Need for a solid Opposition in a democracy

With the PNC evidently undergoing a meltdown, the insight of former Harvard professor and Canadian politician, gleaned from his two tenures on the practise of politics in Canadian democracy – especially from the perspective of an opposition leader – is apropos.
“Opposition for opposition’s sake is the modus operandi of most parties out of power, but it is precisely the political “game playing” that active and attentive voters so despise, wishing politicians would support or oppose measures on merit alone. Realistically, legislators rarely decide measures on merit alone, and opposition politicians generally oppose government measures whatever their merits.
The opposition indeed must oppose, and, through criticism and amendment, make legislation serve the public interest. Government measures are put to the test of adversarial justification in committee and in the chamber itself. The opposition is called “loyal” to remind the public that, for all the venom of parliamentary debate, opposition is integral to the proper functioning of a democratic system. Indeed, it is in opposition that you are supposed to learn how to govern. In a functioning democracy, all opposition parties properly deserve to be treated as a government in waiting, though the government in office and the media rarely do. In a free society, one would expect government and opposition to compete on equal terms. In reality, the media accord the government a platform the opposition can only envy.
One of the defining features of a proper democracy is that it must “normalize” and “naturalize” disagreement, for it is through structured disagreement that democracy arrives at its rough-and-ready version of the public interest. Adversarial justification is democracy’s chosen method for establishing the public good. If so, opponents are supposed to accept each other’s basic loyalty and legitimacy.
Democracy is, or ought to be, a politics of adversaries, never a politics of enemies. An adversary today is a potential ally tomorrow. An enemy can never become an ally. An enemy is to be destroyed. The politics of compromise is impossible, unless the opposition enjoys the status of loyal and legitimate adversary.
Democracy, being a system of structured antagonism, must find ways to contain the emotions that antagonism inevitably arouses. The representative function demands restraint in the face of the temptation to think of politics in the metaphors of war, as a battle in which no holds are barred.
When adversaries grapple for power, it is only too easy to treat each other as enemies. A democratic politician has to keep asking himself whether, in his attack on an opponent, he has crossed the line that separates legitimate public criticism from mendacious advantage-seeking. In the heat of the moment, the line can be hard to discern, let alone respect. Winning at all costs becomes a self-sufficient justification. Where democracy has gone under, as in Weimar Germany, the politics of adversaries has been replaced by a politics of enemies, and politics soon spilt out of the legislature into the streets, where violence soon settles all questions.
Democracy has proved its resilience, but at a cost. Public disenchantment with excessive partisanship is nearly universal in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. For a considerable portion of the active democratic public, “politics” itself has acquired a bad name. The word has degenerated into a term of abuse for any form of spiteful, dogmatic, rhetorical game-playing, the essential purpose of which is to obscure, rather than reveal, the essential public issues at hand.
Nevertheless, democracy itself does offer a remedy for excessive partisanship. Electorates relish combat, and they like fighters, but they frequently punish those who hit below the belt, and by sanctioning bad behaviour at the polls, voters help ensure that democratic combat remains a contest between adversaries, not enemies. Indeed, we should add this to our original list of essential conditions of democratic health.
Democratic representation works when institutions control corruption, when debate is sufficiently truthful to allow democracy to address society’s real problems, when a culture of public service survives; and finally, when democratic opponents treat each other as adversaries, not as enemies.