The paradoxial necessity of opposition

If it wasn’t the week before Christmas, I’d probably be lodging my complaint with the tax bill Congress passed this week. But it’s the season of hope. And naïvely or not, mine is that Americans on both sides of the partisan divide recognize that the ideals which separate us are necessary for our democracy to exist.

 

In simplest terms, the meaning of hope seems universal. But any positive vision for the next hour, tomorrow or beyond, must be preceded by a discontent that’s entirely dependent on personal belief, attitude and experience.

More importantly, the possibility of disappointment is a necessary companion to all genuine hope. We cannot, as the common warning tells us, avoid getting our hopes up for something we truly desire. Empowering the fear of disappointment to become our guide is to wander the tracks of hopelessness and despair.

A similar tension exists between trust and betrayal, faith and doubt and every other emotion of the heart. It follows us into the communal spheres of religion and science as well because neither can be viable institutions if the mysteries of life and the universe are all definitively solved.

Obviously, politics isn’t immune from such paradoxical necessities. Liberal and conservative ideologies, and everything in between, would evaporate into meaninglessness if either had no opposition.

It was the challenge to liberalism which led William F. Buckley Jr. to begin publishing the National Review magazine in 1955. America, he wrote in its premiere issue, was “a country widely assumed to be a bastion of conservatism” that had rejected it “in favor of radical social experimentation.” The magazine would encourage “responsible dissent” of that and all liberal orthodoxy. “A vigorous and incorruptible journal of conservative opinion is — dare we say it? — as necessary to better living as Chemistry.”

For six decades, National Review has prominently advocated rolling back the New Deal and the activist government it spawned. Buckley served as its chief editor until 1990. He also wrote a syndicated column that was published in 320 newspapers and hosted Firing Line on PBS television. Throughout that time, and until his death in 2008, he never shied away from controversial issues.

My objective isn’t to rehash any of his views or take sides though. What matters is that, to become a political force, there had to be a powerful one opposing him. Had 1950s America been that “bastion of conservatism,” he would be historically irrelevant instead of remembered as the one movement’s greatest voices.

That first issue of the National Review also reveals the role of hope in his story. Its original managers, writers and investors understood the liberal establishment would delight at the magazine’s insignificance. But they were up against more than that. Because, Buckley claimed, “radical conservatives” like them had been summarily “ignored or humiliated by a great many of those of the well-fed Right,” which he described as having conveniently made their peace with the New Deal.

It was in this atmosphere of “despair of the intransigence of the Liberals” running the country and “the irresponsible Right” that the magazine’s debuted with, in Buckley’s words, “a considerable — and considered — optimism.” Against all odds, they had chosen hope over hopelessness with no assurances for success, and went forward with self-righteous opposition to socialism in any form, interference in the free market, centralized rule from the nation’s capital and through the UN, and unchecked growth of government at all levels.

And they defended the traditional two-party system which, Buckley wrote “fights its feuds in public and honestly,” against its melding into an indistinguishable entity under such banners as “national unity” and “bipartisanship.”

The National Review hasn’t brought liberalism to its knees. But measured by its endurance and influence, it is an undeniable success.

The story would have a different ending had its startup occurred during the age of digital media. The two-party system hasn’t become one monolithic giant, like Buckley feared. But both sides have been sucked into their respective black holes where the weightless atmosphere of no opposition is apt to suffocate most emerging online voices.

Every day, the Washington Post motto reminds me that “democracy dies in the darkness.” We must come back into the light, relearn what it means to listen, and respectfully agree to disagree. Because our freedom depends on our differences.


• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. He contributes a regular “My Turn” to the Juneau Empire. My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire.


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