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Back to Bolingbroke: Opposition as an Opportunity

Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke

In a gentler, simpler time in late July, Yuval Levin wrote over at NRO on the task for an opposition party. He diagnosed that the resistance to a new popular conservatism stemmed “from some politicians and activists who have not yet internalized the political environment and the American situation of the early 21st century,” who “believe that resistance alone could suffice as an answer—that the Democratic agenda is sufficiently odious that the public requires only a means by which to say no to it.”

Such seems to be the mindset running the right wing of the Republican party today. Shortly after that post went to web, the “Defund Obamacare” campaign began storming the heartland, rallying grassroots conservatives and talk radio to the idea that vocal opposition was all that was needed for the President’s signature health care law to be unraveled. Despite controlling one house of one branch of the federal government, they were told that the country would rise up, and Harry Reid and Barack Obama would have no choice but to defund their own signature law. (never mind that much of the ACA’s funding is mandatory spending, and not subject to any defunding effort.)

Such seems to have been the mindset of yesterday’s march on Washington by veteran’s groups accompanied by Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz, breaking down the fences erected around the open air monuments during the shutdown theatrics. As most of the country, that noticed, looked on with reactions varying between idle amusement and horror at a confederate flag one protester brought to the White House, Robert Costa reported:

It is somehow symbolically fitting that what the Republican right considers a “game-changer” swinging the public in their favor is the literal tearing down of some ineffectual fences around the Mall. In his post, Yuval goes on to quote the Viscount Bolingbroke, a British statesman of old, on the duties of a proper patriotic opposition:

It follows from hence, that they who engage in opposition are under as great obligations, to prepare themselves to control, as they who serve the crown are under, to prepare themselves to carry on the administration: and that a party formed for this purpose, do not act like good citizens nor honest men, unless they propose true, as well as oppose false measures of government.

a party who opposed, systematically, a wise to a silly, an honest to an iniquitous, scheme of government, would acquire greater reputation and strength, and arrive more surely at their end, than a party who opposed occasionally, as it were, without any common system, without any general concert, with little uniformity, little preparation, little perseverance, and as little knowledge or political capacity. (emphasis added – JC)

Ted Cruz seems to embody “a party who opposed occasionally…without any common system” the crusade that comes to his attention, and is embarked upon with “little preparation…and as little knowledge or political capacity.” He is prepared to provide a noose should his opponent be prepared to hang himself, but has little interest in building a positive platform for his party’s future.

For all that he and his may clap each other on the back for their vocal shouts against socialism, they are only delaying and interfering with the long work of rebuilding Republicans into a brand Americans can believe in. Or even harder but worthier, one they should believe in. Opposition is an opportunity for the party deprived of the immediate anxieties of governing to examine and engage in their present moment, to find what the problems of their current day may be, and to devise answers appropriate to the people of their time.

One year after Mitt Romney’s resounding defeat, Republicans have only hints of political reform, squirreled around certain corners of the think tank and media world, with the occasional receptive ear in Congress. The harder Cruz and his kind clench the coalitions and policies of the past, the longer conservatives will have to wait before they can begin to rebuild.

about the author

Jonathan Coppage is a TAC associate editor. He received a BA in Political Science from North Carolina State University, and previously attended the University of Chicago, where he studied in the Fundamentals: Issues and Texts great books concentration. Jonathan also worked at The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society. Jon can be followed on Twitter @JonCoppage, or reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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