5/6/2007 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
Last summer, George W. Bush announced that he was a man of letters after all. He claimed to have read Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger and “three Shakespeares.” I was glad to hear that the most powerful man on planet Earth finally was reading.
Well, I now advise Bush, along with other elected officials who deplore the democratic principles that underpin the U.S. Constitution, to read “The Indispensable Opposition,” Walter Lippmann’s 1939 essay.
In this eight-page gem, Lippmann, an award-winning journalist and author who focused on national and international politics, explains why free people and their leaders must earnestly listen to the voices on the other side of the aisle if democracy is to survive as a viable way of life.
Although published 68 years ago, at the beginning of World War II, “The Indispensable Opposition” is uncannily relevant to post-9/11 America, especially in light of the debacle in Iraq.
Before the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., we Americans fancied ourselves as being a people of liberty, who would, in the tradition of Voltaire, “defend to the death” the right of other people to speak when we disagree with them.
The harsh truth regarding this noble concept, Lippmann writes, is that “most men will not defend to the death the rights of other men; if they disapprove sufficiently what other men say, they will somehow suppress those men if they can. … We shall find that liberty of opinion is a luxury, safe only in pleasant times when men can be tolerant because they are not deeply and vitally concerned.”
When Bush raised that bullhorn near the remains of the World Trade Center and vowed to bring the terrorists to justice, freedom of speech as we know it became a casualty. From that moment on, until quite recently, anyone who disagreed with Bush and his administration’s policies was branded “unpatriotic,” “un-American” and “traitorous.”
In other words, “shut up,” exactly the wrong admonition in a civil society. Because of his incuriosity and imperial instincts, Bush was the wrong man to lead our nation after the twin towers fell.
If Bush, along with his Republican cohorts, had had the capacity to embrace Lippmann’s wisdom before taking the oath of office, he would have governed much differently.
Below, I quote verbatim the last three paragraphs of “The Indispensable Opposition.” Bush and other elected officials, including triumphant Democrats, should read and memorize these words:
“The democratic system cannot be operated without effective opposition. For, in making the great experiment of governing people by consent rather than by coercion, it is not sufficient that the party in power should have a majority. That means that it must listen to the minority and be moved by the criticisms of the minority. That means that its measure must take account of the minority’s objections, and that in administering measures it must remember that the minority may become the majority.
“The opposition is indispensable. A good statesman, like any other sensible human being, always learns more from his opponents than from his fervent supporters. For his supporters will push him to disaster unless his opponents show him where the dangers are. So if he is wise he will often pray to be delivered from his friends, because they will ruin him. But, though it hurts, he ought also to pray never to be left without opponents; for they keep him on the path of reason and good sense.
“The national unity of a free people depends upon a sufficiently even balance of political power to make it impracticable for the administration to be arbitrary and for the opposition to be revolutionary and irreconcilable. Where that balance no longer exists, democracy perishes. For unless all the citizens of a state are forced by circumstances to compromise, unless they feel that they can affect policy but that no one can wholly dominate it, unless by habit and necessity they have to give and take, freedom cannot be maintained.”
Bush and the GOP got a “thumping,” the president’s expression, during the midterm elections because they had become un-American. Not only had they stopped listening to the opposition, they tried to silence and destroy the opposition.
Now that Democrats are the majority, they must listen to the indispensable opposition or they also will get a well-deserved “thumping.”
To learn more
The Indispensable Opposition: an excerpt
We must insist that free oratory is only the beginning of free speech; it is not the end, but a means to an end. The end is to find the truth. The practical justification of civil liberty is not that self-expression is one of the rights of man. It is that the examination of opinion is one of the necessities of man. For experience tells us that it is only when freedom of opinion becomes the compulsion to debate that the seed which our fathers planted has produced its fruit. When that is understood, freedom will be cherished not because it is a vent for our opinions but because it is the surest method of correcting them.
Walter Lippmann, 1939
Read the essay Opposition.pdf