As I wrote several years ago, traditional conservatives are great at serving as the loyal opposition. They keep traditional liberals from going off in too many directions with too many poorly thought out ideas. They are cautious and don’t want changes thrust on them without first being fully examined. They are wary of using the coercive power of government to limit individual freedoms while being equally wary of recognizing new freedoms (or rights) for those from whom they had been withheld. It’s not all bad. It keeps us from straying too far afield. But when it comes to governing, traditional conservatives stumble. Other than lowering taxes and holding the line on non-defense spending, they don’t have much of an agenda. In spite of their touted business sense, they’re not good at running large, complex organizations. Still, interregnums of traditional conservatives holding the reins of power often give the nation domestic breathing room needed to prepare it for the next surge in vitality, in whatever way vitality is measured.
Traditional liberals understand the value and use of government to address pressing economic and social needs. Contrary to Mr. Reagan’s quip, government is not the problem, it is an important part of the solution. They recognize that many of today’s conditions and issues may once have been local or state concerns, but are now matters requiring federal attention. However, they are committed to employing the power of government within the context of a private market system in a society that highly values individual and local rights and freedoms. Traditional liberals are said to be poor managers, but they know how to run governments surprisingly well. Decades of traditional conservatives and liberals working with each other while against each other helped give us a century of growing social and economic prosperity, even through the toughest times.
Do we have any traditional conservatives and liberals anymore? Is there such a thing as the loyal opposition? There are few signs of such creatures at the federal level, and they are not easy to find in my state capital, maybe yours too. Traditional conservatives have been displaced by the political bullying of tea partiers and hard core libertarians who simply don’t want government to mess around in their lives. They appear clueless about the interdependency that holds society together, and blind to the dystopian future the realization of their fantasies would unleash. Traditional liberals have been vilified as leftist, statist socialists, leaving them fulminating over the misuse of language, effectively sidelining thoughtful attention to the work at hand. Emboldened hard core leftists are no more ready to negotiate in good faith with others than their right wing counterparts. They’re twins in many ways, twins like Esau and Jacob.
Loyal opposition and negotiating in good faith, what does that mean? Loyal opposition means, to cite Canadian lawmaker Michael Ignatieff’s 2012 address at Stanford, “The opposition performs an adversarial function critical to democracy itself… Adversaries remain citizens of the same state, common subjects of the same sovereign, servants of the same law.” Loyal opposition strives for the well being of the people as served by the state, with the understanding that the other side is also committed to the same good end – even if misguided. Negotiating in good faith is to honestly seek agreement with the other side without deception or malicious intent. Anyone familiar with “the prisoner’s dilemma” knows that deception and retribution are often elements in negotiation, and yet acting in good faith can take that into consideration without losing the trust needed to reach agreement.
Good faith was brutalized in the aftermath of Vietnam. Under G.W. Bush, good faith was tested beyond its limits of endurance. With the advent of the Obama administration, the door was opened for members of the opposition who had no intention of being loyal, and no intention of negotiating in good faith. Without over analyzing, eight years of that was enough to prepare the ground for a person seeking high office who had built his life on intentional deception and retribution, who had no understanding of loyal opposition, and no interest in negotiating in good faith. His desire to deconstruct the federal government's role in society may appear similar to hard core libertarian ideology, but he has no affection for the their mythical paradise. It’s all about creating conditions in which his style of doing business can succeed without interference from the pesky rules imposed on him by traditional conservatives and liberals working together for the well being of the nation and its people.
So where do we go from here? There are still traditional conservatives and liberals in substantial numbers serving in the halls of congress, and many of our state legislatures. It’s time for them to say ‘Enough!’ Let the so called freedom caucus throw its tantrums, but ignore them. The same for the few on the far left, which, by the way, does not include Bernie Sanders who is not the far lefty he is reputed to be. It’s time for negotiations in good faith for the well being of the nation and its people. If we have to live through an entire four year Trump term, it means using every tool to fight for the protection of American democratic values. As of today, that seems unlikely, but not impossible because there are people of good faith on both sides who want something different.
Is that all we need? No. There’s an addendum. There’s a reason the right wing has been able to garner as much support as it has. There’s a reason the left wing has found its voice. The federal bureaucracy has, like many major corporations, forgot that it is in the business of customer service. For the most part, the programs it administers and regulations it enforces provide needed services and protection from danger and abuse. We need the programs and the protection, but when administering them becomes and end to itself, when the customers becomes obstacles or targets, then public support disintegrates, public opposition escalates, and it’s not loyal opposition. Reframing government service as customer service, and making it stick, has got to be a high priority. Otherwise the bad guys might win.