Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Value of Opposition

Every day seems to bring another speech, comment, or action in which the Republican party proves itself to be more unconstructive and irrelevant. Specter and Powell indicate that their party has abandoned many of their supporters.

I'm really going to miss them. Not because they are interesting. But because of the dangers posed by unchecked Democrats. Not every idea proposed by a Democrat is a good one. Ideas must be refined and tested. They must be tempered by sound criticism. Sharp turnarounds happen when pendulum swings too far. In a sharp turnaround, the fluid middle gets forgotten. A turnaround is deceptive. It can appear that the mandate is greater than it really is. This was the Republican mistake and it can turn into the Democratic mistake. It gets so bad that it doesn’t take much for the folks in the middle to jump to the other side in a quantum shift.

As a party we need to be ready to welcome disenchanted Republicans into our fold. But in time we need to be ready to let them free again to rebuild a more reasonable Republican party when the current madness has run its course. In the long run, we should learn to be comfortable with a fair-sized chunk of undecided voters in between the two parties. Those voters should be targeted not to bamboozle them into voting democratic to win an election here and there. But rather they should be targeted as the constituency to whom and for whom we need to make the case for progressive policies.

It’s not enough to just have a good idea. As a governing party one needs to be able to articulate and defend that idea in a way that is understandable by the independent middle. One of my favorite physics professors told us that one really doesn’t know atomic physics unless one can explain it to one’s mother. Think about what sort of analogies one might use to explain the behavior of electron shell energy states to someone from a different generation with a completely different educational background. Similarly, if Democrats are to win and keep the middle they must explain progressive ideas in ways that makes good common sense to an independent-minded voter.

If there isn’t a viable opposition party gunning for that middle too, Democrats will become lazy. They will get used to winning elections by default. A case in point is the fire and energy of the Spokane democrats where elections are still a toss-up compared to the democrats of a place like Bellingham. In the former, the democrats have to make the case for going green in the first place. In the latter the only discussion is about relative levels of green-ness.

The other side of the coin is that in Benton County, the Republicans are in that lazy state. Here they win elections by default because of the paucity of viable Democratic candidates. Because of our own inability to speak to the independents, the Republicans have been able to put into office a batch of truly out-of-touch people that verge on being a laughing stock in the state-house and Congress. (Colonel Klink, indeed.) In Franklin County the Republicans are beginning to consume their own.

Even though winning elections is important, I think the party needs to be circumspect about playing political games to just get into or stay in office. The best policy for continued power and influence is to govern well. And quite frankly, when the opposition becomes irrelevant or ineffective, we run a high risk of beginning to use power for the sake of maintaining continued power. While we decry those tendencies in others we, all too often, fail to recognize the roots of those actions in ourselves.

It is my hope that the Republican party comes to its right mind soon. Not for their sakes but for the sake of accountable governance.