All Opposed, Please Raise Your Hands, Loyally

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Russian and American politics have never shared much in common, theoretically or practically, so it's hardly surprising that the idea of "loyal opposition" has fared rather differently in Moscow and Washington. Russians have only recently recognized and begun exploring this notion -- very tentatively. Americans, in contrast, can claim a long acquaintance with the concept -- and most recently, an embarrassing record of shortchanging it. In a redefining world of economic crisis and political uncertainty, who might tell whom the best way to be opposed?

On the Russian side, a near-millennium of absolutist monarchy rendered loyal opposition an oxymoron, as rulers generally asked two questions about subjects who opposed them: How dare they? and Can we hang them all before lunch? This tsarist contempt for dissent was trumped by the Bolsheviks, whose dogma "Those who are not with us are against us" meant in practice that all oppositionists, real and imaginary, should go directly to the wall or the gulag, loyally or not.

The demise of Soviet rule did not change everything overnight. President Boris Yeltsin resolved his most acute disagreements with politicians who opposed him via tanks that didn't. Vladimir Putin's two presidential terms proved less dramatic but no less categorical: Except for now-toothless Communists and hothouse experiments like Rodina and A Just Russia, opposition parties were tarred as "destabilizers of Russia," a specious claim that went largely unchallenged while most people made more rubles than they had the year before. Which now, of course, they aren't ...

The American state, in contrast to Russia, was born not by acquiring power but by rejecting it, giving opposition an essential legitimacy from the outset. After a searing civil war recalibrated the acceptable limits of dissent, a general consensus on the usefulness of political opposition could be reached, and was. By the onset of the defining crises of the 20th century, the Great Depression and World War II, good-faith objection and constructive criticism were well established as integral parts of the country's public discourse and problem-solving mechanism -- which wasn't perfect, but two cheers for democracy.

The McCarthy era and the Nixon White House both tested this consensus, as they required, respectively, the censure of a senator who smeared opponents as subversives and the ouster a president who maintained a domestic "enemies list." The George W. Bush presidency posed an equally daunting challenge, as an ill-conceived "War on Terror" repeatedly skewed political debate into a false-choice referendum pitting patriotism against dissent. This led at length to last fall's electoral landslide for a most unlikely presidential nominee -- an inexperienced minority candidate who spoke eloquently of a "post-partisan" modus that voters evidently craved.

OK, so here we both are, with popularly elected, majority-party governments facing massive social problems. Can a loyal opposition influence either polity for the good?

Maybe and maybe. Here in Moscow, a dim-bulb Kremlin may have figured out that when the economy is hemorrhaging and used car salesmen are shouting "Putler Kaput," firing a bunch of governors, even a big bunch, is an inadequate response. People want to see Plan B, pronto, and it had better include some different faces from the ones who got us to this sorry pass.

That could be the back-story behind President Dmitry Medvedev's designation last Tuesday of a new herd of national administrators, slated to reach a thousand head by March. A certain number of these experts will be politically unaffiliated. Theoretically unbeholden to the "Petersburg mafia" and the power-ministry siloviki, the best and brightest of them might -- conceivably -- start sending independent analyses and even policy initiatives up the ladder without preliminary Kremlin approval. Could that represent a hopeful (if larval) evolutionary stage for a post-post-Soviet loyal opposition? Stay tuned, fingers crossed.

More concretely, what of Nikita Belykh, the former oppositionist leader turned regional governor? If this Kremlin appointment was initially perceived as a fluke or a sell-out, what is it now, after Belykh has been joined in Kirov by dissident bellwether Maria Gaidar, once an "odious opposition member who made a name for herself with protest demonstrations and (unflattering) statements about the Russian leadership"? If the Belykh-Gaidar transmutation proves a trend rather than an anomaly -- and it really does suggest, as one Russian analyst held, that "the government wants to engage in dialogue with the liberal public" -- well then, one cheer for Russian democracy.

Indeed, Russians in authority would do well to start recognizing, legitimizing, employing and co-opting their political detractors and non-political specialists, as many as possible: That's where the national smarts are. Americans in authority, meanwhile, must somehow work with an opposition that includes assorted flat-earthers, slow learners and chronic campaigners with little desire to embrace anything nonpartisan, fiscal crisis be damned.

The number of Republican representatives who voted for President Barack Obama's economic rescue plan Jan. 29 was ... zero. Yikes. As Paul Krugman, the current Nobel economics laureate, summed things up, the loyal opposition's collective thinking has "bordered on the deranged," reflecting their party's "commitment to deep voodoo" as the solution to an economic disaster they created. How does bipartisanship work with witch doctors, however loyal they claim to be?

Deep breaths, people. Any democracy, "sovereign" or otherwise, needs loyal opposition, and not as civic window-dressing. The practical reality of modern societies in crisis is that they are evolving new complexities so rapidly that they can only function, if they can function, by holding certain conflicts in tension. Put otherwise, both majorities and minorities now have to suffer fools like never before, and some knaves as well -- loyally.

E.M. Forster soberingly observed before another global crisis, "We must put up with one another. Otherwise we shall all of us perish." Surely Russians and Americans agree here: Let's not.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.