07/02/2011 03:59 pm ET | Updated Sep 01, 2011

Whatever Happened to an Opposition Party?

Prominent in the move toward democracy for European countries was the feeling among their citizens that their governments had little or no tolerance for the opposition. Slowly, the rights of opposition parties became firmly defined, often leading to the ouster of the government in power. More recently, the citizens of Libya and Egypt have protested against their leaders' similar intolerance for opposition.

Early in my days within the United Nations Secretariat I was shocked to see a newly formed government in Africa exiling their opposition leaders by making them ambassadors to foreign countries where they could do no harm (or have any influence). My more seasoned colleagues laughed at me and noted that this was a step forward for some new countries. Before then, any persons who might oppose the government in power were done away with -- rubbed out. What I'd been appalled at was indeed progress towards a more viable society.

An established democracy, in whatever form, requires a majority that works with a critical opposition offering constructive alternatives -- not that ships them off or rubs them out.

In America, with our non-parliamentary system, the role of the opposition is crucial in making our government function, particularly in moving legislation between the legislative and executive branches.

Is the present Republican Party in Congress fulfilling this essential function? No, not really. It just pretends to.

In our form of democracy, the "opposition" to the executive branch can control one or both of the houses in Congress. The opposition's role is therefore more demanding than in, say, Britain, for it has more power. In my view, under these circumstances, they should feel a heightened sense of responsibility to voters.

Has the Republican Party responded to this heightened responsibility since last November when they won a majority in the House? No.

The Republicans in Congress have presented what they call policy alternatives to any and all of the Administration's proposals. However, their alternatives have but one sole objective stated by their leaders--to defeat Barack Obama in 2012. To make sure he doesn't serve more than one term. Their objective is not just double-edged, it is pointed. The Republican attitude has little or nothing to do with their role as "the opposition" within our government.

In practical terms, they are not serious about any of the issues -- any of the problems -- we expect our government to be addressing. They are not serious about focusing on people who have lost their jobs or the roofs over their heads, or on critical environmental problems, or even on our insatiable preoccupation with terrorism and security. On the last issue, they are highly selective, ignoring solutions to home-grown terrorism, including the threat of guns being freely carried in urban areas. (The attack in Arizona on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords should have been impetus to increase gun control in America, not increase the number of guns.)

Unfortunately, the Democrats respond to this posturing -- at least in public -- as if it is a serious expression of right-wing thinking, thereby compounding the public's impression that there is serious discussion and negotiation taking place in the nation's capital. Are the Democrats afraid of offending their "opposition" by pointing out the absurdities -- the manipulations -- of Republican proposals such as Ron Paul's alternative health care plan? The White House is fearful of saying anything that might disturb potential negotiations. (Apart from his critique of the Paul Ryan budget plan, the president seems still stuck in his notion of a functioning bi-partisanship.)

The latest example of the Republicans placing America at risk is the urgent crisis of our debt ceiling. The United States is in real danger of defaulting (supposedly as of August 2nd) because of potentially exceeding the amount to which the law limits our debt. Not raising the debt ceiling would be a disaster for our financial system, and hence for the economy as a whole, since we remain a nation struggling to get out of its most serious recession since the Great Depression. A June 24th New York Times editorial summed up the situation:

Congressional Republicans, who played a major role in piling up the government's unsustainable debt in the first place, have thrown a tantrum and walked out of the debt limit talks. This bit of grandstanding has brought the nation closer to the financial crisis that Republicans have been threatening for weeks. But, at least now, their real goals are in sharp focus.

Perhaps it is beyond the scope of editors to look behind the "temper tantrum" and spell out "the real goals." Are they suggesting that the Republicans would like to see America in default, with all the disastrous implications for our financial system, as well as our leadership role on the international scene, hanging around their necks? What do they really think the opposition party is up to?

I see this particular crisis over the debt ceiling as just the current expression of the sick mindset that seems to inhabit the Republican Party at both state and national levels. Probably the Times would think it inappropriate to quote Richard Hofstadter's insights from his 1966 The Paranoid Style in American Politics, but I think it perfectly captures today's political landscape: "[W]hat is always at stake is a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil...." Hence the absence of "a willingness to compromise," only "the will to fight things out to the finish. Nothing but complete victory will do."

There may be more seasoned hands in Congress who will be able to persuade the Republican leadership -- probably at the last minute -- that for the Republican Party to be responsible for America's defaulting is disastrous politics for an opposition party to practice, as well as disastrous economics. But who knows. The paranoid style lies deep in our guts.