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Disoyal Opposition in the United States

Disloyal Opposition in the United States.

Paul G. Buchanan

Whether or not the so-called “war” between the White House and the Fox television network is a carefully crafted plan by President Obama’s advisors to bring to head the divisions within the Republican Party so as to force a fracture between its moderate and conservative wings, or is no more than an ill-advised (and time honored) presidential scapegoating of an adversarial press, what the fracas has done is raise the issue of what constitutes disloyal opposition in a democracy. This essay briefly tries to explain the concept and apply it to the current US context.

The field of comparative politics identifies two forms of opposition in a democracy: loyal and disloyal. Here the definition of “opposition” is not confined to elected political adversaries but includes their ideological support base as well: allied media, social groups, military factions, economic or religious interests, etc. Loyal opposition may be principled or unprincipled. Principled loyal opposition is based on sincerely held beliefs that are maintained regardless of the immediate political context, for example, opposition to abortion or access to automatic weapons on demand. It also includes a commitment to the rules of the political game, which in democracies means adherence to transparency, honest voice, majority representation and acceptance of electoral outcomes in exchange for a chance to regularly compete for political office within formally defined timeframes and under universally competitive rules and conditions.

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Unprincipled but loyal opposition if based upon temporal opportunism tied to the immediate context, which seeks to gain political advantage without regard to the sincerity of the actor’s belief in a given policy position. Yet, as with principled loyal oppositions, unprincipled loyal oppositions play within the rules of the democratic game as given, including unwritten norms of comportment and civility with regards to what is permissible and impermissible as proper political discourse. Whatever its character, loyal opposition sees the government as an adversary, not an enemy. No matter how they play, politics is a competitive high stakes game, not a war.

Disloyal oppositions are, by definition, unprincipled. Not because they lack conviction in their beliefs (some do), but because of their disrespect for the rules of the democratic game. Their view of political rules and procedures is purely instrumental: if they suit the pursuit of ideological or policy objectives they can be used. If not, they can be circumvented. The goal is to bring down the government of the day regardless of cost or consequence. Hence disloyal oppositions hold little regard for established rules and institutional norms even if it suited them when in government or as a historical precedent. The strategy is to say anything, stop at nothing, lie, cheat and if possible steal in order to undermine the government in the eyes of the public and thereby weaken its ability to pursue a policy agenda and carry out its constitutional obligations. For disloyal oppositions, politics is war and the ends justify the means.

A classic example of a disloyal opposition is conservative opposition to the Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) government led by Socialist Salvador Allende in Chile from 1970 until the coup of September 11, 1973. Fronted by Christian Democrats and surreptitiously backed by the Nixon administration, the conservative bloc in the Chilean Congress refused to engage in any substantive compromises with Allende’s minority government, and instead used procedural rules and points of order to engage in stalling tactics in order to thwart Allende’s proposed reforms. Conservative elites also supported a viscerally hostile press (see the archives of the Chilean daily El Mercurio to get a sense of the animus) as well as direct action on the streets by organized elements of the Right (whose actions included instigating strikes, riots and the infamous “pot-banging” (“caserolazo”) demonstrations involving middle class women protesting against food and staple shortages caused by a prolonged truckers strike that, it turns out, was financed by the CIA).

Conservative elite support for direct action extended to arming and financing rightwing paramilitary groups that carried out attacks on leftwing unionists, grassroots leftist political groups and student organizations, as well as secretly negotiating with conservative military officers about the timing and conditions for a military takeover of the Chilean state.

The degree of disloyalty was such that it is reported that Allende could not even get funding for a refurbishment of the National Stadium (where thousands later died at the hands of Pinochet’s firing squads), much less get a single law passed. He was thus forced to rule by decree, with his more militant left supporters deciding to fight fire with fire by engaging in direct action tactics of their own (including land and factory seizures and armed assaults on rightist groups). That only confirmed in the minds of the conservative civilian and military hierarchies that Communism was taking root in that society. The coup was their response.

There are many examples of disloyal opposition that can be drawn from around the world, and although most are conservative in orientation, not all of them are (the Communist Party attempted takeover in 1975 of the post-Salazar Portuguese “Revolution of the Carnations” being a classic case in point). Often disloyalty brings success: among other regions, the history of Latin America is replete with successful destablisation campaigns orchestrated by disloyal oppositions (which is probably why the Chavez regime in Venezuela behaves the way it does vis a vis its opposition). The more pertinent issue here is whether the Fox Network and its ideological kin on talk radio and in the Republican Party are behaving in a disloyal manner. Adjusting for the US context, by all measures they are.

From a congressman calling the president a liar during his address to Congress, to a Fox TV commentator calling Obama a racist with an abiding hatred of white people, to a radio talk show host openly wishing that the president fail (and later crowing about Chicago’s failed Olympic bid as a ”defeat” for Obama), to the steady drumbeat of Fox-led accusations that the Obama administration and its policies are “socialist,” to the questioning of his birthplace, heritage and religious orientation, to the funding and organization of “astroturf” Tea Party demonstrations, to approval of people showing up armed at presidential rallies, to attempting to tar him by association with ACORN, Bill Ayers and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, to accusations that he is an “internationalist” who is soft on terrorism and will sell-out US interests to a variety of hostile foreign interests, to claiming that he promotes the browning of America via tacit acceptance of illegal immigration, to encouraging military insubordination to the civilian political leadership on matters of war and strategy, to the grotesque characterizations of Obama and his family’s racial lineage, to advising people to stock weapons in anticipation of a (fictitious) federal personal arms ban, to the refusal of the Republican congressional bloc to honestly negotiate health care and financial reform—taken in isolation these acts may demonstrate nothing other than the behavior of lunatics. But taken together and linked by common sources of funding, organization, direction and expression, they constitute a degree of political disloyalty seldom seen in modern US politics. Hypocrisy is one thing: calls to sedition are another.

The intent is as clear as it was in Allende’s time: to undermine the legitimacy of the Obama administration, or at least make it impossible for it to govern. All that is left to make the parallel complete is for the military hierarchy to fall under the sway of the Fox-led discourse (something that, to date, is thankfully a remote possibility). In effect, the conservative movement formerly led by the GOP is now led by media demagogues rather than those in elected office, and is dominated not by secular moderates but by ideological zealots, Christian fundamentalists, an assortment of plotters and schemers, ultra-nationalist xenophobes, racists, conspiracy theorists and closet coup-mongerers.

To be fair and balanced, mention should be made of Left protests against the previous US administration. There were sit-downs, marches, yellow ribbon displays and assorted tongue-lashings from the left-leaning media (such as it is). Yet most Left protest against the W. Bush administration’s illegal war in Iraq, its abuses of privacy under the so-called Patriot Act and its use of torture as an interrogation technique was confined to proper channels of voice and redress, and even when it involved street demonstrations never reached the point of questioning the legitimacy of the political system itself. Given the caution of the corporate media, dissenting Left views seldom appeared on mainstream outlets until the deceit and incompetence of the W. Bush administration became too obvious to ignore. In fact, it took the mishandled response to Hurricane Katrina to alert the US public to the broader issues of managerial ineptitude and bias in the Bush 43 administration simply because it negatively affected Americans rather than foreigners. By then, the damage to the US reputation abroad had long been done.

For their troubles, opposition to the Bush 43 administration were labeled as “traitors” and “treasonous” by the White House and Fox talking heads, who apparently have forgotten about the right to lawful dissent enshrined in the US constitution. Now, with the shoe on the other foot conservatives have decided that playing within the loyal and lawful rules of opposition is not enough, and that more drastic action is required. Hence their campaign of vilification of the president and denigration of everything he does, and their resort to extra-institutional means of conveying their message. In doing so, they tap a deep stream of US conservative praxis (i.e. the melding of theory of practice into a strategy of action) that spans the gamut from neo-Nazi white supremacists through the Minuteman movement and anti-abortion militants to contemporary health care reform opponents.

The roots of conservative disloyalty in American politics trace back to Ronald Reagan’s first presidential campaign and his pandering to Christian fundamentalists in the original version of “wedge” politics, where Democrats were lambasted as “secular progressives” hell-bent on destroying the American way of life. It gained momentum under the so-called Gingrich Revolution in the mid-1990s, where the Republican majority in Congress and its media allies pilloried Bill Clinton for sins real and imagined (the moral hypocrisy of Gingrich and other GOP leaders seemingly forgotten by their acolytes). The Bush 43 administration elevated denigration of opponents into an art form under the tutelage of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, facilitated by the same media sycophants that are now the leading voices in the movement to demonise Obama. Meanwhile, in or out of presidential office, the Democrats took their lumps and tried to retain some semblance of a moral high ground, oblivious to the real agenda at play.

The end result is not just the much-lamented loss of civility in US political life caused by the descent into the politics of personal attack. Nor is it just a partisan squabble. The threat posed by the disloyal conservative opposition is much greater, because what they are doing in the US is more than preach the gospel of hate. What they are doing is encouraging mass disrespect and defiance of the institutional norms and channels of voice and redress that are the foundation of the constitutional system and the roots of democratic stability. In that light, Fox and its media allies are doing much more than playing the proper role of an adversarial press in a democracy. They may deny it, but what they are doing is calling for insurrection. And, as Generals Petraeus and McChrystal have advised, the only way to counter this type of domestic insurgency is with a heavy but focused surge that targets its leaders. The “war” on Fox may be the beginning of just that.


Paul G. Buchanan studies issues of comparative and international politics. He is a Visiting Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore. A member of the weblog collective, he has an interest in security analysis and strategic thought. His book in progress, Security Politics in Peripheral Democracies, compares the security policies of Chile, New Zealand and Portugal in the Post Cold War era.

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