Elephant and mouse
Is it possible to be politically neutral in an authoritarian environment?
This question has ignited a furious debate on social media. On the one hand are those who do not believe it is possible to be neutral in an authoritarian environment. In their view, a proclamation of neutrality is, in fact, siding with and enabling the authoritarian regime. It is hard to imagine a valid claim of neutrality in the face of the Nazi or Apartheid regime.
No statement expresses this view better than the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu when he wrote, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Unsurprisingly, within the Zimbabwean political landscape, it is supporters of the MDC Alliance who do appreciate the position of self-proclaimed neutrals. They are the mice whose tail is under the foot of the elephant and they cannot understand how someone can claim neutrality in that situation. Their party is the principal target of the ZANU PF regime’s repressive politics. Naturally, they take a dim view of anyone who appears to give a moratorium to the ruling party.
Viewed through the lenses of aggrieved victims of repressive politics, a proclamation of neutrality sounds sinister because it appears to sanitize the repressor by driving a message that the repressor and the repressed are at par. As we shall see, this strategy of false equivalence tends to be used to dismiss the MDC Alliance’s claims to power.
On the other hand, some believe it is possible to be neutral even in such an environment. Their view is that being neutral does not mean one is partial to the authoritarian regime. It simply means, so they argue, that while they are critical of the authoritarian regime, they are not impressed by its opposition either. Those who hold this view take a dim view of the MDC Alliance supporters’ characterization of them as ZANU PF supporters and enablers of the regime.
The trouble with both streams of argument is that they are built on a binary foundation. The anti-neutrals see only two options: ZANU PF and the MDC Alliance. And instead of amplifying a distinct position that defies the binary frame, most of the pro-neutrals tend to accept the existence of the binary and only seek to push back by asserting their neutrality. They locate themselves as neutral in the political battle between the two giants of Zimbabwean politics. When they say they are neutral, they are generally responding to and accepting the binary instead of challenging it. To understand the limits of this binary framing, let us look at a logical fallacy called a false dilemma.
The Fallacy of a False Dilemma
Both the pro-neutrals and the anti-neutrals are basing their arguments on a “false dilemma. A false dilemma is a logical fallacy where a complex and multifaceted issue is framed as presenting only two options. But there may be more than two options. When an issue is framed as a contrast between black and white, it conceals the shades of grey that lie in between.
A classic example of a false dilemma is when someone says, “you are either with us or you are with them”. It demands that you choose between the two options as if they were the only ones available. But there may well be alternatives. The world and certainly politics is complex: no matter how strongly one might feel about an issue, others might have different feelings about it. They might agree with you that your opponent is a bad person. But they might not agree with the way that you conduct your life. Agreeing over the evilness of your enemy does not automatically translate as support for you.
The Cold War was framed as a false dilemma: there were two sides in a long war of attrition: the United States or the Soviet Union. But many countries did not wish to be corralled into this US-Soviet binary frame. Some came together and called themselves the Non-Aligned Movement. Another famous example of the “either/or” dilemma is President George W. Bush’s statement to Congress in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001. “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” he declared.
Framing an issue as binary is designed to get people otherwise standing in the middle ground to join your side as an ally. It is a moral call by those who regard themselves as victims that one cannot be neutral in the face of wrongs committed against them. However, it might also boomerang and produce the opposite effect. It might put off those who are genuinely undecided and unsure for whatever reason. This is because if it is relentless, it might come across as haranguing people to join your cause, a circumstance that might produce resistance.
What would be more useful is an examination of why some people make claims of neutrality when it seems more logical to pick a side. Are they neutral or do they merely choose to present an impression of neutrality and if so, why do they do that? To my mind, the issue is more complex than the binary frame. In this paper, I identify three categories of persons who might fall into the so-called neutrals group and I examine why they might make claims of neutrality. Such an approach is, in my opinion, a more desirable way of approaching what seems simple but is a complex matter because it involves the choices of millions of people.
The three categories are based on 3 hypotheses: the Genuine Neutrals Hypothesis; the Shy ZANU PF Supporter Hypothesis and the Fearful MDC Alliance Supporter Hypothesis. I refer to them as hypotheses because they are not empirically tested, so to that extent, they are not conclusive. A future task would be to test these hypotheses.
The Genuine Neutrals Hypothesis
The Genuine Neutrals Hypothesis assumes that there are people that are genuinely neutral in the narrow binary frame that limits the options to ZANU PF and the MDC Alliance. A variant of the hypothesis rejects the binary perspective whereby politics is framed as a zero-sum game between those two political parties. Instead, these “genuine neutrals” in that narrow sense assert their right to support other political parties beyond ZANU PF and the MDC Alliance. This is consistent with the notion of multi-party democracy, where both big and small parties are equal before the law and the rights of each person to make political choices and to associate with others are constitutionally recognized.
To take this further, neutrality may be framed on two grounds: It may either be issue-based or party-based. It is issue-based in that one may take a position in respect of specific issues such as human rights violations, corruption, incompetent governance, and repression. They might say, “We are not neutral when it comes to these issues. We disagree with and oppose the government which is committing these sins.” So, there is no neutrality there. Their position is clear as far as the issues are concerned.
However, as we have just observed, neutrality might be party-based where two political parties are presented as the only options. It does not mean they support the ruling party that is committing various sins, but it might be that they are not sufficiently persuaded by the alternative that is presented as the only option. Victims of those sins will not appreciate this neutrality. They are critics and opponents of ZANU PF, but they are not supporters of the MDC Alliance either. They might have their parties that they support or in the case of younger generations, they might have the same levels of political engagement that informs them about the historical misadventures of the regime.
I do not see the existence of this group as a slight toward the MDC Alliance, but as presenting both a challenge and an opportunity. It is a challenge because these are people that are yet to be persuaded by the opposition. They are fish that are still in the river. It may be useful to acknowledge that not everyone who finds ZANU PF disagreeable automatically finds the MDC Alliance agreeable. However, this challenge also presents an opportunity because these people might be regarded as undecided if we limit the debate to the binary frame that has ZANU PF and the MDC Alliance as the only two options. They are there for the taking. They are the reason for political campaigns – to persuade the unsure to your cause while mobilizing existing supporters to get out and vote. An opposition must ask serious questions of itself: Why are these people not supporting us in the face of so much injustice and suffering? What must we do to attract them to our side?
The danger is that these are the people who might be apathetic when it comes to elections. They simply do not bother to vote. An opposition party, far more than the ruling party, needs all these people to get out and register and to vote. The opposition should talk to, hear out, and not harangue or shame these people. Far from producing the desired outcomes, aggressive campaigns might alienate and repel them. But the business of a political party is to draw in people, not push them away. So, rather than say there can’t be neutrals, it might be better to ask, why are you neutral? What can we do to get you off the fence? The genuine neutrals or the undecided, as I prefer to call them, will reveal themselves by their constructive engagement.
The Shy ZANU PF Supporter Hypothesis
A popular view in opposition circles is that those who claim neutrality are ZANU PF supporters who are simply embarrassed to openly declare their support. We might call these the “shy ZANU PF supporters” to borrow terminology made popular during the Trump presidency in the US. Back in 2016, when Donald J. Trump defied the polls and won the presidential election, some argued that this surprising outcome could be explained by the phenomenon of “shy Trump voters”. It was argued that some people had been unwilling to identify publicly or to pollsters about their support for Trump. However, this Shy Trump Supporters hypothesis has been refuted by some scholars. When it was raised again before the 2020 elections to explain Trump’s poor showing in the polls, Michael Salfino argued that the so-called Trump “hidden voter” was not a real threat.
The Shy Voter Hypothesis assumes that some supporters of a political party are swayed by “social desirability bias” and therefore conceal their true political choice in favour of what appears socially acceptable. It is important to understand this phenomenon of “social desirability bias”. According to Timothy R. Graeff, in the Encyclopedia of Social Measurement (2005), “people naturally want others to view them favourably with respect to socially acceptable values, behaviours, beliefs, and opinions. Thus, answers to survey questions are often guided by what is perceived as being socially acceptable.” This leads a person to say not what they think but what they imagine is socially acceptable. If a doctor asks you if you do any exercises, most people might say they do because that is what they think is socially acceptable. People might understate the amount of alcohol they drink to levels they think are socially acceptable.
In the political context, ZANU PF is regarded as a bad political party that has caused misery and suffering among the people. The ZANU PF government killed thousands of people during Gukurahundi. It killed opposition supporters in previous elections, particularly in 2008. It has corrupt politicians whose ineptitude and kleptocratic behaviour have cost the country dearly. It cheats in elections, and it has undermined and compromised state institutions. There are so many vices associated with Zimbabwe’s ruling party that it is generally seen as socially undesirable to be associated with it. Yet this does not mean that every person abhors ZANU PF. Some support it for whatever reason. They might be beneficiaries of the ZANU PF rule, enablers of the regime. If they are not beneficiaries, they probably hope to be beneficiaries in the future. Or they simply despise ZANU PF’s major rival, again for whatever reason. The problem is that because of social desirability bias, they are too embarrassed to publicly associate with ZANU PF. They, therefore, find refuge under the veil of “neutrality”.
Therefore, perhaps the anti-neutrals are right that some of the so-called neutrals are not neutral at all. Certain tell-tale signs indicate this type of Shy ZANU PF Supporter: First, although they claim neutrality, the weight of their criticism is heavily tilted against the MDC Alliance. They hardly ever criticize ZANU PF even for the most glaring shortcomings. In such cases they often choose silence and in doing so, they give ZANU PF a moratorium. But when it’s the MDC Alliance, they suddenly find their voices.
Second, they tend to mimic and amplify ZANU PF’s language of attacking the opposition for allegedly “not loving their country” or sometimes “self-hate”. Additionally, the proclamation of neutrality is often deployed when criticism is directed at the MDC Alliance and one reason for this is to justify criticism. It is rarely deployed in the case of criticism of ZANU PF, but this is not surprising because they rarely criticize ZANU PF. They attract attention and suspicion because their “I’m neutral” qualification usually comes whenever they are criticizing the MDC Alliance. They may be shy to identify publicly with ZANU PF, but they are certainly bold and confident in their criticism of the MDC Alliance.
Finally, they are usually fond of advancing the fallacy of false equivalence with blanket conclusions such as that ZANU PF and the MDC Alliance are the same. It is false equivalence because it does not consider the nuances in comparing a party that has been in power for 41 years and another that has been in opposition and perennially thwarted for 22 years. False equivalence which is favoured by self-proclaimed neutrals is designed to give the impression that there is no difference, a sentiment that works to the advantage of the incumbent because one logical conclusion is: “If they are both the same, we might as well stay with the devil that we know”.
However, this analysis also highlights a serious challenge for the opposition. If the so-called neutrals are Shy ZANU PF Supporters, then opposition strategists ought to be concerned. They ought to be concerned because it suggests that public appearances do not reflect reality. The only place where the shy supporter can declare their true intentions is in the polling booth. There, their shyness is not a factor, because it’s a secret ballot. This raises the following questions: Could it be why some polling outcomes “surprise” people when they see a ZANU PF candidate winning a contest when all along the public shows before the election suggested otherwise? If it exists, how big is this group of shy ZANU PF supporters? If it is small, then perhaps the noise over it is wholly disproportionate. It would suggest that opposition supporters are giving the so-called neutrals unwarranted attention. They are making them relevant when they are insignificant in the greater scheme of things.
However, if the group of shy ZANU PF supporters is big, then the opposition has reason to be concerned. This would suggest that the threat of the shy ZANU PF supporter is real and significant.
The Fearful MDC Alliance Supporter Hypothesis
A third group that has not featured just as prominently in the debate is that of opposition supporters that nevertheless for whatever reason are uncomfortable with declaring their political allegiances. We might call them the Fearful MDC Alliance supporters and this, the Fearful MDC Supporter Hypothesis. This group is, in many ways, a contrast to the Shy ZANU PF supporters that we have just discussed. Whereas the Shy ZANU PF Supporter is driven by embarrassment to declare neutrality, the Fearful MDC Supporter is driven to the same position by fear. Thus, both will conceal their true political choices and declare neutrality, but for very different reasons.
If the Shy ZANU PF Supporter hypothesis is based on social desirability bias, the basis of the Fearful MDC Alliance Supporter hypothesis is self-preservation. Self-preservation is based on a cost-benefit analysis. A rational individual will weigh the costs and benefits of taking a position regarding a specific issue and he or she will make the choice that has the least amount of costs. A person operating in an authoritarian environment has few political choices: they can support or oppose the regime. Supporting the regime might yield several benefits, but conversely, opposing the regime results in many costs. Some people are prepared to grapple with these costs. But there are those whose circumstances mean they must take positions to contain the costs. If the costs of openly supporting the opposition are too high and unsustainable, they will rather take refuge under the neutral’s tent.
It is easy to dismiss the latter group and say it does not exist. But our society is complex and there are many sectors to which the hypothesis might apply. Take civil servants for example. There are several civil servants who support the opposition and despise the regime. But their job does not permit them to declare political allegiances. Even if they were permitted, it would be suicidal for them to declare support for the MDC Alliance. They might even claim to be ZANU PF supporters because of social desirability bias in their workplace: it is socially acceptable in the civil service workplace to be seen to be on the side of the ruling party and highly undesirable to be associated with the opposition. They, therefore, go along with the flow, but when it comes to the polling booth, they have no fear of making their political choices. To then harangue such a person because they have not openly declared their support for the opposition is to miss the nuances and complexities of our political space.
The same argument applies to members of the business community as discussed in last week’s BSR. The point is that among those so-called neutrals are people who may support the opposition but have legitimate reasons to fear making open declarations. Care must be taken not to alienate them by painting all so-called neutrals with a single brush that they are ZANU PF.
What does this mean for elections?
To appreciate the significance of these points regarding the SHY ZANU PF Supporter hypothesis and the Fearful MDC Alliance supporter hypothesis, let us consider the most recent statistics from the Afrobarometer Report regarding patterns of political support in Zimbabwe. The report reveals that when asked about their proximity to a political party, 52% of Zimbabweans said they either did not feel close to any political party or refused to answer the question. When asked who they would vote for in a presidential election if it were held the next day, a total of 41% refused to answer, saying they did not know or that they would not vote. These two figures represent people who did not give a specific choice and might therefore be regarded as undecided, non-committal, or “neutrals”. But as this analysis has demonstrated, there are various shades of grey in that neutrals’ box. The big question is: How many of these people are Shy ZANU PF supporters or Fearful MDC Alliance supporters?
This is an important question because pro-opposition commentators often argue that fear prevents citizens from openly stating their political choices. They argue that the majority in this group are likely to be fearful opposition supporters. I am sympathetic to this argument, which is based on the Fearful Opposition Supporter hypothesis. But if it is valid, it is surprising that opposition supporters seem to be hostile to those who do not declare their allegiances. Surely if the Fearful Opposition Supporter hypothesis has validity, and it is supported by their view that responses to surveys are coloured by fear, then one would expect opposition supporters to be more understanding, sympathetic, and accommodating instead of painting all neutrals with one brush.
However, although I am partial to the Fearful Opposition Supporter hypothesis, I am reluctant to completely dismiss the Shy ZANU PF Supporter hypothesis. If you are an opposition strategist, it is better to err on the side of caution and acknowledge that this phenomenon exists and that if it does, you need to devise strategies that overcome its potential influence in the elections. Some say the situation in an authoritarian regime is so self-evident that no one needs to be persuaded to support the democratic cause, and although that is attractive, it is a simplistic view of the complex human condition. People respond to various stimuli in different ways, and it is the same in politics. Things are not always self-evident. Politics is, after all, the art of persuasion.
The debate over so-called neutrals has been raging on social media for the past week. At first sight, the issue seems very simple framed as it is in the binary of “you are either with us or you are against us”. I have sought in this article to examine how this binary perspective does not quite capture the complexities and nuances of political opinion in our political space. It might be a popular tool that responds to the toxicity of the Shy ZANU PF supporter who wants to present an image of neutrality, but unless it is moderated and nuanced, it might also negatively affect otherwise sympathetic Fearful MDC Alliance supporters.
If the Shy ZANU PF Supporters’ hypothesis is valid, it means ZANU PF has more supporters than those who are prepared to publicly associate with it. This should be a concern for the opposition. If the Fearful MDC Alliance Supporters hypothesis is valid, it means the MDC Alliance has supporters among the so-called neutrals who are too fearful to associate publicly with it. This means the opposition must tread carefully to avoid alienating and reassure these silent allies.
The point is, not everyone who does not declare their political allegiances is an enemy. Some are genuine allies whose circumstances do not permit them to make open declarations. Finally, hard as this might be to fathom, some may be genuine neutrals who support neither ZANU PF nor the MDC Alliance. Their position might sound irrational to victims of repression, but it is important to recognize that they exist, and they might have other preferences. As I said in this article, this group presents both a challenge and an opportunity to the opposition and strategists should be asking: how can we convert these skeptics into supporters?
 Alexander Coppock, Did Shy Trump Supporters Bias the 2016 Polls? Evidence from a Nationally-representative List Experiment Statistics, Politics and Policy https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/spp-2016-0005/html
 Michael Salfino 2020 polls: The Trump ‘hidden voter’ isn’t a real threat this election – here’s why 26 October 2020 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-election-2020/2020-polls-trump-hidden-voters-us-election-b1351300.html