Debra J Mashek found that unlike guilt, which focuses on specific acts of wrongdoing, shame provokes a negative self-evaluation of one’s own personhood.
This, they posited, can lead to internalised feelings of worthlessness and powerlessness thereby inhibiting one’s capacity to reflect and learn from bad behaviour.
Whereas guilt, as an adaptive emotion, allows for reparative actions such as apologies and undoing the impact of one’s bad behaviour, shame can trigger anger, aggression and self-exile thereby disrupting one’s ability to form empathetic bonds with others.
It is this element of shame that makes lashing out and scapegoating possible; and leads to radicalisation of political actors.
This pattern of behaviour can be seen in a section of political leaders and voters who form Uhuru Kenyatta’s core constituency. Uhuru’s failures as a leader are thus seen as a price worth paying if it means maintaining the supremacy of Uthamaki at the expense of the common good.
Certainly, voters should reckon with the outcomes of their electoral choices. It is a marker of good civic citizenship in my estimation, not least because voters owe it to themselves to take stock of the performance of the leaders they elect and hold them accountable for when they fail to deliver.
So, yes, in a democracy, voters can and should change their minds for when their political beliefs or support for certain political figures become incongruent with their material and/or incorporeal interests.
This was the reason I baulked at the veneration of rapper Rabbit as if he were some kind of truth-teller.
I was equally troubled by the snarky resentment that disguised the derision by Nairobi’s educated middle and the affluent professional classes towards the supposedly less politically astute voters existing on the margins such as the city’s ghettos, other less cosmopolitan urban centres and the rural areas.
If there is one thing the ruling class loves more than anything else, it is the spectre of disenchanted voters bickering amongst themselves over who voted for the wrong crook.
They love it because it lets them off the hook by providing cover for their parasitic self-dealing.
While the politics of voter shaming is cathartic, it causes those who indulge in it to misattribute the outcomes of elections by placing undue emphasis on perceived miseducation of the voter and the venality of leaders. Worst of all, it forecloses examination into the impersonal social and cultural structures that underpin our politics.
Many of the urban middle and upper professional classes have come to see themselves as having transcended ethnicity, socially and politically. Indeed, this myth of post-ethnic politics has found validation among some scholars.
In the 2018 book Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics, Nanjala Nyabola observed that Kenyans have turned the Internet, and social media specifically, into a buoyant, freewheeling place, where concerns and interests form the basis for interactions thereby redefining the notions of identities.
She writes: “By permitting unmoderated public interactions, social media is urging at least its core users to reconsider entrenched biases, as well as allowing those who question the utility of these social constructions (such as ethnic identity) to find each other.”
While these interest-based engagements have proved useful in some ways such as fundraisers and protest organizing, they have yet to successfully translate into electoral mobilization that is disentangled from ethnicity giving rise to a popular meme “kwa ground vitu ni different.”
This online-offline disconnect is easy to explain. First, we tend to only post online that which we think is favourable to us. Anything that carries the risk of ostracisation is best left in our hearts and minds.
Nobody has to know how you truly feel about a particular issue. I am reminded of an interesting trend in 2013 when my Twitter and Facebook timelines were flooded with people claiming to have voted for Martha Karua or Peter Kenneth. It was a strange thing to declare publicly without solicitation. But thank goodness we get to cast our votes in secret.
Second, the rural-urban divide. It is never mentioned enough in our political analysis, but the majority of Kenya’s population is still rural. Only 27 per cent live in urban centres and cities. And, it is only Nairobi and Mombasa that can be said to have demographic distributions where there is not a single ethnicity making up a majority of the population.
Kisumu, despite being classified as a city, is still overwhelmingly Luo. The same can be said of most urban centres in Kenya, Thika, Nyeri, Kisii, and my home town, Homa Bay.
So, while the internet has sort of broken the geographical boundaries and brought us closer to one another and has at times made some issues enjoy viral moments, offline, when the smartphone runs out charge or when we step out of the house, we are completely different people, alienated from each other by time and space, with different social and political needs, expectations and concerns.
Sure, there are some universal material concerns like unemployment, insecurity, high cost of living and such, but even these universal concerns are understood and experienced differently, depending on which part of the country one is situated.
Rather than continuing this path of self-flagellation about the failures of our degenerate ruling class and begrudging those we perceive as voting against our interests, I think it is time we imagined new ways and means of civic engagement.
To do that, we must first disabuse ourselves of the notion that competent, responsive and people-centric political leadership can magically emerge just by shaming individual badness without considering the deep-rooted socio-cultural forces at play.
If the voters are getting swayed by ethnic demagogues, the onus is on us to figure out how to change that relationship. That is impossible to do with mockery and scorn.