Monday, October 21, 2013

Undemocratic Opposition (Blair’s Lessons, part IX)

So the Federal Government has reopened, and, less than a year after being defeated in an election, the Republicans are now going through yet another self-assessment, with some (in my judgement correctly) calling the shutdown a suicide mission and others looking desperately for a silver lining. But however you look at it, the Republicans raised expectations for an impossible outcome and then failed to deliver. This will naturally leave many of the faithful disillusioned. And that disillusionment opens a temptation to blame the system.

Tony Blair explains:
Part of the problem when the Opposition is useless is that the public feel strangely disenfranchised. This was how many Labour people felt during the Thatcher years. It’s why after 1992 Labour started to consider electoral reform. We had lost four elections in a row. The system must be faulty, mustn’t it? Whereas, of course, we were at fault. So this sense of alienation is not, in fact, reasonable. Actually, it’s worse than that; it is profoundly undemocratic. It’s the losing side feeling it shouldn’t have lost and trying to manufacture a rerun, or a change of the rules.
I've seen this repeatedly over the past few years. The effort to declare an election fraudulent, or the President ineligible, or the complaints that I'm not represented by the system, or the citations to the Declaration of Independence urging open rebellion, or seeking to amend the constitution to freeze liberals out, all feed off of this sentiment that the system is broken and, therefore, the result is illegitimate. It starts with the premise that "my party should be in power" -- a sentiment which, as Blair notes, is profoundly undemocratic. (The Democratic obsession with the "stolen" 2000 election demonstrates that both sides do this.)

When a party loses an election, or a political standoff, often they are at fault but can't admit it. The loss reflects a failure to connect to the people, or a failure to be reasonable, or a failure to truly lead.

So as much as the Republican party may want to blame the system, or blame the Democrats, or blame someone or anyone in an attempt to feel more self-righteous, that temptation must be resisted. The failure is entirely internal. It's a failure of messaging, of policy, and of strategy. And scapegoating merely blinds us to the real cause of the problem, which will prevent correction and result in another defeat next time.

So where to go from here? Well, for one, the Republicans need to admit that they are, in fact, a minority party. Sure, they control one chamber of Congress. But that one chamber cannot set the agenda of the other two. To regain a majority status requires hard work, not just political stunts. Lessons can be drawn from other historic minorities. But instead of merely galvanizing the base by demonizing moderates, Republicans need to learn how to capitalize on the doubts ordinary people have in the Democrats.

So by all means, Republicans, keep the heat on the (large D) Democrats. Attack their policies. Outline differences. Explain problems. But don't forget to do it (small d) democratically.

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Also in this series:
Reforming Political Parties (Blair's Lessons, part I)
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