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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

The Loyal Opposition

Observing the current state of impasse at which our two-party system has arrived, it is instructive to remind ourselves how we got to this point. The genius of our foundation in the wake of the revolution was the creation of a system of checks and balances between the various offices and functions of government: executive; legislative; and judicial. Concern over the accretion and potential abuse of power led not only to the separation of functions within government but also to our bicameral legislature, Congress. To many this system has led to inevitable stalemates such as we presently find ourselves in which partisan interests have become more important than governance.

Unlike the British Parliament, which is also bicameral, the division between the legislative chambers in the U.S. was not based on class, dividing the nobility in the House of Lords, from the citizenry in the House of Commons. Rather, the American model was designed as a compromise between those who favored a population-based representation which we have in our House of Representatives and those who pressed for equal representation, which is the basis for our Senate. But like most compromises, the division failed to account for another bedeviling issue, extremes of partisan ideology and policy.

Although the British system has its own challenges certainly equal to or greater than our own, two conventions act as a safeguard against inaction, or at least ensure it is short lived. The power of the Prime Minister and the ruling party in Parliament is subject to the support of a majority of the members. Loss of that support can and has resulted in the dissolution of the government (the PM and his or her cabinet) and a new election. It is, therefore in the best interests of all parties to achieve compromise rather than face the potential misadventure of forming a new government.

In addition, early in the 19th century, the British adopted a convention known as the Loyal Opposition. In effect, it is an opposition government with a Prime Minister in waiting and a shadow cabinet. While the Opposition holds no formal power beyond the right to question the PM before Parliament it is accorded twenty days in each session for debate on issues of its own agenda. More importantly it represents a concept imbued with constructive compromise, a reminder that while the parties may widely differ on ideology and policy they are both accountable to the British people. No such convention, theoretical or otherwise holds sway in the American Congress.

I raise this point not to argue for the adoption of a different legislative structure or form of government but to underscore a difference in philosophy. Members of Congress, while elected by the people, have demonstrated that loyalty to party takes precedence over loyalty to the electorate. Of course, the electorate can and occasionally do hold their representatives accountable, but in the main, there are few consequences for members of Congress that ignore the opinions of their constituents. Their concern is chiefly with those who have the power to steer political contributions and control large voting blocs.

Loyalty to the public is unquestionably a difficult path to follow, requiring discernment and courage up to an including accepting the loss of party support –essentially its money and ability to confer positions on powerful committees. It is easy to see why the practice of conscience, adherence to clearly stated principles, and acceptance of compromise in the interest of good governance play no part in the indoctrination of newly fledged Representatives.

Attempts to form a multi-party system in the US have met with little success and will continue to do so for so long as the electorate are persuaded that the current system works. There is some evidence, however, that the hold of the parties may be losing its luster, especially among the disaffected and importantly the next generation of voters. In recent state elections as was the case in the midterms, coalitions of voters who feel little or no connection to either party, but rather hold fealty to social and economic issues proved to be the decisive voting bloc. While not unprecedented it is clear neither party quite understands the potential of this shift in voting patterns as of yet.

While it is far too soon to bang a gavel on this trend it would be wise to watch the degree to which certain key issues have become the decisive factor in persuading new voters. Certainly, abortion and the larger frame of reproductive and human rights looms large, as does the wealth divide. Student loan repayment and access to low or no cost higher education, the erosion of social safety nets and gun control are close seconds. These issues, and not party loyalty may well determine the future course of elections. Indeed, it may prove that it is the rising generation that demonstrates what it means to be the loyal opposition.

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