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What happened to America’s ‘loyal opposition’?

Our extreme partisanship has turned fellow Americans into enemies

A Biden supporter listens as a Trump supporter yells at her prior to the vice presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and his Democratic rival, California Sen. Kamala Harris, at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Famed broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow once said, “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.” That was near the end of a television show in 1954 that concerned former Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his “witch hunts” against alleged communists.

That advice seems even more relevant today. So is this phrase, often inaccurately attributed to Murrow: “When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.”

Perhaps it is best the author of this statement remains anonymous. It has a timeless quality to it.

Politics in the United States has become increasingly and dangerously polarized in recent years. Some recent opinion polls bear this out.

In 2019, Pew Research Center found 55% of Republicans believing Democrats are “more immoral” than other Americans. Among Democrats, 47% said the same about Republicans. This sentiment had grown considerably over a similar poll taken in 2016.

Writing for the Deseret News, pollster Scott Rasmussen said only 24% of the nation believes Americans will be more unified a year from now, despite President Joe Biden’s talk about unification as a goal of his administration.

Rasmussen has uncovered a deep-seated distrust between many members of the two major parties, one that often badly skews reality. For instance, 71% of Republicans polled said they disapproved of the Jan. 6 riot in the U.S. Capitol. But polls show a large number of Democrats, between 31% and 46%, believe incorrectly that most Trump supporters endorsed that action.

Distrust abounds on social media, where some people routinely accuse their political foes of heinous crimes, without substantiation. Newly elected congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, has already filed an article of impeachment against President Biden.

While her action isn’t expected to be taken seriously, it is symptomatic of a much larger problem.

Until a few years ago, American politics were considered relatively stable when compared to many nations, because the major parties were seen as hewing mostly to the center-right or center-left. The virtue of the two-party system was its ability to absorb and de-radicalize extreme movements on either side of the spectrum.

Progressive movements of the early 20th century found a home in the Democratic Party. Far-right elements found a home in the Republican Party in mid-century. In both cases, radical views were gradually tempered and redefined.

As T.J. Young expressed in a 2018 opinion piece for The Hill, “To be absorbed into one of the two parties, a position must be rendered into a more general form for broader appeal.”

This normalization of positions was often twinned with the notion of a loyal opposition.

The idea of a loyal opposition arose in England during the 18th century as a way to allow minority parties to express views without fear of being accused as traitors. As the website share.america.gov explains it, “The ‘loyal’ part means that a party in opposition is loyal to the same fundamental interests and principles as the party in power. A loyal opposition is legitimate, constructive and responsible. Healthy democracies recognize how a nation benefits when government reflects a diversity of voices and makes space for dissent.”

Americans have drifted from this notion, not because one party or the other has become evil or anti-American, but because members of both parties perceive this of the other. Social media and, perhaps until the large turnout in the recent election, voter apathy, has given voice to extreme positions that otherwise would be tempered.

Getting out of this cycle will be difficult. Cynicism tends to breed more cynicism and distrust. The answer will involve courageous actions by political leaders willing to risk votes by building coalitions.

President Biden has spoken a lot about unity during his few days in office. That’s a hopeful sign, but it must be followed by action, not merely by executive orders that undo what his predecessor had done.

The price of inaction becomes more difficult with each passing election cycle. The danger is not just the loss of the American soul, but of the memory of the strength that once derived from the notion of a loyal opposition.