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21 December 2021

Why democracies need the notion of a loyal opposition

Democracy is a battle of ideas, but one that depends on treating opponents as legitimate adversaries not treasonous enemies.

By Jonathan Wolff

When I first studied Hobbes and his full-blooded defence of absolute sovereignty, I came across a critique that said he lacked the concept of “loyal opposition”. Hobbes, the critic claimed, did not make a distinction between political opposition and treason, leaving no place in his political thought for the idea that it’s possible to oppose the government of the day while remaining intensely loyal to the system, to the idea of government, and to the country.

Whether we are explicitly aware of it or not, respecting the notion of a loyal opposition is the lifeblood of the democratic systems we cherish. In Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1949), TS Eliot observes that “the survival of a parliamentary system requires a constant dining with the opposition”.

Eliot’s point may be more specific, emphasising the importance of encountering diverse points of view, and looking to forge compromise and consensus. Yet it builds on the same assumption: opposition is a normal part of parliamentary life in a democracy. As the political theorist Chantal Mouffe remarks in The Return of the Political (1993): “A pluralistic democratic order… is based on a distinction between ‘enemy’ and ‘adversary’. It requires that, within the context of the political community, the opponent should be considered not as an enemy to be destroyed, but as an adversary whose existence is legitimate and must be tolerated. We will fight against his ideas, but we will not question his right to defend them.”

Mouffe’s observation is apposite. Authoritarians want not just to win more votes than competing parties but to lay all opposition to waste. Those who opposed the Nazis and the Bolsheviks were not considered thoughtful adversaries who had come to a different analysis and had a legitimate ambition to govern, but enemies, traitors, saboteurs and wreckers, to be crushed: physically beaten on the streets, jailed, or ultimately executed for their audacity.

Contemporary politics has not left these authoritarian tendencies entirely behind. The suppression of protest in Hong Kong and, even more pertinently, the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan provide us with striking examples of the attempt to silence opposition – in the worst cases, permanently.

The re-emergence of the “strong man” in democratic politics, meanwhile – Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, Viktor Orbán, Recep Tayyip Erdogan – has gone hand in hand with the demonisation and ridicule of political opponents. They are “enemies of the people”, who are said to want to stand in the way of the “will of people”, which of course is identified with the plans of the leader. Judges and journalists who insist on scrutiny and constitutional process are treated as members of a pompous, self-serving elite that is out of touch with ordinary people.

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Mouffe’s distinction between “enemy” and “adversary” is a response to Carl Schmitt’s notorious suggestion that politics is premised on the distinction between “friends” and “enemies”. Schmitt’s distinction is itself an echo of Hobbes’s advocacy of an absolute sovereign, whereby the toleration of an alternative point of view is a sign of weakness. So, the task of liberal democracy is to make Schmitt’s Hobbesian claim false; there are no enemies here, just people who take a different position on the major issues of the day, and who believe they, or their representatives, would make a better job of running the country.

Liberal democracy, in other words, aims to be a battle of ideas, not of people or loyalties. It is no accident that the authoritarian trend goes in the other direction, ridiculing, belittling and dividing those who oppose them, rather than affording their ideas attention and respect. But this brings us to the key question: why is competition between ideas so important? Why waste time and energy listening to ordinary people and their representatives, rather than simply stand by and let those who are most capable rule?

This is nothing less than the question of the justification of democracy, and one that theorists have long struggled to answer. Sceptics from Plato to anyone who has recently lost a vote are tempted by the argument that the people are not fit to make important decisions. Hitler provoked the Dusseldorf industrialists, in a lengthy speech at an alcohol-fuelled dinner, with the challenge: if you would not trust your workers to run your factory, why on earth would you trust them to run your country? A difficult enough question even when your head is not full of schnapps.

This is a powerful – though not decisive – argument. Karl Popper, writing in the 1930s but addressing Plato rather than Hitler, pointed out that for all its faults democracy is the only system that allows a people to remove unpopular leaders without bloodshed. And here we see why the concept of the loyal opposition is so important.

One of its functions, as TS Eliot noted, is to provide the current government with a different point of view, enabling it to see how different groups are affected by its policies. Another obvious, if somewhat theatrical, function of the loyal opposition is to be an alternative government in waiting.

Yet the idea of a loyal government in waiting also points to a weakness at the centre of democracy. In an electoral system, there are at least two ways of legitimately gaining and holding on to power. One is to present policies that inspire acclaim, support and, most importantly, votes. The other is to focus one’s energies on undermining the opposition to the point where it cannot compete.

Naturally, criticism of one’s opposition is a normal part of politics, and no politician can resist pouncing on and exploiting weakness. But the authoritarian tendency, even within democracies, is to go further, attempting to undermine the opposition’s legitimacy – treating it as enemy not adversary – and even questioning its right to exist.

If the opposition is attacked, undermined, disorganised and divided to the point where it becomes unelectable or incapable of forming an alternative government, we are no longer in a situation where unpopular leaders can be voted out. For as long as the current leaders have the support of their party’s decision-makers, they may well be voted back in again if the voters don’t see a viable alternative. Where we lack effective political competition, a key advantage of democracy is lost.

If Popper is right about the importance of voting out unpopular leaders, then there is a form of instability built into democracy. For it is possible to remain in power not by maintaining popularity, but by spending all your efforts making the opposition appear even less electable. If the current leaders are unable to make the opposition unpopular enough to lose in a fair competition, voting procedures can be “adjusted” and “modernised”. Protests can be banned on public safety grounds, the media muzzled, the courts packed.

[See also: The meaning of Vladimir Putin’s attack on liberalism]

The institutional checks on such tactics – constitutional requirements and the separation of powers – exist only so long as enough people believe in them. Historically, it takes no time at all for a determined authoritarian, with the right backing, to remove the chains that were designed to constrain their power.

How, then, do we resist the Hobbesian tendency towards absolute sovereignty and start to bring back and reinforce the values of loyal opposition – parliamentary scrutiny, incorporation of diverse perspectives, and an alternative government in the wings – that are so essential to the healthy functioning of liberal democracy?

We, and those in power, have to believe in the value of democracy. And we need to stop talk of “enemies” and accept that the motives of our political opponents are, most likely, not so different from our own, unless they pose a direct threat to the democratic system itself. But as a first step, we would do well to follow TS Eliot and insist that our leaders dine not only with flunkies, flatterers, speechwriters, string-pullers and purse-holders, but also with leaders of the loyal opposition.

Jonathan Wolff is the Alfred Landecker professor of values and public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, and governing body fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford. He is the author of “Ethics and Public Policy: A Philosophical Inquiry” (Routledge).

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland. Wendland is vision fellow in public philosophy at King’s College, London and a senior research fellow at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @aj_wendland.

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