The Loyal Opposition

It would be nuts to put myself in the crossfire between my friends Christopher Hitchens and William Shawcross.  Americans have no dog in that particular fight, and we have enough dogs in enough fights right now that we'd be well advised to avoid the ones that don't concern us.  But with that proviso, and without coming down on one side or the other, I'm still prepared to acknowledge one advantage conferred by the existence of a constitutional monarchy:  A reigning king or queen makes it much harder to equate opposition to the government with disloyalty to the regime.  "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition" is a concept deeply ensconced in Britain's Parliamentary system and in her unwritten constitution.  One may object strongly --- vociferously --- to the policies of the party in power without being regarded as an enemy of the state.  Loyalty to the sovereign is distinct from submission to the sovereign's ministers-of-the-moment.

Of course, this principle is also meant to hold true in democracies lacking a politically neutral (or neutered) figurehead.  But it's much easier to forget it when the head of government is also the head of state;  the two roles can easily get confused.  Those of us who opposed George Bush's adventure in Iraq, for example, know what it's like to have our patriotism questioned because we thought the president was a reckless and ill-advised horse's ass.  And those of us with longer memories (by which I of course mean those of us with a few more miles on us than we'd like) remember having had similar experiences during the war in Vietnam.  And, on a more personal level, in the 1984 presidential campaign, I recall my mother-in-law expressing shocked dismay and disapproval at Fritz Mondale's very measured and, if anything, far-too-civil attacks on the Reagan Administration, recoiling as if she were witnessing a violent act of lese majeste rather than a healthy exercise in robust democratic praxis.

Governments need a vigorous opposition, just as criminal prosecutors need a vigorous defense.  A vigorous opposition may not guarantee better governance, but its absence will almost certainly guarantee worse.  And it's important to keep alive the sense that politics takes place within a brisk and volatile dialectic.  Very few political propositions are so self-evident as to be immune to intelligent challenge.  Back in 2004, in the aftermath of George Bush's narrow victory over John Kerry, when several major figures in the Democratic Party were spooked by a couple of misleading exit polls and as a consequence mouthed the most craven retractions of long-standing party principle, I wrote this for the British magazine Prospect.  With the shoe now on the other foot, I'm pleased to provide a link to what I wrote back then.  Ill-judged triumphalism hasn't changed my mind.  Governments flourish when they are challenged.  They proceed more carefully when they know someone is watching, especially someone who doesn't have their best interests at heart.  And policies always benefit when subjected to the refiner's fire.

But there is a corollary.  Yes, the opposition should be robust and unsparing, but it should also be intelligent.  It should make arguments that are cogent, consistent, and fact-based.  (There are many good arguments to be made against the House and Senate health plans, for example --- including the fact that no one really knows what is in them --- but the ostensible inclusion of death panels does not qualify.)  And it should be discriminating.  Not every governmental decision is partisan, and therefore not every governmental decision requires partisan opposition.  (Housing convicted terrorists in an otherwise empty maximum security prison in Illinois is a plausible, politically neutral administrative option;  it isn't an expression of leftist governance.)  When the party out of power chooses, in knee-jerk fashion, to say no to absolutely everything, without reference to reality or common sense, it cheapens the currency of opposition and risks losing any claim to credibility.  The Republican leadership in both the House and Senate --- not every member, certainly, but the leadership, definitely --- has let itself fall into this trap.  The result, to my eyes, looks like this.