One of the most destructive things that can happen to an opposition movement is that it is asked to govern, to accept the mantel of responsibility. It does not matter whether this movement is a religious tradition, a non-profit activist group, or a political party. It has even happened with political campaigns. They are so focused on what they are against that they are unable to conceive of what they are for.
I see two institutional reasons for this difficulty. The first is that one of the primary characteristics of many opposition movements is the inability or unwillingness to compromise. Indeed, this is one of the great strengths of an opposition movement. An opposition movement often comes into being because its founders are unable to compromise any further. Be it a movement opposing war, a movement opposing human rights violations, or a movement to ban a particular choice, the willingness to stand up and risk for a strongly held principle or value is a necessary and beautiful part of democratic society. In a religious faith, it can be a heretical stance that is a wake up call for denominational leadership. In a political party, it can be the voice calling the party back to its core values.
This is not to say that opposition movements have nothing they are for, nor is it to say that all activist organizations are opposition movements. An opposition movement can have clearly articulated policy ideas on a particular position, and there are many organizations who do not fall into this opposition category. For those organizations who are founded in opposing something however, there are particular characteristics that become problematic when they are asked to move from opposition to governance. The difficulty and dangers of such a move is what I hope to highlight in this article.
In a democratic society, and especially in a federal republic (as ours is supposed to be), the very nature of government is compromise. The effective politician is an artist of compromise. Through a process of colliding comprehensive doctrines, political agendas, and personal interests, the politicians craft legislation that set a middle road between the powers present in the negotiating process, often in near mathematical balance between their relative effective powers.
The pattern of this inability to compromise is set at the foundational core of opposition movements. Such deeply rooted institutional patterns are quite difficult to break without completely rebuilding the institution, thereby ceasing to be an opposition movement. The organization in opposition therefore can never play the central governing role, because it is institutionally incapable of doing so. It can be one of the powers balanced in the negotiating process, but this can also be quite frustrating to those founded upon a principle of opposition. For many such movements, the strength of their commitments make even this limited participation in government impossible.
The second of these characteristics is that most opposition movements are of very limited focus. This is a great strength of an opposition movement, but it stands in direct contrast to the requirements of governing. Such focus on a single issue, a single constituency, a single principle allows the movement to focus energy at a pivot point, to affect the public mind and to keep from being “distracted”. It is easier to sway an individual mind and heart on a single issue than on an entire worldview. It is easier to see progress and the result of one’s efforts if those efforts are focused. It is easier to raise funds from those who believe as you do, if you are only having to appeal to one commonality of belief, not a constellation of beliefs and principles.
Yet governing requires a broad, renaissance-like understanding of purpose. It requires the gaze that looks broadly upon the whole landscape, and not the tightly focused vision upon a single object. Where an opposition movement is benefitted by focusing and calling the public and private mind to a single issue or single category of issues, governing requires that those issues be seen in relation to all other issues. The issue of peace must be seen by government in relationship to long-term stability and treaties of alliance. The issue of abortion must be seen in relation to the broad spectrum of government support of expanding and securing the rights of its citizens. The issue of the economy must be seen not just in this moment, but in how the decisions made today will affect generations to come. The issue of earmarks must be seen in light of our crumbling infrastructure, and of the necessity to secure favorable compromises on the broad spectrum of issues under negotiation.
While government must be guided by a well defined and articulated worldview and vision of the future, that vision must be broad enough to include every issue that is before the public mind. This kind of broad understanding is institutionally incompatible with many opposition movements. The laudatory reasons for an opposition movement’s focus of purpose prevent them from forming the broad based understandings necessary to balance all of the issues, principles, and values that effective government must balance.
There is a third characteristic, but it arises from the individuals who participate in opposition movements and not from the institutions of opposition themselves. That reason is that opposition is addictive. There is a kind of contra-power and an internal affirmation of one’s own self worth (and righteousness) when one stands in opposition. Standing in opposition can indeed ask much of you, but what it does not ask is that you accept the final responsibility. What I believe is addictive about opposition is that it gives righteous self-affirmation without the necessity of bearing the responsibility for the end result.
In this I think lies the greatest danger of those who stand in opposition, and that is that an organization founded in opposition can only be effective in opposition. This is why opposition movements have been known to turn on politicians and others who might be sympathetic to their cause, but have the broader view, responsibilities, and requirement to compromise. The necessity to spread their governance energy among many different issues and interests can be seen as a betrayal by a particular opposition movement, and such organizations know exactly how to respond to that… by once again standing in opposition.
However, opposition movements play a vital role in our political society and culture. They are the prophetic voices which stand from without, and continually call us back to our better selves. They insure in isolation that their particular issues and values are granted attention, and taken together they insure that all such particular issues and values are granted a place at the negotiating table.
Opposition organizations must, I believe, realize and accept two things. First, they are institutionally incapable of governing. Second, they need to be in a symbiotic relationship with those who do govern who share a similar worldview and value system, even if that governance entity does not focus on their issue as they do. Both government and the opposition movement are more effective in relationship than they ever will be alone. This requires a compromise on means, if not on ends.
Yours in Faith,