The Loyal Opposition, Democracy & McConnell

A long time acquaintance, hoping for Republicans to retain control of the Senate, said that for the nation to move forward, it is best to have at least one house of Congress controlled by the party not represented in the White House. I agreed, provided the other party is the loyal opposition, something we have not seen under Mitch McConnell. Well, said he, that’s the kind of quibbling that perpetuates divisiveness and hatefulness, after all, no one has clean hands. No, said I, McConnell’s unprecedented obstruction has no equivalence on the other side. You can see where this was destined to go. The question about loyal opposition got diverted to a quibbling argument over quibbling.

My friend had a point. Democracies require a loyal opposition if they are to remain healthy, but what is a loyal opposition? Some quick research revealed the first use of the term in 1826 in the British parliament to describe the minority party as “His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.” It meant that however much the minority party might object to the majority’s policies, they would remain loyal to the British Constitution and monarch. They could not be accused of treason. That’s not a trivial claim. In previous centuries, the emerging British democracy had often resorted to charges of treason when faced with political opposition, charges backed up by the stake or gallows. Since then, the idea, and ideal, of a loyal opposition has become an essential element of thriving democracies, including our own.

A Wikipedia article cited a Stanford University speech by Michael Ignatieff, a former leader of the loyal opposition in the Canadian House of Commons: “The opposition performs an adversarial function critical to democracy itself… Governments have no right to question the loyalty of those who oppose them. Adversaries remain citizens of the same state, common subjects of the same sovereign, servants of the same law.”

Embedded in the principle of loyal opposition is the assumption that loyalty to the Constitution as servants of the same law implies something more constructive than simple obstruction. In Westminster style parliaments, the opposition has little power to obstruct, but tremendous opportunity to influence the public debate through intense interrogation and a bully pulpit of their own. Our republican style democracy, on the other hand, gives the opposition less opportunity to influence the public debate, but more tools to delay and derail, and those tools have sometimes been used to grind the business of government to a proverbial snail’s pace, and obstruct completely work that persons of good faith would otherwise agree on, if negotiating in good faith was encouraged.

Negotiating in good faith has not been encouraged by libertarian wings of the GOP since 2007. Mitch McConnell is no libertarian, but they provided him with what he needed to exercise a blatant and successful power grab branded by extreme obstructionism. It began in 2010 when he declared his intension to make Obama a one term president. Under no circumstance would Republicans negotiate in any way that might give Obama a legislative victory working in his favor. It mattered not what might be good for the nation, it only mattered that the President not win, or even eke out a negotiated agreement. It’s an extreme form of The Prisoner’s Dilemma played out in real life with betrayal as the opening gambit. Making it worse, it involved decisions that affected the health and well being of the entire nation. It’s a cruel, vindictive, morally corrupt gambit. Its only purpose is to seize political power by emasculating the opposition without regard for the good of the people. He used all the tools at his disposal as minority leader, and even more as majority leader when he refused to consider routine appointments to fill federal judgeships, including Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court. He’s continued the same tactic during Trump’s administration, this time to throw a defensive shield around an impeached incumbent, while preventing needed economic and health care reforms. We may never know what motivations lie behind it, but the vitriol with which it drips suggests something deeply personal.

It is not the model of loyal opposition our democracy needs to remain healthy. Would the Democrats do the same if they roles were reversed? I doubt it. They never have, and it’s not the style of their current leaders, but it’s also not the point. The point is, McConnell has done what he’s done. No one else has. It is he, and not someone else, we have to contend with. So what’s to be done?

The Magic Eight Ball says conditions are not favorable. Tea party libertarianism has morphed into Trumpism that, with its many grievances, leans heavily toward anti-democratic authoritarianism. It’s unlikely to go away once Trump is gone because some of its grievances have merit, others are illusory but firmly fixed in its ideology, and it’s not giving up its new found voice. Oligarchs of the Koch Network variety hold Trumpsters in contempt, but recognize them as useful pawns in their attempt to dismantle government restraints on their freedom to run things as they want without interference or oversight. McConnell, I suspect, shares little in common with tea partiers or oligarchs. He wants political power for power’s sake. To the extent it can enrich him, so much the better.

Perhaps he will look around, and, knowing his time in office is nearing its end, choose to attend to the needs of the nation as a way to salvage his legacy. Maybe. It could happen. Maybe a new Republican Party will emerge, conservative to be sure, but committed to serving as the loyal opposition. It’s possible. Most likely, the new administration will have to use every tool at its disposal to back McConnell into a corner from which he must negotiate, a grimace on his face, but negotiate nevertheless. In the meantime, we can only wait and see what happens.

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