What Happens if McCain Sweeps Obama, Part III

by David Fontana

Is government in opposition a welcome addition to our separation of powers choices? There are a series of issues to be considered.

First of all, it responds to the problem that all systems of government have—-presidential, semi-presidential and parliamentary—-the problem of the very successful politician and eventual unconstrained democratic leader. If a political figure or political party is very popular, and wins many elections, then it will control all levers of powers. That is true regardless of what type of system of government we are discussing. In parliamentary systems, the singular and one-time winner always controls everything; but in presidential and semi-presidential systems, the same party could win over the legislature and the executive, and control everything. In such a system, giving the opposition party the power to govern and control things is the only real manner to check power.

Think of, for instance, how things might have been different in the United States in the aftermath of September 11, with government in opposition. If the Democrats had the desire—-and that is a big if, of course—-they might have controlled the Justice Department, and therefore prevented an overeager Bush Administration from creating the torture memorandum; or perhaps they might have chaired the Senate Foreign Relations or Judiciary Committees and been able to challenge the Bush Administration’s efforts a little more.

In this way, government in opposition constrains and limits winners. But it also is better for losers. Losing parties can develop a policy record and campaign on it, and can use that to beat the winners. Losing parties have more of an incentive to engage in the system rather than obstruct the system, since they govern in the system rather than just dissent.

There is always the possibility that government in opposition can destabilize the system by permitting the opposition party to use the levers of power to undermine the constitutional order in the first place. In the United States, it might be hard to imagine that happening; but in other countries, that is not hard to imagine. If the Taliban Party in Afghanistan was guaranteed a certain number of cabinet seats, they might use that to undermine Karzai. What many countries have adopted in response is a restriction on how ideologically extreme political parties can be and still operate in a constitutionally permissible manner. This ensures that parties are loyal rather than disloyal opposition, to use a common phrase.


2 Responses

  1. Government in opposition. Wonderful topic. It remember reading David Hume’s essay about his best government. There the losers in the election formed a body that was a counterweight on the Senate and had its own powers.

  2. Weren’t the Dems the majority in the Senate from the Jeffords switch (June or so 2001) through fall 2002?

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