Commentary:Why an Opposition Matters

by David Michael Green

David is Professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. His website is The Regresive Antidote

Missing in Inaction:Why a Third Party Matters

America would be a lot better place if it had an opposition party. That’s how democracies are supposed to work, after all.

Oh. What’s that you say? We already have one, called the Democratic Party? Gosh, I didn’t notice. I’ve been watching them this last couple of decades and I long ago concluded that their job must be to assist the Republican Party in running the country into the ground. Guess I missed something, somewhere. Like maybe that whole opposition part of being the opposition party.

I have recently been engaged in the process of ‘debating’ politics online in a circle of email correspondents – some progressive, some regressive – that I fell into somehow. Boy, has that been an education, particularly concerning the tools employed by the Dark Side to fight their otherwise completely hopeless policy battles.

And I was reminded in the course of these rants about the real significance of an opposition party in a democracy.

There are many reasons why such parties might be important, but their most significant raison d'être is one which could be described as epistemological in nature – that is, concerned with the nature, foundations and presuppositions of ‘knowledge’. In short – what we ‘know’, and how we come to know it.

This particular opposition party function is so crucial in part because the American public continues to be so radically uninformed and intentionally misinformed about political issues, and because the public – generally unmotivated to educate itself on these questions – is forced to depend instead on cues from sources it has previously determined to be credible and compatible. If all you know about politics is that the Democrats seem vaguely closer to your political preference set (assuming, of course, you happen to know what that is), you will be inclined to take cues from Democratic leaders and require others to jump several additional hurdles before you’ll accept their arguments. Likewise, if Rush Limbaugh is your version of a credible political source, anything that comes out of the mouth of Hillary Clinton is extremely unlikely to strike you as being true. (In that particular case, Limbaugh happens to be miraculously spot-on, though for all the wrong reasons. As a matter of fact, nothing Clinton says actually should be trusted, but that’s the subject of a different essay...)

Anyhow, this information-processing-by-association approach can serve as an acceptable shorthand informing political participation, and is perhaps even inevitable short of a miraculous change in the quality and levels of participation in American politics. Though not a preferred modus operandi, such a system can be functional, especially given sufficient time for better choices to be made. It must be said, for instance, that recent events have proven the wisdom of Lincoln’s proverb about fooling the people. Regressives fooled almost all the people for a while, but that has ceased being the case for almost as many years now as their legerdemain was effective. Americans largely ‘get’ the right today (though at the deeper levels of kleptocratic motivation and scope of the tragedy they remain mostly in the dark, no doubt unable to face the magnitude of that horror). That is, most Americans think Bush and his policies are foolish and incompetent, but they don’t understand how deep the problem runs, and they see regressives as fools and blowhards rather than thieves and murderers.

This is where the epistemological function of an opposition party becomes crucial. There are political landscapes – realities – that can be accepted because they are within the realm of what is considered legitimate, and there are those which are not. For many people not paying close attention to politics, much of what moves a particular discourse or policy idea from the latter category to the former is the articulation of those notions by some trusted authority source.

For example, in the online political discussion I found myself engaged in, the Downing Street Memos inevitably surfaced in debating the reasons for the invasion of Iraq. At least one of the folks from the Neanderthal contingent had never heard of it. (That’s a whole other story about the degree to which those who are dramatically ill-informed about their subject are nevertheless endlessly willing to hold themselves forth as experts.) In any case, once it was explained to this guy what the DSM are and what is at stake in terms of what they reveal, his first inclination was to wonder why he hadn’t heard of Democrats making a stink about it. I pointed out that nearly one hundred Democrats in Congress had asked the White House for an explanation of the memos, which of course was never provided. When he responded by asking why the White House never responded, I realized how hopelessly deep in the muck I was with this guy. If you have to explain that the Bush administration is both intensely arrogant and supremely contemptuous of both the Constitution and Congress, you’re probably wasting your time. I surely was.

But the encounter also reminded me of the crucial importance of an alternative discourse in the shaping of public opinion, even though this was in fact a case where the feeble opposition party actually did muster a feeble response. What’s more important is that my interlocutor was doing what people do very often in politics: He was looking for shorthand clues. In this case, he was even looking for a semi-legitimation of a certain matter from a political party he loathes. And, in the absence of same, he was able to dismiss the whole affair as yet another obsessive preoccupation of the looney left, and a matter which he could therefore feel safe should rightly be ignored.

For this particular fellow, and this issue, probably an endorsement by Joseph McCarthy or Saint Reagan wouldn’t even have mattered. Getting to the idea that Bush knowingly lied us into war was simply a non-starter, even with documentary evidence proving it. But there is a larger dynamic here that is well illustrated by this episode. How can we expect the wider public to adopt a given understanding of their world – especially a radically disconcerting one which says that the person supposed to be keeping them safe in fact lied about national security – if somebody in a ‘legitimate’ leadership position isn’t serving that alternative reality up for their consideration? The scenario reminds me a little bit of inherited religions. Is it really a surprise that virtually everyone in any given society adopts the religion of that society, or of their particular subculture within the larger society? In almost all cases, there is little or no exposure to alternatives, or often even the especially blasphemous idea that alternatives could exist. We couldn’t expect, therefore, that a Muslim society would produce a lot of Christians, or vice versa, and in fact they don’t.

This psychology has an absolute political analogue, and we see it, for instance, in party identifications, which don’t often change much from region to region, and for which any given person is likely to produce identical affiliation to their parents in about two-thirds of cases. But even that phenomenon is not as deep a dynamic as the one at stake here, because individual Americans are well aware of alternative parties they can affiliate with and/or vote for, and in most cases it is considered fully legitimate to do so.

But what if there is not an alternative vision? What if there is no legitimated alternative approach to an issue or to politics in general? And what if, in particular, this is the case during a moment when a nation feels itself under siege, and is encouraged to believe so?

Then it becomes much harder for an individual to find that vision on their own, and, even assuming that hurdle can be surmounted, a much scarier prospect to adopt it in the face of near universal societal disagreement and the resulting pressure of condemnation.

This is the difference, for example, between being one of many people who think the war is immoral, versus being a traitor (or fearing even to have such thoughts at all for the same reason). It’s the difference between being able to think that national healthcare is a smart and compassionate policy, versus being labeled a socialist (in a country where socialists are only slightly more popular than pedophiles).

This is why – among other reasons – the alternative vision of a bold opposition party is so crucial. For very many people, especially those who are politically disengaged, such organizations function to sketch the boundaries of the thinkable, and help to define the limits of the acceptable. And this is why, accordingly, the continued abdication by the Democratic party has been so dreadfully pernicious all these last years.

The American public was actually skeptical about attacking Iraq up until near the invasion date. It took a massive Madison Avenue disinformation campaign to ultimately sell the war. Imagine, just for a moment, if Colin Powell had resigned as Secretary of State a month before the war, saying that he couldn’t be part of such a tragedy and such a lie. Bush was still commander-in-chief, and he would have done what he wanted to do, of course. But it would have been so much harder for him, and the explicit costs would have risen dramatically had Powell had the courage to change the channel so dramatically on Bush’s ceaseless war commercial. Rove no doubt would have calculated that a Powell resignation would change considerably the betting line on Election 2004. Where it had seemed that, even if the worst happened in Iraq (it did), his candidate could still have stumbled across the finish line a year-and-a-half later, by hook or by crook (he did), Rove would have known that Powell’s defection would have substantially narrowed the margin for error in Iraq. He would have understood that the public would have been much more primed to blame Bush for a stupid policy gone wrong if it had been launched in explicit defiance of Powell’s moral warning shot across the bow. If Bush had gone up against the once-mighty Colin Powell in a moral showdown, he would have had, minimally, to get Iraq very, very right. Of course, anything but that is what ultimately transpired.

Obviously, Colin Powell is no Democrat, but in many ways his old, pre-sell-out persona transcended partisan politics in America. I’ve used his name here simply because he illustrates the principle in question better than any Democrat could, though the concept is the same. Powell’s apostasy would have produced many laudable effects. It would have raised the stakes dramatically for Bush, perhaps to the point of forcing him to call off the war. Perhaps as importantly, it would presented a new concept for Americans to even entertain. How many of them knew at the time (or even now) that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11? How many of them managed to consider that possession of WMD, even had that been true, was hardly a reason to justify war? How many of them thought through the consequences of invading a country with historically hostile ethnic divisions, if they even knew (as Bush did not) the difference between Sunni, Shia and Kurd? How many would dare to let themselves think, especially in the shadow of 9/11 hysteria, that opposing the commander-in-chief’s supposed crucial national security (also supposed) initiative was not only acceptable, but even quite patriotic? How many can be that independent in a sea of yellow ribbon bumper-stickers and bunting-laced war cheerleading masked as news coverage? Not many. Not only could you get yourself shunned as some kinda commie-raghead-terrorist-sympathizer for thinking like this in many places, you might get your butt severely kicked as well.

But what if the leadership of the opposition party was boldly arguing the alternative case, with, as it turns out in this scenario, a massive helping of truth on their side? The risk to Democrats in the short term might have been substantial, but only if one sets aside that they were hammered as being weak on security anyhow, just as they always have been by the McCarthys, Nixons, Reagans and Bushes of this world, who never miss a chance to use national security (and race, and gay-baiting, and...) as a political cudgel, just as they always will. What Democrats so devoted to their own self-destruction always miss, however, is the vicious cycle their silence locks them into every time they refuse to step into the ring with GOP thugs. Not countering Republican lies gives those lies additional power, thus actually driving the Democrats deeper into a hole. Besides, in the long-term, the positive effects of offering a counter-narrative would have been devastating to the GOP, and might well have ended the war by now, given its multiple and manifest failures, by ramping up public disgust and much more deeply discrediting Bush and his cronies.

The same is true across the board of policy issues. There was a near vacuum of opposition when Bush took a meat-axe to slashing taxes. What if there had been a wholesale argument against this foolishness as fiscally irresponsible and incredibly unkind to our children? What if the supposed opposition party had stood four-square and loudly against torture and everything associated with Guantánamo? What if the Democrats had forcefully demanded action on global warming? And so on. The list is endless.

Of course, few of these actions would have been likely to change the behavior of the Bush administration. But they would have significantly raised the stakes for them to indulge in their destructive follies. As it’s been, instead, there has been far too little gamble associated with their reckless policies, not least because they can, partly correctly, claim widespread retrospective support for their actions. Thus, even when it all comes a cropper – as it does every time – there’s little penalty since no one was out there in advance saying what a bad idea this or that policy was. The esteem of Bush and his regressive acolytes has fallen, but largely only because the disastrous products of his policy choices are so bloated as to be transparent to even a tuned-out public. Imagine how much deeper and more permanent would have been the plunge had these policies been adopted in the face of serious prior opposition.

What is clear is that the politics we get are ultimately the product of an interaction between various agents able to shape the discourse and influence the other agents. During the meltdown of the Bush years, almost every one of these actors was MIA – Congress, the courts, the press, the public – and the opposition party. For the most part, the only beacon of sanity for many of these years was coming from abroad.

This is a problem worse than the sum of its parts, and this again explains why the role of an opposition party is so crucial in exercising epistemological leadership. It is clear that these various agents of potential opposition exist in a reactive universe, interactively swirling against each other into a vicious or virtuous cycle. If no one in the opposition party is saying that it is complete madness and shamelessly immoral to invade Iraq (as few did), no one in the media is going to be emboldened to articulate that position (as few were), nor is Congress (it didn’t). Can it be any wonder, then, that the public – lacking any leadership whatsoever on the issue – largely writes itself out of the equation (as they mostly did)?

It takes a little courage – a term not often found in the same sentence as the word Democrat these days – but one begins to see how crucial it is for legitimated, supposedly in-the-know leadership figures to articulate a counter-narrative if the public is to be engaged, and if the stakes are to be raised for bad policy choices. Most people can’t, or won’t, get there on their own, especially when doing so is not only lonely and unpopular, but also made out to be essentially treasonous.

In fact, however, during this disastrous epoch in American history, it was ultimately the public who led their ‘leadership’ in the Democratic Party, and continue to do so now. In almost every case the public is out front of the Democratic politicians, who nervously lick all ten of their fingers and stick them in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. Meanwhile, even gale-force hurricanes have already passed them by without their knowing.

That dynamic of followers leading ‘leaders’ means that progressive change is going to be slow to occur – or at least slower. But there is also a certain virtue to public-led policymaking, and a significant small-d democratic flavor to it.

If the American public is demanding enough of progressive change, we’ll ultimately be able to wrest it from the walking sheets of litmus paper (especially Madame Clinton) who call themselves the Democratic Party.

It’s just that we could have had the same result with the added bonus of a million Iraqis and thousands of Americans still alive today, a semblance of fiscal sanity, a revived New Orleans, a start on solving global warming, and much, much more – had there been an opposition party actually resident in America these last years.

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