In a speech before parliament (House of Commons) in 1826, John Hobhouse first coined the phrase, The Loyal Opposition. Predicated on the idea that a functioning democracy requires it’s legislative bodies to be able to voice their dissent without fear of accusations of treason, it entered the lexicon as a specific term regarding British governmental function. Over the years the term has been used in a similar fashion in this country to describe members of the party which is not that of the sitting president. In addition, on a less literal level, I have seen it used to indicate that the person in question has a legitimate difference of opinion over approach but still is obviously committed to the same ideals of those with whom they’re in disagreement. I can remember no shortage of incidences in which a columnist or even politician described someone in those words or ones similar enough to leave no doubt as to the originator’s intent. As simple a concept as it might seem to be, the importance of this as a part of our national philosophical outlook can not be overstated. We are, to put it mildly, a country steeped in competitive interactions and the attendant tensions they might bring. An adversarial system of justice, and winner-take-all elections to name just two are the kinds of circumstances to which I’m referring. With that sort of high stakes framework in place it’s particularly important that people remain committed to the idea that we can disagree over how to achieve shared goals. The test of how well we work as a country is not whether we find ourselves nodding along when someone else is speaking but whether we can shake our heads without losing our temper. This is not about seeing the world through someone else’s eyes; it’s more, I think, feeling as if we are both looking at the same thing even as we acknowledge that we will never be able to see it from the other person’s perspective. This kind of thing requires a willingness to at least try to take a less reflexively defensive posture when we find ourselves at a point of conversational friction with somebody. Traditionally, politics has been thought of as, amongst other things, the art of persuasive speech. That’s a skill which relies, in no small part, on the above mentioned mind set. In our more than two hundred years as a country I can’t think of a leader who had greater need to wield it, and did so as eloquently as Abraham Lincoln.
The 16th president took office under horrendous circumstances. He carried only two of nine hundred and ninety-six counties in slave states. That utter absence of support from the south was pretty indicative of the tenor of the country’s emotional state at the time. The war which would begin in earnest on 4/12/1861 and not end for just over four years (5/9/1865), was already brewing before Lincoln was elected. Seven states (South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas) seceded from the Union before his inauguration, on 3/4/1861. He had already leaned quite heavily on the loyalties of those opposed to him in assembling the machinery of his administration. As popularized in a book of the same name by Doris Kearns Goodwin, his cabinet truly was a team of rivals. Secretaries Seward (state) and Chase (treasury) as well as Attorney General Bates had all vied with Lincoln for the Republican nomination in the run up to the election. Whatever campaigning unpleasantries they might have engaged in Lincoln believed that they were the men best suited for the jobs and that being the case he could not, in good conscience, deny the nation their service. To be willing to be in that position must have required a level of fealty to the republic that was absolute, and a faith in those men and their capabilities that matched it. I can’t help but think that the mind set required for him to have approached this task persisted as he planned for the responsibilities that lay ahead. His inaugural address, delivered March 4th, 1861, was certainly representative of a man desperately trying to hold together an already fractured nation by balancing a stated reaffirmation of what he believed was the constitutionally stipulated perpetuity of the union with what he must have hoped would be an assuagement of the southern fears which had driven the secession of the above mentioned states.
“… a majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people… I am loath to close. We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature” — Abraham Lincoln (3/4/1861).
Though his plea could not help us to avoid the inevitable, the wisdom that was it’s impetus persisted through out the war, as Lincoln knew that it had to, if there were to be any real hope of moving forward as a nation of truly united states. When hostilities had ceased he realized that dealing with the confederate states as a conquering ruler would only keep the conflict alive in the hearts of a people that were in dire need of rest. The closing of his second inaugural address captures it perfectly. “…with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in , to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” It seems, to me, that he wanted to both promulgate and support the idea that it was possible, if we could only find it in our hearts, to see ourselves in opposition to one another without coming to blows over it. If he were alive today I can only imagine what an agonizing disappointment we would be to him.
As I think this through it seems to me that there are two reasons for this state of affairs. At first glance we seem to be, as a nation, more extreme in our style of communication. The sort of explosive impulsivity welcomed and rewarded by social media is a huge part of this, but it isn’t the only component. Our inexorable move towards the bi-partisan political margins has created an atmosphere in which more of the populace can, to some extent, see itself as threatened, dismissed or in some other way marginalized. Even though we live in a multi-branch representative democracy we have been dealing the persistent centralization of power in our government for at least the last eighty years. Starting with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, most of the men to inhabit the office of the presidency have made consistent strides in the way of enhancing the authority of the executive branch. As I’ve written before (Candy Cummings, Donald Trump: Closer Than You Think) the primary system that we labor under only makes this worse. It’s not unforeseeable that somebody who feels that they’re on the wrong end of this equation might perceive their plight as so utterly hopeless that emotional thinking overtakes the more rational kind. There are certainly no shortage of venues for them to rant on, and worse, find themselves inundated with an ocean of validation and re-enforcement, facts be damned. I’ve been at ground zero of this sort of thing myself and can attest to how easy it is to be swept up in the almost religious fervor that is the setting for it. It’s not a source of pride but I must admit that I have on numerous, highly charged occasions lost the ability to see someone as “loyally opposed”. Health care reform has been, for me, an area of real conflict and hard feelings for the people I’ve come into contact with who hold opinions diametrically opposed to my own. In my defense I suppose that I’ve been most irritated by the types of arguments that are founded in circular reasoning and mis-truths. When congress first began to steamroll the American public into accepting The Affordable Care Act the most enraging element for me was how many people seemed to think that health care was simply a measure of life expectancy. Countering with arguments centered on survival rates of a variety of disease states proved fruitless. Explaining that mean ages of death in a country with lower abortion rates, less exacting definitions of live birth and a higher rate of violent crime didn’t make a dent. Still, I should have been adult enough to keep in mind that fact resistant as those people might have been, they still wanted what I wanted; a better functioning system that would satisfy the country’s medical needs without eating up fifteen percent of the gross domestic product. That kind of thing is a necessary if not always pleasant part of living in a democratic republic. If that were the end of it I don’t think I’d be quite so disturbed as I am at this time.
We are now in a place that I’m not sure we can recover from. It isn’t the tone of things that leads me to this conclusion. Not that civic discourse hasn’t arrived at a breathtakingly ugly place. It has. I wish that was where it ended. Speaking only for myself I think that as vitriolic as things are we could still find our way out of it, if that were the only issue. For me, at least, there is another, darker tendency which has come masked in the guise of sensitivity. More and more, in recent years, I have seen or heard some public figure call for a silencing, in one way or another, of a person or group with whom they disagree. When Chick-Fil-A chief operating officer Dan Cathy made headlines in June 2012 for being outspoken in his belief that same sex marriage was wrong, the backlash was predictable and up to a point understandable. I myself would not patronize the restaurant knowing that he felt that way. I could sympathize with members of the gay community that were hurt and angry. All of that is part and parcel of living in a society whose speech is as free as its markets. The problem is that the story doesn’t end there. Numerous progressive city mayors decided that a business slowdown courtesy of an angry populace was insufficient. Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel warned the company to not even try and do business in “his city”. I realize this might not be the most emotionally satisfying hill to die on, but hearing that sort of thing from the chief executive of a major American metropolis should fill anyone who professes a love of this nation and it’s protected freedoms with revulsion. Who the hell is that son-of-a-bitch to dictate which legal establishments are not going to be allowed to try and make a go of it. If the company’s baggage is so odious to the citizenry they can always shut it down the right way. Empty fast food places don’t stay in business very long. That might be the most high profile incident I can think of off hand but it is not unique in any way. College students, “activists”, t.v. pundits and those seeking office are just some of the groups that are never short of representative members who have no compunction about suggesting that someone championing an opposing viewpoint has crossed some invisible line into a place where their thoughts and ideas are of such damaging potential that their very utterance is an injury in and of itself.
It is at this juncture that I find myself without the resources to hope for a reprieve. I still think the first issue which I spoke of is not insurmountable. We can and should make every effort to not only disagree, but act in conflict with each other without giving up all attempts to see the other person in a way that allows us to live with each other. Recently I had a test of sorts in that regard. Not very long ago I ended up in a pointless conversation with someone who had reached a pinnacle of Orwellian cognition when she professed a desire for a single payer system but stressed that it “can’t be socialized medicine”. It happened. I’d never have the imagination to make that up. I just let it go, thinking mostly that she was really just frightened at the prospect of not having something she needed. If I can grow up enough to look at things that way then most of us can, as I’m not a paragon of any virtue, patience in particular. But for all of us that are so worried about “normalizing” the intemperate rantings of our current president, think first of how we have already grown accustomed to some wounded party asking the government to suspend the first amendment of the constitution so as to provide a balm for their emotional anguish. I’m sorry, that is not simply a matter of letting our feelings get the better of us. It is an assault on a precept so dear that the framers thought to make it first on the list of things that our government would not be able to interfere with. I do not have it in me to find a “better angel” to help me get past that. Perhaps you can do better.