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Missing In Inaction: Why An Opposition Party Matters

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Message David Michael Green

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.

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David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.  He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (dmg@regressiveantidote.net), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. His website is (more...)
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