I am sad and disturbed. Heartbroken for my country, which I love with every fiber of my emotional being. Disturbed by my loss of faith in our political system. These feelings are not newly conceived. They’ve been incubating for a long time.
The last president who enjoyed my full respect was Ronald Reagan. Now, some of you may think that admission tells you all that you need to know, or care to hear, of my opinions. So, you may just stop reading right here. For the less judgmental and more patient readers, I’ll continue. The last congressional leader I admired and respected was Tip O’Neill, who was Reagan’s contemporary and political opposite.
Those two old warhorses had an abundance of patriotic character and personal integrity, qualities essential to their effective leadership and good governance, regardless their different political views of public policy. Moreover, they were always motivated to put the best interests of the nation over their personal or partisan politics. As a consequence, they thought of each other, in the terms of an old-fashioned but still highly important concept of bipartisan government, as members of the “loyal opposition.”
Rooted in Britain’s parliamentary system of dissent and debate, the notion has no less value for America’s brand of partisan politics. Its value is in allowing, if not propagating, civility of public discourse and respectful political debate.
It doesn’t question the loyalty of opponents because by definition it takes mutual loyalty as a given. It doesn’t primarily rely on diminishing, even demonizing, the other side. It doesn’t prosecute wholly negative campaigns. It doesn’t instinctively launch endless streams of ad hominem attacks.
What an attitude of loyal opposition does provide is a relatively wholesome means for achieving what ought to be the hallmark of any proper democracy, namely reasonable compromise with rational beneficial outcome for the nation. It promotes a mutual respect that can only be good for the process and ultimately for the country.
I’ve been a voting citizen since long before Reagan and O’Neill. I think I understand as well as anyone that the ugly side of politics is in some degree irrepressible. While both of them wore scars from wounds irresponsibly inflicted by their most vicious detractors, the fact is they never attacked each other that way. As leaders, they deliberately stood above the fray and in the process set vital examples for how to govern.
Alas, I haven’t found any of our subsequent leaders to exhibit commensurate qualities. It’s not that I think they’ve all been quite bad. Rather, none of them have been sufficiently good. As a result, our national politics have worsened, and thereby has the effectiveness of our government. Vitriol has increased. Extremist wings of both parties have collected more power, yanking the nation back and forth from one election cycle to the next. Public opinion is increasingly divisive. Candidates and incumbents alike are more and more vacillating. Healthy compromise has become less and less probable, with government accomplishing less and less over time. No wonder that public confidence is abysmal.
And all because, in my humble view, our political class has utterly lost sight of the notion of loyal opposition.