The Death of Moral Centrality: “Trading Places” Comes Alive

Published on 13th February 2018

Most readers in their forties and above will remember the blockbuster movie by Eddie Murphy “Trading Places,” 1983. Set against two purported United States cultures, the black and white racial denomination to lifestyle. The dollar bet of heredity versus environment between two New York bourgeois, the Duke Brothers was that, blacks cannot make anything out of life if given the opportunity. It worked against Randolph, the black Character played by Eddie Murphy demonstrated capacity and capability against all odds and succeeded. The former rich white boy could not lift himself off the bottom of the social ladder where he was sentenced to have a taste of what it felt to be disenfranchised in society with all privileges withdrawn. Switching the entire process for the black and white characters back to normalcy became a problem of ideal and morality.  

Fast forward to American political movie in 2018 as the countdown to a Trump presidency continues to unveil decisive bets on policies. It appears that both the Republican and the Democratic parties adhere to a “Trading Places” bet on national issues; by taking turns on policy shifts on issues of life, irrespective of the intricacies to party ideals and social morality. Is the world drifting into an abyss without moral centrality on basic issues of life where politics defines and decides the direction of morality by delimiting social ideals?

The Argument for Identity Politics

The United States of America continues in the denial of identity politics with all the evidences present in full view of the rest of the world.  In her incisive book “White Trash: The 400-year untold story of class in America,” Nancy Isenberg reveals identity issues and class struggles amongst various racial groups in the United States with concentration on the white race. The crux of class revolution, strategies to infusing identity politics, and the individual realities is brought to bear in her analysis of the United States politics. As she differentiates Voter behavior from that of elected leaders which she described as “real democracy and democracy of manners” respectively.

Basically, the United States party politics is tribal (party identity) by nature. Shifts occur in correctness for voters by following through with party identity rather than the principles and ideals which made them party members in the first place. So, ideology and principles go out of the window once party affiliation is needed to drive process and policy even at the cost of voters and party members’ social ideals. This brings to bear huge social arrangement shifts in moral judgement making voters more loyal to membership of political party than issues.

In Africa, it’s difficult to generalize voter behaviors and those of elected leaders with the same underlying criteria’s as in the United States. The nature of identity politics in Nigeria is subterranean, and between the native elitists’ oligarchs and the poor voters who follow the lead of elected leaders. It’s a matrix of interests and profits, rather than ideals or principles; underlying interests and profits direct and define the political ideals along the appropriation of social groupings initiated by personalities originating mostly from recyclable leaders of previously elected stock. In South Africa where the political parties were set in ideals for a struggle at the outset, it’s evident that the morality of the ideal is now falling apart amidst new social shifts. As the previously held principal reason for the struggle has been overcome; not having any newer and stronger ideal from which to grow, the African National Party (ANC) is in shambles trying to redefine her ideals for relevance while elected leaders sway poor voters with all tactics to remain loyal to the party on issues against the moral dictates of ideals and principles. This mirrors the US party politics ideal but with a different coloration. 

Many other African states resonate their political realities and preferences between the Nigerian and South African delimitations of identity politics; trading places between “real democracy” and “democracy of manners” in the United States style which represent tacitly voter realities and the nature of identity politics of elected leaders. This is an uncertain developmental phenomenon in politics and a social arrangement which is gaining prominence in trading the centrality of morality once inherent to political ideals for a shabby reality of possibilities amongst political party tribalists whose loyalty remains amoral to ideals.

The death of moral centrality

It is dodgy not to be firm, certain, and clear standing in one political position based on ideals. For over two centuries the United States has come to be known for political ideals which defend the rights of humanity through an electoral process with all her internal racial weaknesses. When Democrats are at the helm of power, you know what to expect and when it is republicans, one is certain of policy outcomes. This is not so anymore. The disconnect between the electorates’ voter realities and elected leaders after election accounts largely for the lack of ideal; when elected leaders take a political posture over morality when in center stage as the leading political party at the helm of the presidency. An argument for or against on issues serves the purposes of interest as the trading places phenomenon on issues is not dependent on whose interest is served but the backdrop of the political party at the helm of affairs, whose interests define morality on the issue. Credence comes from party-tribalism behaviors and not an ideal for which the party was once known.

One can only begin to contextualize the rest of Africa starting from Nigeria with similar phenomenon. Politics seems to have consolidated the trading places approach to social arrangements. The trading places phenomenon between moral centrality to policies (heredity) and party tribalism (environment) is gaining prominence in its lucid adaptation in the politics of nationalism. This is against the backdrop of massive voter dissatisfactions from the middle class with strong representative ideals of real democracy and the democracy of manners of elected leaders who have mastered the use of political gaslighting to appease lower income voters in creating a false sense of hope for nationalism and its future.


Essentially, bringing moral centrality to bear on any issue is a subjective task. There are weaker grounds in modern politics of nationalism for moral centrality to any issue of politician relevance. This is a dangerous place to be for humanity. Anything could be argued for or against as it all depends on new constructs for socio-political reasoning which discounts the absolute terms of references for moral centrality. Depending on your political-tribe, you can be Republican peddling a Democrats’ argument on issues or Democrat peddling a Republican argument on issues. You could be PDP in Nigeria and cross carpet into APC to retain political position and switch back and forth as many times as necessary to retain your political position while redefining exactly the same issues of national relevance or switching your views as well. The sandwich nature of ANC’s widening and inclusive tribalism will ultimately transform her into a party of many tribes to maintain a winning position; an irony of the country’s rainbow styled nationalism. The bottom line of the trading places phenomenon is that the social ideals remain subservient to the dictates of tribal party politics on any issue. So, wherein lies correctness, appropriateness and the subject of absolute morality central to public issues? 

It is not uncommon to see proponents of nationalism answer this by always trading places between social ideals and tribal politics. The tribal politics of gay rights, abortion rights, human breeding, welfare, racial inclusion and empowerment, etc are amongst a few social issues with social ideals which tribal politics redefines in a for or against proposition in expressing elected leaders democracy of manners. This ominously keeps the debate endless and electorate confused perpetually.

By Tony Alabi

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