Monday, December 11, 2006

And now, a belated word on the election.

It might be dangerous to read too much significance into the events of this past November 7. Midterms are notoriously unkind to the party in power, and we may one day look back on the Democrats' stunning 2006 congressional gains as just the latest in a typical pattern. Amid the building mood of Hillary-mania, we forget that even Bill Clinton, the once-and-again darling of Democratic Party politics, learned this sobering truth first-hand in 1994. That said, I find it intriguing and relevant that pundits now draw at least some linkage between the sea change in national control and a commensurate change in the tenor of the parties' respective messages to voters.

Historically, as I recount in SHAM, it was liberals who cornered the market on Victimization, and then wore out their welcome by endlessly stoking the "average American's" sense of disenfranchisement in the face of virulent capitalism and those much-maligned (but never quite defined) "special interests." That has changed. Of late, it's been the GOP trying to make its constituents—the very guys* who enjoy the upper hand in life—feel more like underdogs by bemoaning such familiar (and now generally discredited, abandoned and/or adjudicated) themes as the injustice of affirmative action, the evils of feminism, etc. Make no mistake, at one time there was ample justification for such carping. But the nation has shifted to a more MOR, less PC lens on its social problems, and many folks have grown weary of the persistent reverse-victimology hysteria. Especially since the GOP has held sway over the White House and both houses of Congress since 2000. (Bear in mind, I make these observations as someone who, for much of the mid-90s, served as the "designated pinch-hitter" columnist for the opinion page of The Wall Street Journal, the nation's most visible and influential conservative medium.)

This is not unrelated to what all agree was The Big Issue on that November Tuesday. The Republicans had made The War in Iraq a metaphor for their politics and a litmus test for responsible governance. "Trust us on this one, America," they declaimed. "You'll see..." We'd already been victimized on 9-11 and, they warned, could soon be victimized again: If we didn't get to Saddam first, he would get to us. Originally, they told us, he was going to do it with those mysterious WMDs; then he was going to do it by harboring terrorists ("We have to fight them there or else we'll have to fight them here...") So we'd just waltz in, clean the whole thing up and establish a workable template for democracy that would overspread the Mideast, in the process somehow resolving millenium-old enmities. For this, everyone would love us and we'd have
peace on Earth forevermore. After making that ideological bed, the GOP was forced to sleep in it—and be judged by what the world looked like when we all woke up. These days it's hard for anyone to construe the developments in Iraq as a "gray area of interpretation," as a presidential press aide once put it; clearly the war has begun to strike just about everyone as a disaster for America, and a holistic one at that (militarily, economically, diplomatically, and perhaps morally as well, let alone in terms of lives lost). In the run-up to November 7, 2006, the Sean Hannitys began to sound irrelevant and out of touch. Asinine, even. Little by little, week by week, almost everything they'd told us about Iraq was revealed as an untruth. Not necessarily an outright lie, you understand; they deserve the benefit of the doubt on some of it. But an untruth is an untruth.

My point is, for several election cycles the right wing has been screaming at its base and the rest of America that "we're in danger!!" We're at risk of being victimized, whether it's by feminists or gays or Mexican immigrants or morally dissolute liberals** or obscure foreign despots who, even if they developed a bomb, would then have to carry it across the ocean and dump it in New York harbor, where it probably wouldn't detonate anyway. Having made the war in Iraq a symbolic crucible for those theories (and conservative politics as a whole), the right wing lost its credibility when the war went south. Young boys, after all, were dying every day; if the fear-mongering, Victimization line they were selling us on such a vital matter turned out to be one huge steaming pile of b.s., then maybe everything else they were selling us at home was b.s., too. I'm no Tim Russert, but that's how it seems to me.

* and make no mistake, they are, almost always, guys. "Angry white men," as they were dubbed.
** And just how ironic does that seem, now?


Cosmic Connie said...

And how ’bout that liberal media that the cons have been complaining about for years? (Though one wonders where the liberal media were when Clinton was being skewered during Monicagate.)

It seems that we really have become a country whose motto is, “With liberty and victimhood for all.”

Some time ago I read Thomas Frank’s book, *What’s The Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won The Heart Of America* (Metropolitan Books, 2004). Frank offered an opinion of why numerous middle Americans had turned to the right, even when such a shift was, in his opinion, not in the best interests of many of them. As Frank put it, in regard to the people of Kansas and middle America in general, “The gravity of discontent pulls to the right, to the right, further to the right.”

And that was the way it went for several years.

One point I found particularly interesting in this book was Frank’s point that conservatives – even though they were actually in power – nevertheless seemed to delight in complaining about their own powerlessness. In a chapter titled, “Happy Captives,” Frank wrote that the conservative backlash movement provided “an attractive and even a seductive way of dealing with an unfair universe. The backlash is a theory of how the political world works, but it also provides a ready-made identity in which the glamour of authenticity [my note: as opposed to the pretentiousness of the “liberal elite”], combined with the narcissism of victimhood, is available to almost anyone. ‘You’re the salt of the earth, the beating heart of America,’ the backlash tells all those cranky suburbanites who tune in to Fox News; ‘and yet you are unfairly and outrageously persecuted.’ But now they, too, can enjoy the instant righteousness that is flaunted by every other aggrieved group.”

It really does seem that many people want a piece of the victimhood pie these days, and it’s not just the liberal left or disenfranchised minorities any more. The same folks who sneer at others for being whiners are doing a fair bit of whining themselves. Now, notice I am not accusing them of sitting on their duffs and expecting someone else to take care of them, the way they say those other whiners -- such as some of the displaced Katrina victims -- are doing. I am not accusing the right-wing whiners of being unproductive members of society. (Not all of them, anyway, though I am sure that there do exist, somewhere, leeches and lazy bums with right-wing values. Common sense dictates that not all of the n’er-do-wells and scoundrels in our midst are on the left, or basking in the warm maternal bosom of the Democratic party.)

But even while many of those in power advocated, and practiced, self-sufficiency and all of the other wonderful American traits the Republican party supposedly stands for, they continued to bemoan the evil influence of liberalism – and to what purpose? Maybe on some level, all of us really do like to feel a little sorry for ourselves. In the case of the cons, though, it seemed kind of absurd since, after all, they *were* the ones in power.

For a while, anyway.

Steve Salerno said...

Yes, that's precisely what I meant, CosCon (the alleged "powerlessness of the right" mentality). In fact, one of the links in the post takes you to a review of Frank's book.

I also agree that everyone wants a piece of Victimhood. I remember interviewing the late, great historian Stephen Ambrose (just to clarify, he was still living when I interviewed him--wink), which I mention in SHAM. Ambrose said that years ago, the WW2 generation would've never thought to look to Washington, or even to some "power" beyond themselves, to ameliorate or even explain any unpleasantness in their lives; they hitched up their trousers (skirts, if they were women) and got it done, or at least gave it a full effort. Nowadays the very FIRST thing we do is look outside ourselves for help and answers... Not to sound too cheesy, but it is a reproach to the very self-reliance that made this nation what it is.

Cosmic Connie said...

Oops! Sorry for not following the link right away, Steve...but yeah, we're right on the same page here (so to speak).

And if you would like to interview Stephen Ambrose from The Other Side, I get emails all the time from folks who can help you do just that. For a fee, of course. :-)

Anyway, great post!

a/good/lysstener said...

I notice that many times when I read your blog in the afternoon the wording seems slightly different than the morning. In fact I know this for a fact b/c I've printed out pages at times, and I get to compare them in black and white. I can't imagine that kind of obsessiveness about each and every word, though I must admit the changes are usually for the better, at least to me. I ask myself what must it be like to live with someone with that level of perfectionism?!

Anonymous said...

The mania I'm seing appears to be for Obama, not Hillary...

Steve Salerno said...

Yes, the Obama-rama surely is building. I don't know whether the Dem political machine considers him a viable candidate at this point--age, race, experience, etc.--but he seems solid enough to make things interesting come 2008. (Ya gotta wonder what Hillary's thinking, no?)

Trish Ryan said...

Most of the time, it's all too ugly to watch! I have Obama's memoir (the first one, not his most recent book) on my Christmas wish list. It will be interesting to read what he's all about and see if I might someday want to turn the news on again. Until then, it's syndicated comedy shows from 6-7pm in our house :)