The Function of a Loyal Opposition

On the off chance you haven’t heard, Brown won the seat vacated by Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts yesterday, thus popping the Dems’ supermajority. Now they will have no effective defense against the fillibuster, which Republicans are expected to use to sabotage Obama’s healthcare plans.

Predictably, then, here‘s Matt Yglesias trying to downplay it and completely missing the point in the process.

Yglesias’ argument is that since there are already Democrats like Evan Bayh who are dragging their feet on the president’s healthcare agenda, Brown’s win does’t actually matter that much. You see, these people were already going to sabotage the agenda, were already going to make the Dems come up a vote or two short, and so adding one more Republican to the mix doesn’t really change that much. In his own words:

Scott Brown joining the Senate will make it impossible to make big progress on the big issues facing the country. But a number of “centrist” Democrats have been making it clear for a while now that they don’t want to make big progress on the big issues facing the country. That’s too bad, and Brown winning will only make things worse. We’re much more likely looking at a situation where Brown’s victory becomes an excuse for people not to do things they didn’t want to do anyway than a situation where Brown’s victory is the actual reason those things can’t be done. [Emphasis mine]

Ahem. So Brown winning is no big deal, but it provides an excuse for people not to do things they didn’t want to do anyway? Wha…? Unless I’m very much mistaken, that’s actually an argument for Brown’s win being a big deal – as in possibly decisive on the healthcare issue.

Let me tell you a story about Romania. It was once ruled by a very bad king. Actually, he started out as a passably good king, and was at least useful in undermining the power of the empire of which his country was a principality, but as the years rolled by he grabbed more and more power for himself and eventually made his people very poor, even though they were well-educated and produced many useful things. Now it turns out that 20th century kings – rather like 9th century kings – have to be reconfirmed in office every couple of years (yes, even Bernanke) by winning the approval of their immediate underlings, the noblemen, and this king was no different. However bad he became, however, his noblemen just kept on approving – and in fact when he was finally deposed, it was because of a violent revolution among the peasants – inspired by foreign events, no less! – rather than a straightfoward denounciation by his peers. But this seems wrong: why would the noblemen allow it to come to a peasant revolt? Peasant revolts are never good for the nobility…

As it turns out, many – maybe even most – of the noblemen wanted to depose the king, and there were frequent secret agreements to do just that. But here is the trouble. The confirmation ceremony to either retain or boot the king involves each nobleman individually standing up and saying whether he approves or not. That puts the first man to disapprove in a very awkward position. He has no way of guaranteeing that his comrades will back him up – and if they don’t, the price is very high. He will, at the very least, lose his status. He may even lose his life, for he will be called a traitor – disloyal to the man on whose authority he is a noble! But what he stands to gain is uncertain. If a new king is elected, he may also lose some of his status, though he will not lose his life. Of course, it is more likely that he will gain in status with the new king, but by how much it is impossible to say. It is little surprise, therefore, that however many plots to vote against the king were hatched, it very rarely happened that the conspirators went public, and the few times they did, their comrades, predictably perhaps, refused to back them (here’s a video of the most famous such incident). Risks run high when you don’t know how many people you have on your team.

Of course, it’s a completely different game when your king isn’t a king. If your king isn’t a king, then you don’t depose him simply by speaking out against him. Because how can you depose someone who isn’t on a throne?

That, it seems to me, is the game-changing trump that is Senator-elect Brown. Currently, the Democratic Leadership in Congress is on a throne. It has an absolute majority plus a team-member as president, and can therefore pass whatever legislation it wants. In reality, we know that this means it can only pass the legislation that is especially important to it – but that is another way of saying that there is a political price to be paid for opposing the legislation the leadership wants passed from within the party. Brown, however, means that the Democratic Leadership is no longer a king. It continues to have great power, but that power is no longer absolute. It has been deprived of the luxury of picking a handful of legislative packages for which it can guarantee passage. Now that the throne is no longer in the room, there is nothing to depose.

In particular, now that there is no longer a throne in the room, it is not so clear that the electoral success of individual Democrats is tied to the Democratic Leadership. It isn’t just that Brown’s election means that the peasants are not so keen on the king anymore, you understand. It’s that because the Democratic Leadership is now no longer a king, it has less ability to present a coherent legislative package which it can carry to the next election. The deposition of the king puts the “I” back in “team,” so to speak. When the king was around, it was clear where power lay and whom you had to petition to get more of it. Now that the king is gone, it’s not so clear, and everyone is kind of on his own to build strength through alliances. There isn’t so much of a danger of being denounced as a traitor anymore because what, exactly, would you be betraying?

I guess the reason that the Twelfth Party Congress ended up unanimously reelecting Ceașuescu, even after Pîrvulescu’s Big Denounciation, is just because of the uncertainty associated with booting him. When you know where power sits, then you at least know where power sits. It’s the devil you know – a devil, yes, but you know where it is. And if you’ve been trying to get power for yourself all this time, then you’ve been trying to get it from that very devil. There are investments at stake.

The US Congress is of course not the PCR Party Congress, and that is precisely the point. Because there is a seated opposition in the US Congress – unlike in the PCR Party Congress – there won’t be a Pîvulescu who stands up before his own party and is publicly booed as a traitor – even as a disconnected majority of the booers secretly agrees with him. There is no need for such a man: the adversarial system we cherish assigns the duty of opposing the government to the opposition. It’s their job! And when the rival party does the denouncing, no one in the ruling party considers it treasonous – that’s just what rival parties do. The point for individual members of the ruling party is that once the denouncing’s been done, it’s already public. You don’t undermine anything that hasn’t already been undermined by saying what you think about what’s already been said.

Yglesias is right that there were always nay-sayers within the Democratic ranks. But when in history has there been a power block without nay-sayers? Unanimity of opinion only happens in naive fantasies of politics. In the real world, there are ALWAYS private objections to legislative agenda. The question for the people driving the agenda is now and has always been more one of keeping those objections private through the end of the vote than making sure there are no objections in the first place. Brown’s election will have seriously undermined their ability to do that – and THAT is the point. It’s everything, actually, and if Yglesias can’t see that, then only because he doesn’t understand politics. But then, that’s been an open secret for some time.

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