Building a loyal opposition

By David Hales

On Nov. 8, the elites of the United States – Republicans and Democrats – experienced the most wrenching “let them eat cake” moment in American history.

For 18 months, the power elite of the Republican and Democratic parties have offered 21st-century versions of Marie Antoinette’s famous, if mythical, cake only to be rejected by Trump and Sanders voters. With the election of Donald Trump, voters tossed the latest offering back in the face of a hapless Hillary Clinton.

The other 16 “business as usual” candidates for the presidency are still trying to figure out what hit them. While they may lack the intellectual courage to recognize it, it was the Trump’s rejection of business as usual that ran them down.

The collective voice of Trump voters, silently reinforced by Democrats, young people and women who found no reason to vote, captured the cumulative inadequacy of the last several decades, just as the “Sanders’ revolution” did. The basic soundness of our nation, our achievements and the good but mostly unrealized intentions of the Obama administration, are obscured by the inchoate but agonized cry for change.

At its core, the Trump-Sanders effect is a call for a massive redistribution of opportunity, wealth and political power. It is a cry for help from so many who have been marginalized by the elites of both parties. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that much of Obama’s vote in 2008 and 2012 was in part generated by this alienation. Our system is rigged for the benefit of the few. The many have said that is unacceptable.

America has become complacent before, with common good sacrificed to special interest and elite comfort. Faced with a universe of possibilities, it is as if the elites insisted on communicating over only a narrow frequency crowded with broadcasts of yesterdays’ ideas. Elite-dominated governance always becomes complacent. It serves special interests and rejects policies and solutions which stray too far from the mainstream, preferring half-hearted but safe pathways occasionally paved with good intentions. Good Americans have been abandoned to face alone challenges that we can only address together.

America has revealed itself, deeply divided, and yet with an underlying common hope for a better life and future for all our children. There are ugly faces which have been revealed and which we must oppose. There is pain and fear that has been revealed, which we must understand and respect and seek to heal, not just by sympathy, but by action.

Some lessons are there to be learned. Some elements of the reality with which we must deal are clear.

Business as usual will not take us anywhere it has not already taken us.

Trump’s campaign of half-truths, outright lies and appeals to ignorance, racism and intolerance has not convinced even many of his most ardent supporters that he has the character and capability to be worthy of the presidency of the United States. Nevertheless, he is my president and your president.

Just as Clinton has no idea why she lost, Trump seems to have has no idea of why he won. He has already begun to immerse himself in the very swamp he promised to drain. In that direction lie further alienation, greater division and the rise of authoritarianism.

Now it is citizens who are challenged to show that we are worthy of citizenship in this republic. We are a constitutional democracy, and we must be faithful to that legacy in the face of adversity.

Our challenge is to give a new depth of meaning to the concept of loyal opposition.

Our loyalty is to our country and its possibilities, and our opposition is to those who would undermine its values.

Our loyalty is to rule of law, to hard won civil rights – the right of each and every one of us to be free from unequal treatment and discrimination – and to constitutionally-protected civil liberties which are essential to our self-governance. Our undying opposition is to any threat to these foundational values.

The key hallmarks of loyal opposition are that positions and actions are explicitly based in fundamental values. That includes the rule of law, procedural due process, transparency, freedom of choice, freedom of expression and respect for all – and that they always have a positive face. That means clear statements of advocacy of what we are for that balance opposition to what we are against. We must never again allow ourselves to face a choice between voting for him because he is not her, or for her because she is not him.

We must be loyal to the freedom to choose in free elections and to the peaceful transition of power that follows those choices, even when we disagree. We must also be willing to do all that is necessary to oppose any illegitimate use of that power, including by the peaceful exercise of civil disobedience.

No president has ever come to office more in need of loyal opposition than Trump. Often, that support will come in the form of full-throated and uncompromising opposition. But support also must be positive when he is right.

The Republican elite for the past eight years have not been a loyal opposition, but disloyal obstructionists. Their often-racist obstruction has been an unconscionable betrayal of their responsibility to seek common good and well-being and revealed their servile promotion of private interests and greed. Democrats often were guilty of the same with regard to George Bush and Dick Cheney. There is a better way.

The presidential election of 2016 is no longer about Trump; it is about each of us. It is not just about what he will do, but about what we will do. We have become lazy in our practice of democracy. We have demanded too little of our leaders and accepted meager and mediocre measures too readily. We have become complacent enablers of business as usual and looked away too often when deeper consideration would have revealed its obvious bankruptcy.

We will have a tendency to become complacent, to accommodate ourselves to a new normal. The antidote is an active loyalty to our most basic values.

The fight to realize the full possibilities of the legacy of the American Revolution is endless. It cannot be won, although there are victories to be sought and cherished. The battle starts anew each day, regardless of the outcome of the battle of the day before. It is in that daily battle that the muscles of democracy are strengthened. The choice is ours.

A former president of College of the Atlantic, David Hales lives in Bar Harbor.

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