Join the Loyal Opposition
We are Not the Enemy
Here are three phrases I hate as some of the most damnable and destructive lies in our cultural lexicon:
“All’s fair in love and war.”
“It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.”
“War is the continuation of politics by other means.”
The first two are anonymous, of course, so I can’t name and shame the author. I’ll leave criticisms of them for another essay, except to say that I’ve never heard them employed except as excuses for bad behavior.
The third, however, comes from the writings of a man long hailed as one of the great military theorists of all time, the 19th century Prussian general Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz. I name him not to shame him; from what little I’ve read, his dialectics of war as the very human manifestation of a “trinity” — violent emotion, chance and rational calculation — seems one of the better analyses of the scourge of our race ever published.
What I despise about the phrase is its representation of our current state of affairs in the US. If War = Politics is true, then so is Politics = War.
Yet, if there is anything more opposite to war than the collaborative process by which multiple social and economic interests are reconciled using a complex mix of ration al debate, compromise and voting that is (or can be) representative democracy, then I am hard pressed to name it.
In war, enemies are obliterated. In politics, opponents are sanctioned. For if I consider my political opponent my enemy, politics has been abandoned and war declared.
And that is exactly the state we find ourselves in today; We are not engaging in an election. We are fighting a battle in a war and we will destroy — or already have destroyed — the essential foundation of what the United States can be. We will also destroy the lives of everyone we love, as well as untold millions of others we know nothing about. Or we already have.
President Ronald Reagan is reported to have chastised some over-eager staffer with the admonition, “We don’t have enemies, we have opponents.” President John Kennedy is quoted: “World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor — it requires only that they live together with mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement.”
Opponents can submit their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement. Enemies cannot.
This year, 2020, will mark my twelfth presidential election. Candidates I voted for have won and lost. I have never loved any of them, but I never hated any of them. I’ve never seen them as much more than people who want an impossible job and who, if they do that job right, won’t attract much of my attention. The task of politics is not to generate discord, but to engender as much accord among citizens as possible.
But politics cannot work this magic if we approach it as we would a war. We can have war, or we can have politics. One is not the continuation of the other. They are polar opposites.
What makes politics possible — what makes democratic politics possible — is not voting, or speeches, or polling or punditry or bumper stickers or yard signs. Only one thing makes politics possible: The Loyal Opposition.
Those who lose elections, whose champions lose elections, whose party is out of power, and who accept the outcomes and work to make this day better and to try again tomorrow — these are the people who make democracy work. When I lose today to an honest opponent, accept the results of honest and fair elections, accept the decisions made by those elected, I am the most important person in the process.
That doesn’t mean I lie down for abuse. It doesn’t mean I don’t speak my mind and endeavor to change the minds of others. It doesn’t mean I give up and run off to the hills, removing myself from the ranks that sustain my community. And it doesn’t mean I swear eternal blood hatred against those who won, declaring them my enemy. It means I consider them neighbors, friends, family, citizens with whom I disagree.
I cannot engage in politics with an enemy. Only with an opponent. Politics is not war by other means. It is how we avoid war.
I am a member of the Loyal Opposition. Please join me.