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How the GOP has changed the definition of ‘loyal opposition’

Several of the U.S. norms that used to make things work have lost their power to do so.

Legislation to create a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump fails by a vote of 54-35 margin as Republicans in the Senate use their filibuster to block passage of the bill.
Legislation to create a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump fails by a vote of 54-35 margin as Republicans in the Senate use their filibuster to block passage of the bill.
U.S. Senate TV via REUTERS

The term “loyal opposition” to refer to the party the out of power in a democracy derives from the British parliamentary system, in which the ultimate loyalty is to the Crown.

Its use in the American context is a tad ambiguous, since we have no monarchy. And, in the British system as evolved, the monarchy has little influence over government policy. But, in America, if it means anything, “loyal opposition” mostly means that the party out of power is free to oppose the policies of the party in power, but remains loyal to the somewhat more fundamental elements of the Constitution and the system of politics.

Theoretically that allows the governing party to govern even as the opposition party makes the case that it should be put into power by the voters at the next election.

In a short piece titled “The New Meaning of ‘Loyal Opposition,” Cornell University American Studies professor Glenn C. Altschuler writes that:

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“The saving assumption of the loyal opposition, Michael Ignatieff, former leader of the Liberal Party in Canada and President of the Central European University, has written, is that ‘in the house of democracy, there are no enemies.’  When politicians treat each other as enemies, ‘legislatures replace relevance with pure partisanship.  Party discipline reigns supreme … negotiation and compromise are rarely practiced, and debate within the chamber becomes as venomously personal as it is politically meaningless.’

“Republicans in the United States Congress, many of whom endorsed groundless claims that the 2020 presidential election was rigged, it now seems clear, have changed the meaning of ‘loyal’ to obeisance to party rather than to democratic principles. And the decision of GOP leaders in the House and Senate to block a bi-partisan commission to investigate the January 6 assault on the Capitol serves as the most recent example” of how Republicans have changed the definition of loyal opposition.

The U.S. system is quite different from parliamentarianism. Unlike a prime minister, a president gets his mandate directly from a popular election (mediated by the silly Electoral College mechanism). But there is no guarantee that the president’s party will control either or both houses of Congress. If the opposition party controls either house of Congress and can’t reach a compromise over policy with the president and his allies, America can have gridlock and has no mechanism to force a new election to break the gridlock.

Of course, at the moment, President Joe Biden’s party does have (very small) majorities in both houses of Congress. But, between the fact (which also would be out-of-keeping with norms of a parliamentary system) that some Democrats oppose some of Biden’s policies, and the fact that there are other undemocratic elements of the U.S. system (like the filibuster in the Senate, for example, which enables a minority of members to prevent a bill from coming to a vote), there is plenty of reason to believe that the newly elected president will be unable to enact key elements of his program.

We are somewhat used to these things, but not to the current level of dysfunctionality that may paralyze congressional lawmaking.

The Constitution hasn’t been amended to make this level of gridlock possible. But several of the U.S. norms that used to make things work have lost their power to do so. A president, elected with a solid mandate to govern, and blessed with his party controlling both houses of Congress, may not be able to do the things he was elected to do.

In a parliamentary system such a circumstance might trigger a new election, to create a situation in which the government can govern. We don’t have that option.