COVID-19 and the Decline of Loyal Opposition

COVID-19 has highlighted a critical changing ideational dynamic in American politics.

On March 31, 2020, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested that the Trump Administration has responded slowly to COVID-19 because it was distracted by impeachment. In doing so, he is essentially blaming Democrats for the President’s own failings. McConnell said COVID-19 “came up while we were tied down in the impeachment trial. And I think it diverted the attention of the government because everything every day was all about impeachment.” President Trump reiterated the same talking point later that day.

The impeachment was initiated by the Democratic-controlled House and supported by Democratic Senators. McConnell’s claim suggests two things. First, that congressional Republicans and the Trump Administration are unable to deal with or think about more than one thing at a time. Second, that the government’s tepid and woefully inadequate response to coronavirus was implicitly caused by the Democrats, who control only the House. 

McConnell’s statement is a strange attempt to shift responsibility for thousands of deaths (at least) and one of the largest economic downturns in American history to the opposing party. Rather than acknowledge that his co-partisans may have made a mistake, and working to proactively address the problem, McConnell has decided that trying to blame his opposing partisans is the smarter political choice. It feels mundane and obvious, but it is worth remembering that his opposing partisans are still members of the American political community.

The trouble is that McConnell’s statement is likely to be effective, at least for some. This alone is a remarkable achievement, but one for which McConnell cannot take all the credit. McConnell’s statement fits into a broader ideational development in American politics: the decline of loyal opposition. 

One of the most basic attributes of a liberal democracy is that losers willingly cede power to the winners. Elections are meaningless unless all candidates or parties involved recognize the process as appropriate and legitimate. Yet, for that process to work effectively—for elections and to have any efficacy—those involved must recognize their electoral opponents as legitimate. This is a critical requirement that often goes unstated. The moment the party in power sees their opponents as not just holders of different policy preferences, but as a fundamental threat to the polity, what we typically think of as democracy starts to look like it might be in peril.

This is not a procedural or even institutional attribute. It is an ideational attribute. All parties involved must have faith in the fairness of the election—its counting mechanisms, participation levels, and the like—but also all see any outcome of the election as appropriate and valid. The idea that persons with varying political beliefs and ideas of the “good life” can coexist in the same polity is what separates liberalism from other strands of political thought. Liberalism hinges on the requirement that opposition remains loyal to the polity itself. Opposition cannot be seen as a threat to the future of the liberal regime.

This idiom has been dominant throughout most of American history. Recently, however, there have been signs that the loyalty of opposition may not be as stable or hegemonic in American politics as we once believed. McConnell’s attempts to shift blame that unquestionably belongs with his co-partisans to the opposing party is symptomatic of this ideational shift. Blame-shifting itself is not new. But McConnell is doing something different. He is admitting incompetence in the face of a crisis but burying it beneath an unrelated claim designed to reify the constructed priors of his co-partisans, specifically those in the electorate. 

This is an important development, especially because the Trump Administration’s failings have little to do with its connection to the Republican party label itself. Rather, the failures of the Trump administration can be attributed to something that could easily happen to a president of either party—poor management, conflicting personalities, lack of understanding of critical policy needs and demands, and a belief the intuition of someone unfamiliar with a topic is more trustworthy than the advice of trained experts.

McConnell realizes the Administration’s response to the pandemic caused by COVID-19 has been inadequate. Otherwise, he would not have blamed it on the apparent distraction caused by the impeachment process. He evidently sees any people who share his affiliation with the Republican party as more deserving of holding governing authority than those who are affiliated with the Democratic Party. McConnell sees the prospect of the Democrats gaining power in the 2020 elections as threat to the polity. If he did not, he would not be stooping so low as to implicitly acknowledge his party is unable to focus on more than one thing at once. 

It is well known that liberal democratic ideas have not been the only ideational trend that pervades American political discourse. Political scientist Rogers Smith demonstrated this with his “multiple traditions” thesis. Rather, American politics is made up of three competing ideational strands: liberal democratic ideas, civic republicanism, and ascriptive, hierarchical ideas. Across time and in various venues, each strand has temporarily come to the fore. 

Smith’s theory offers insight here. There are competing traditions, but there has been more ideational stability in this venue than there has been in others. Prior to the Civil War, it was much more common to treat political opposition as illegitimate. Early American republicanism saw the individual as constituted by society, rather than the individual existing ontologically prior to society. Elites concerned with the preservation of the individual were therefore preoccupied by the possibility of societal collapse. As long as civic republicanism colors the ideational backdrop of politics, there can be only one legitimate understanding of constitutional politics. Political opponents who hold different perspectives on constitutional governance and conceptions of the good are therefore treated as a threat to society and the individual in it

Political scientist Stephen Engel has shown that the illegitimacy of opposition drove the Jeffersonians (or Republicans, as they came to be known) to impeach district judge John Pickering in 1804, and Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Samuel Chase in 1805. The Jeffersonians believed Federalist control of the judiciary presented a mortal threat to the future of the polity, so impeaching and removing justices seemed like a logical approach. 

Since the Civil War, however, these civic republican ideas have taken a back seat. With few exceptions, the idea that political opposition—though still opposition—is loyal to the Constitution, American political institutions, and the entire American polity writ large has been dominant since Reconstruction. The rise of constitutional pluralism has had important ramifications for the development of American party ideology and institutional development.

Recently, however, that ideational hegemony has begun to erode. There are signs that the idea of disloyal opposition is gaining more traction in the hearts and minds of everyday Americans and political elites alike. Its precise causes remain unclear, and it is up to scholars of American Political Development to determine them precisely. However, it coincides with developments we already are aware of: a rise in income inequality, a surge of populism, a resurgence of white nationalism due to a perception of losing political power, a return to partisan polarization and strict partisan sorting, a rise in movement conservatism, members of Congress abdicating their legislative duties more frequently and severely, and a waning of observed patterns of presidential power and party-regimes—what political scientist Stephen Skowronek calls “political time.” Whether these cause or are by caused by the return of disloyal opposition (or whether they reaffirm one another) remains to be seen. 

The increasing salience of disloyal opposition, whatever its cause(s), marks a profound change in the animating ideas of American politics.

We see examples of it manifested in both rhetoric and institutional action. Republican members of Congress have increasingly asserted their Democratic opponents don’t just hold bad policy preferences, but are disloyal to America. Representative Doug Collins (R-GA) accused Democrats of being “in love with terrorists.” Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said that Democrats were the only ones “mourning the loss” of Iranian General Qasem Soulemani. Conservative radio personality Mark Levin has written a book called Why the Left Hates America. It’s not just those on the right, however. Jonathan Chait wrote an article criticizing then-House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s misleading map of support for Trump in the 2016 election as evidence of how GOP leaders “hate democracy.” The Huffington Post ran an article in 2018 by Carol Anderson called, “Why Do Republicans Hate America?” In August, 2019, David Masciotra accusedRepublicans of being “so brazen in their inhumanity, so bold in their indifference to suffering, and so barbaric in their refusal to compromise for the sake of their own country that only their own language can aptly describe them. President Donald Trump, his enablers in Congress and his most devoted supporters are anti-American and soft on terrorism.” 

Disloyal opposition has not just taken hold in political rhetoric. There are also institutional consequences of its rise. It seems everywhere we turn, we see examples of government officials doing all they can to preserve their party’s own power, including altering the rules that would impact them once they return to power. One indicator of the fall of loyal opposition and subsequent rise of disloyal opposition is this sense of immediacy—the sense that the opposition gaining political power poses a real, existential threat to the polity and the majority’s way of life. 

In November, 2018, Republican state legislators in Wisconsin rammed through a series of measures during a lame-duck session that were designed to hamstring the incoming Democratic governor after Republicans lost control of the governorship in the election. The goal was to ensure Republican influence would be felt long after Democrats gained control. 

Gerrymandering efforts have become more common and more overt, all in the name of preserving one party’s chance at victory. They are likely to continue and become even more overt since the Supreme Court, in its 2019 decision Rucho v. Common Cause, declined to prohibit these practices. Voter ID laws, too, have been increasingly implemented as a means not of preserving the sanctity and security of elections, but as overt attempts to disenfranchise parts of the population to ensure one party stays in power. Pennsylvania state representative Mike Turzai declared in June, 2012 that the new voter-ID law could “allow Governor [Mitt] Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania” in the 2012 elections. 

Playing so-called “constitutional hardball” is both symptomatic of this ideational shift and is likely to exacerbate it. In the politics of judicial appointments, procedural thresholds have been tossed out the window as majorities hope to get their preferred nominees on the bench, no matter the consequences for the next battle. This ultimately caused McConnell to refuse to hold hearings on Merrick Garland, Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court in 2016. McConnell justified his choice by saying it was too close to an election. In 2019, however, McConnell immediately reneged on this principle, saying that he would fill a Supreme Court vacancy in 2020. He has also encouraged other federal judges to retire so they can be replaced by younger judges before the 2020 election. These sorts of risky, high-stakes appointment tactics are not without precedent, but their motivation and sense of urgency is suggests they are part of this larger pattern. 

At the confirmation hearings of now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2019, many commentators were taken aback by Kavanaugh’s lack of composure in the face of credible sexual-assault allegations by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Those who were shocked or concerned, however, may not have been paying attention. Kavanaugh’s anger was a deliberate performance. Even if Kavanaugh were as angry as he showed, it strains the imagination to think he was unable to control himself to such a degree that he—already a judge on the D.C. Circuit and quite familiar with what “judicial temperament” means—was unaware of the ramifications of lambasting the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings as a “calculated and orchestrated political hit” and as “[r]evenge on behalf of the Clintons.” Kavanaugh, and no doubt his lawyers and consultants, were aware that the smartest strategy for Kavanaugh in that moment was to reject the credible allegations as illegitimate and to not engage them on their own terms. 

This all accords with what we know about political polarization and mass partisanship. Political scientist Marc Hetherington finds that elite-driven polarization and partisan sorting has also clarified and polarized the masses. In particular, this polarization at both the elite and mass-levels has increased in the last few decades. This partisan sorting and polarization has psychological dimensions as well. Political scientist Lilliana Mason finds that this polarization and partisan sorting has sowed a “new kind of social discord.” An “in-group” versus “out-group” psychological phenomenon has turned increasing polarization into Americans’ distrust for opposing partisans. As she writes, “[i]n this political environment, a candidate who picks up the banner of ‘us versus them’ and ‘winning versus losing’ is almost guaranteed to tap into a current of resentment and anger across racial, religious, and cultural lines, which have recently divided neatly by party.”

McConnell’s claim that impeachment distracted lawmakers from dealing with the “real” problem of COVID-19 only makes sense in this ideational context. Such a claim would be a startling admission in the wake of the Nixon’s resignation, for example. The possibility of impeachment for Nixon was widely agreed to be justified after the Watergate scandal. Saying that was a distraction that caused lawmakers to be unable to deal with an emergency would mean admitting lawmakers lack the capacity to think about more than one thing at once. In other words, it means admitting those lawmakers are entirely unfit to govern. But that is not what McConnell and Trump believe they are admitting. Their claim is likely to gain traction because a significant portion of the American public already believed Trump’s impeachment was wholly unjustified. McConnell went to far as to admit he was not an impartial juror because he made his mind up about the merit of the charges simply because they came from the Democrats.

We know political elites play a significant role in shaping public opinion. McConnell and Trump’s assertions are therefore likely to shape the public’s opinions on who is to blame for the Administration’s delayed response to this coronavirus. Yet that Trump and McConnell are willing to admit they are unable to focus on more than one thing at a time suggests they are operating against an ideational backdrop that sees their political opponents as disloyal to the polity. 

The point is not that the decline of the idea of loyal opposition necessarily signals the end of American democracy. These ideas have been present since the founding, and even before. The Constitution leaves room for competing ideas in the political landscape. We might even go so far as to say that interplay between the three ideational traditions Smith identifies has been the single defining feature of American politics. But that is beside the point. The point is that the decline of loyal opposition comes at a formative time in American political history. It suggests we may be entering a new era of American politics, one defined by ideas and institutional arrangements that look unfamiliar if we focus only on recent history. 

similar argument appeared in The Atlantic on April 1, 2020. Adam Serwer argued that “Washington gridlock does not stem from ideological differences about the size or role of government, although those conflicts inevitably shape legislation. It stems from the ideological conviction, held by much of the Republican Party, that the Democratic Party is inherently illegitimate and has no right to govern.” Serwer is onto something, but oversimplifies the issue. First, Serwer is not correct to say that ideology plays no role in gridlock. It does. Second, and more fundamentally, Serwer points to Republicans as the culprits. There is an unavoidable asymmetry between the parties on this dimension, but we cannot yet say claims of illegitimate opposition have rebounded only in, and because of, the Republican Party. Serwer hypothesizes that if Joe Biden and the Democrats are victorious in the 2020 elections, they’ll have to contend with the “Republican belief that no one else should be allowed to wield power.” But even if Serwer is correct that these ideas are more salient in one party, we should not be quick to take solace in Democrats’ fealty to loyal opposition. Ideational shifts like this don’t obey party lines. As shown above, some of these ideas have already been adopted and espoused by Democrats. Serwer may be correct to suggest there are features of each party that make ideational resurgence asymmetric across parties. We know the parties are asymmetric in other ways. However, political scientists do not yet know enough about how ideas are dispersed in political environments to be certain this asymmetry will persist. In fact, that the parties are asymmetric in the ways political scientists Matt Grossman and David Hopkins find may even be grounds to think ideas about disloyal opposition are more likely to fragment the Democratic party than the Republican party. 

COVID-19 has exposed some of these ideational rifts, and will either mitigate or exacerbate this ideational shift. All the evidence points toward it being a critical event in American political development. It is a textbook “exogenous shock”—a shakeup to the political system that comes from outside. Rhetoric about this coronavirus has already taken a civic-republican tenor. It has emphasized the importance of the collective at the expense of individual liberty. Social distancing itself signals respect for the other—for those we do not know yet with whom we share a fealty to this political community. 

This is no ordinary moment. COVID-19 is expected to take the lives of at least a hundred thousand Americans, but substantially more if Americans decline to follow social-distancing proceedings as long as is necessary. The economic consequences of this virus will also be extreme. It has already drastically shifted Congress’s willingness to enact social-welfare policies in the form of a massive $2 trillion bailout package. But COVID-19 will not wipe the slate clean. Exogenous shocks matter, but endogenous sources of change can be just as important. The decline of loyal opposition is by itself not an immediate threat to the health of the American polity. These ideas have always been present, but have been—and will continue to be—intertwined with competing ideas, all operating against the backdrop of the political system the Constitution imagines. American politics may continue to become more contentious and rhetorically vicious. Real threats to the efficacy of American democracy and the constitutional order may become more frequent as partisans seek to protect power against illegitimate opponents.

Twitter: @allensumrall

Allen Sumrall is a combined JD/PhD student in the law school and Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. His training is in public law and American politics. His research focuses on the role of ideas in American political and constitutional development. 

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